Reason, Politics, and Enron
The Platonic view of philosophy emphasizes the use of reason and the
quelling of the passions. This has become the template upon which the
classical liberal model of governance was built. As the Enron scandal
develops, it becomes essential that we remember the importance of reason
before we deconstruct the sacred principles of our country in our intoxicated
state of indignation.
Political opponents of the President, most notably Representative Henry
Waxman (D-Cal.), are looking to tie the Bush administration to Enron's
collapse. One criticism centers on the administration's refusal to intervene
when Enron executives called Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and alerted
him of the company's potential failure.
The other stems from the supposed influence that Enron procured in shaping
President Bush's energy policy. Waxman and other critics are advancing
two arguments in response. The first involves the Shays-Meehan campaign
finance bill. This is the House version of McCain-Feingold, which the
Senate passed last spring.
The second argument involves the records of meetings that Vice President
Dick Cheney had with Enron executives during the development of the energy
policy. In both instances, critics are twisting a business scandal into
a political scandal and are supporting overzealous legislation that could
have unnecessary consequences.
This is not to suggest that legislation should not arise from Enron's
collapse. There is almost universal agreement that questions need to be
asked regarding the company's policy with its employees' 401(k) plans.
We do need to pursue the recent discovery of shredded documents at Arthur
Andersen and certainly should examine the rules that allow Andersen to
serve as both Enron's accountant and consultant.
As opinion columnist George Will said recently, "A mature capitalist
economy is a government project
a complex creation of laws and mores
reliable information." In fact, it has been conservatives
who have most strongly advocated consequences against Enron and its executives
if there were illegalities in its corporate operation. But to suggest
that Bush is to blame and that laws need to be changed regarding corporate
America's relationship with Washington is preposterous.
For example, Shays-Meehan would ban the unregulated "soft"
money donated by political action committees (PACs) to political parties.
Clearly this bill has consequences that extend beyond corporate influence.
It would affect PACs of all political affiliations, not only those connected
to business interests.
This legislation would hamstring the environmental lobby, labor lobby,
and groups that advocate for the homeless. By banning soft money donations,
Shays-Meehan essentially denies groups of people that may not possess
large sums of money individually the ability to coalesce behind particular
causes and endorse the party of their choice.
As Will wrote last March, campaign finance reform seeks to deny those
who are affected by government the right to affect government. This law
is at best constitutionally tenuous and is a dangerous affront to free
speech. If nothing else, Enron's failure to garner influence shows that
this "anti-influence" bill serves no purpose but to keep lawmakers
sheltered from the people.
Some argue however, that Cheney's meeting with Enron executives last
year proves that some nefarious corporate influence had infected the White
House. Thus the General Accounting Office has filed suit to force the
release of records from these meetings.
Cheney is fighting this suit vigorously under the defense of Executive
Privilege. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher explained at a press
conference last week that Bush adamantly believes that Americans should
feel comfortable speaking to the President without fear of the contents
of the conversation being disseminated.
This may sound like an ostensible legalistic defense meant to obfuscate
quid pro quo. However, the executive branch is treating this case correctly.
The President rightfully expects candor from those upon whom he relies
for information to shape national policy. Therefore, those in the President's
administration have an expectation of inviolable confidence when speaking
to him. They want the ability to criticize their company, those in their
industry, maybe even lawmakers-without fear of reprisal.
If the president wishes to waive executive privilege, that is his prerogative.
However, a coerced decision to the same effect could severely compromise
the reliability of the information that the President garners from private
consultations. Since these discussions often help shape policy, honesty
is imperative, and thus confidentiality is paramount.
When Socrates dies at the end of his "Apology," executed for impiety and corrupting the youth, we see the tragic consequences of passion subjugating reason. Though there is much indignation over the Enron collapse, let us not confound needed business reforms with unneeded desecrations of the First Amendment guised under the veil of political reform.