Monday, March 15, 2010

Political Appointees: Reconciling Convictions with Responsibilities

Political Appointees: Reconciling Convictions with Responsibilities
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
March 15, 2010

In just one short week, two cabinet ministers resigned in the midst of policy turmoil. The two cabinet ministers differ in that Yang Chih-liang stuck to his guns regarding health insurance premium increases. Much of the public has affirmed his professionalism. He also cleared away numerous obstacles in the way of a premium increase. Wang Ching-feng on the other hand, refused to implement the death penalty due to ethical concerns. She stirred up considerable controversy, and debased the level of public discourse. She allowed the administration to become caught on the horns of a dilemma.
Yang Chih-liang Yuang and Wang Ching-feng have resigned over policy disagreements. This is better than officials resigning over personal corruption. This is better than betraying one's convictions in order to cling to one's job. The two have at least left their mark on government. It is difficult to denigrate the way they did their jobs. Wu Deng-yi attempted to dissuade Yang Chih-liang. Considering how two well-respected political appointees have resigned in such a controversial manner, the issue of right and wrong surely merits our attention.

Yang Chih-liang is an academic. Wang Ching-feng is a human rights lawyer. Both have professional images. This is why they were recruited in the first place. The two entered politics. The two should have been able to carry out their jobs in a professional manner. The two should have been able to benefit society and the public. Who knew they would resign over personal beliefs? If we compare the two, Yang Chih-liang's resignation was more rational. He wanted to ensure the fiscal integrity of the health insurance system. Wang Ching-feng's insistence on abolishing the death penalty was merely about clinging to her personal beliefs, while ignoring the social realities and the duties of her position.

Most surprising of all is Wang Ching-feng's value system. She cares deeply about 44 death-row inmates' right to life. She boasts she is willing to "descend into hell" for them. But she has little concern for public anxieties at the other end of the spectrum. She has few if any words of comfort for family members of victims of violent crime. The abolition of the death penalty may be an "international trend." But how can a justice minister turn a blind eye to the concerns of her own compatriots? Wang Ching-has failed to reconcile her personal beliefs with social reality. The bias is so severe, it could be considered obsessive. She has in fact put the cart before the horse.

A political appointee's personal beliefs are one thing. But in order to impose one's personal beliefs on the public, one must first go through legal and institutional channels. Wang Ching-feng has obsessed on the need to abolish the death penalty. But she has made no effort to undergo due process. Not only that, she has constantly resorted to extreme measures when dealing with problems. As a result, she has made matters worse rather than better. For example, she characterized the signing of an execution order as "homicide." She in effect demonized the ministerial system. She left her successor holding the bag, as she cavalierly resigned and departed. She protected her public image of "respect for life," even as she shifted the burden of "homicide" onto the administration and society as a whole. Her posture is extremely dubious.

In her capacity as Minister of Justice, Wang Ching-feng had many opportunities and channels by which she could have persuaded the public to respect human life. She had many ways by which she could have gradually promoted her goal of abolishing the death penalty. But she chose to ignore them. Instead, she resorted to rhetorical shock tactics to promote her beliefs. As a result, she has debased public discourse of the issue, and regressed it to a more conservative extreme. If in the wake of this incident the public on Taiwan is less willing to abolish the death penalty, and if the international community's human rights index for Taiwan declines, Wang Ching-feng will have a hard time escaping blame. Her impetuous resignation can only be described as "cavalier in the extreme."

Besides abolishing the death penalty, Wang Ching-feng taught us another lesson, namely, how should politicians go about realizing their "personal beliefs." Wang Ching-feng resigned over her personal beliefs. She declared that she "did the right thing." But her declaration involves a huge paradox. First of all, "doing the right thing" is not necessarily the same as "doing things the right way." Secondly, Wang Ching-feng may have done the right thing for herself as an individual, but she may not have done the right thing for society as a whole.

German sociologist Max Weber spoke of the distinction between the "ethic of responsibility" and the "ethic of conviction." Irresponsible politicians seek only personal peace of mind and moral purity. They ignore their social responsibility as public figures. They ignore their responsibilities as wielders of public authority. Such "politicians of conviction" often care only about expressing their own their moral sentiments. They are not prepared to debate with others. They are not prepared to convince others. They are heedless of the consequences of their words and deeds. Perhaps these saints should never enter the political arena, because their moral superiority does not allow them to deal wtih other people as equals.

Wang Ching-feng, in emphasizing the right to life, may have been oblivious to her own moral posturing. But if political appointees' only response in the face of public controversy is to retreat into their personal beliefs, that is tantamount to abandoning the public domain. The truly regrettable aspect of Wang Ching-feng's resignation is that to the bitter end, she experienced no "ethic of responsibility" whatsoever.

2010.03.15 03:40 am










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