Loyalty, Cont'd

Recently I wrote:

…insofar as an administration must work as a team toward common ends, its employees should be loyal so long as they are working under the president. But once their job ends — and especially once the president leaves office — maintaining loyalty for its own sake does nothing for the country…

Will Wilson responds:

1) Is Conor really telling us that loyalty to an abstraction (”the people”) is preferable to loyalty to a person (”the President”)? As a conservative, does he think that the former is even a well-defined concept? Possible given human nature? Desirable? Let’s ignore, for now, the fact that “the President” is in some ways just as damnable an abstraction as “the people”, Bennett doesn’t use that language — almost certainly on purpose.

Yes, I am saying that loyalty to “the people” is preferable to loyalty to “the president,” at least when it comes to people who are hired to help execute the people’s laws, paid by the people to do so, and commenting on the president’s performance in executing his own duties to the people. In this case, I think the people is a very well-defined concept. It refers to all the citizens of the United States of America. The same group is name-checked in the tenth amendment. Is it possible to be loyal to a group so large? Yes, I think so.

2) I’m assuming that Conor doesn’t use the standard of “loyalty so long as we are on a team” in his private life, so is the change in stance here entirely a result of consequentialist concerns? Does the good of providing future historians with material outweigh the bad of craven betrayal even whilst craven betrayal remains bad, or are we shifting to a whole new set of rules?

I do think that different rules govern personal and professional loyalties. I may owe a professional loyalty to the book agent who discovers me and advanced my career through early unprofitable years to refrain from jumping ship at the earliest sign of a better deal elsewhere — but I don’t owe that person the same kind of loyalty that I owe my sister (for example, I don’t feel bound to take the side of my book agent in any divorce to which he may be a party).

Of course, it is possible for someone to be a colleague and a friend, or a mentor and a boss, so clear lines are difficult to draw, but I think, for example, that President Bush is owed one kind of loyalty by his wife and his daughters, and a very different kind from his staffers, so if everyone observed the same behavior, it might be the case that his family would do well to keep it to themselves, whereas his staffers would do well to reveal it.

Mr. Latimer’s critics — specifically Mr. Bennett — speak as though he owes personal loyalty to the president merely by virtue of having worked underneath him. Why? For all we know, President Bush hadn’t any personal hand in hiring the man, and treated him badly during his employment. Why is the assumption that this man, whose salary is paid for by the people, owes a greater loyalty to the president he served under?

3) Conor mentions “maintaining loyalty for its own sake”. I’m curious as to whether he thinks that that’s ever an accurate description of why people are loyal to one another.

Yes, I think so. I’ve stayed loyal to friends who didn’t particularly deserve it, though this is irrelevant to the discussion about Mr. Latimer, because I challenge the assumption that he owed President Bush loyalty of the kind that would demand that he refrain from any future criticism of the man. (Note: I haven’t read Mr. Latimer’s book, and he may well have written some things in it that would bother me on loyalty grounds. For example, if President Bush invited Mr. Latimer into his private quarters while he was dressing, and Mr. Latimer made an observation about his boss’ anatomy that would be embarrassing were it revealed, I’d think very poorly of Mr. Latimer for making that revelation.)

I’m curious to hear Conor’s answers. I was on board when, back at Culture 11, he criticized loyalty to the conservative movement. Now that he’s criticizing loyalty to people, I’m about ready to jump off this boat.

This sounds as though I am criticizing the very concept of loyalty, but it seems quite obvious that loyalty among people is owed sometimes, and other times it isn’t — and that there are good and bad reasons to break loyalty. Surely even someone who thinks subordinates do owe loyalty to the president would deem it better in some circumstances to break that bond.

Before I conclude, I’d like to make the additional observation that people who earn loyalty almost never need to demand it, whereas people who are least deserving of loyalty tend to invoke the concept constantly as though it is due them for the mere fact of being powerful. These people seldom feel as though loyalty works in both directions. With regard to President Bush, there can be little doubt that if a conflict arose between what was good for the American people and what was good for Matt Latimer, the president would be duty bound to fire him immediately. Yet here I am imagining a conflict between what was good for the American people and what was good for President Bush, and folks are suggesting that Matt Latimer should be loyal to the latter.

I may well be confused about some aspect of loyalty, and I thank Mr. Wilson for engaging me on the subject — I’m eager to hear more about his view of things, and quite open to the idea that my intellectual understanding of the subject is incomplete or mistaken.

But I remain convinced that Mr. Bennett’s statement about Mr. Latimer is wrongheaded.