Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Hurray for Chester A.
I did my government ethics lecture in Ethics today, which I always devote mostly to the civil service, which (like triage) is one of the truly great ethical ideas. It also gives me a chance to laud the excellence of Chester A. Arthur, a one-term President, and one who only became President because his predecessor was assassinated, but who did an extraordinary amount of good for all that. Socrates argued against the sophists and rhetors that the real measure of a politician or statesman is whether people are morally better when he's done with them. Obviously there are limits to what politicians can do in this regard, but Arthur did an impressive amount, particularly for someone who came to power under such difficult circumstances. He worked to replace a corrupt government system, to root out corruption, to unify the country, to do a good job with the ordinary everyday of the executive branch. He reduced taxes (although that was fairly easy, since the country was still on war-level taxes and had a massive surplus); he vetoed pork projects, insisting that Congressional funds should be used for the general welfare (although Congress was in a position to override such vetoes); he opposed Chinese Exclusion (although he did eventually accept a compromise measure); he was a firm advocate of civil rights for blacks (although he was unable to persuade Congress to do much); he restored the U.S. Navy, which was increasingly obsolete and irrelevant. He was not perfect by any means, since he certainly sometimes compromised when he shouldn't have and perhaps sometimes stood his ground when a compromise might have worked better. But we can certainly say that he performed his duties conscientiously and well, and that we are better for having had him, and at least part of that is that, uncontroversially, the United States was at least in some small way a more ethical society because of him. Not every President can be a Washington or Lincoln; if we want a standard against which to hold our Presidents, we could hardly do better than Arthur.