Predictably, the oxen gored by McClellan’s book, apparently having nothing to wield by way of refutation, have hauled out Big Smircha and fired rounds of character slime, mostly (i) if he thought it was wrong, why didn’t he speak up at the time? and the less closely reasoned (ii) ya lousy dirty cheaty rat basset snitch!

Tim Rutten reflects on the snitching issue in a column beginning with George C. Marshall’s famous refusal to write his memoirs on grounds that one shouldn’t profit from public service. First, now that Rutten mentions it, Marshall was wrong, confusing a slogan with a real principle; in any case, his decision had nothing to do with protecting secrets. His memoirs would have been a priceless resource for historians and society generally, and the profit, which would have been visible, raises no issue for me. “Profiting from public service” beyond your salary is damaging if we don’t know about it (bribes, for example) so your incentives are not as they appear, but it’s baroque to imagine senior officials making policy one way rather than another in order to maximize the money value of their memoirs. Anyway, he could have given the royalties to a charity or to the government, end of story.

As regards the snitching issue, it’s inapplicable to McClellan but the ease with which the accusation is made highlights a much larger problem. Sure, executives need some amount of secrecy and loyalty from subordinates while policy is being examined, designed, refined, and implemented, but in my view they have no expectation that people hired to do a job (and a job for the nation, not for a person) have some duty to silence about important events after the policy has unfolded. Bush’s valet should keep his mouth shut about any private weirdnesses he came upon, but this is completely different. On the whole, I think imagining your people telling the story after you’re out of office would incentivize creating stories that make you look good, and the best bet here is, um, what would Machiavelli advise?…to do good!

The more general idea that telling legitimate authority about offenses against the common weal is morally bad behavior seems to me equally evil and nuts, a combination of grade-school-level moral analysis with romantic nonsense about movie cowboys who take care of their own issues man-to-man (oh yeah, I think it has a little pinch of macho preening sprinkled on). It does trowel a layer of fake principle frosting over cowardice; how much nicer to think you’re deaf, dumb, and blind because you’re following some kind of code than because you’re just scared to do the right thing. But it doesn’t work out well in practice; “not snitching” is leaving a trail of death and tragedy across the neighborhoods where drug dealers and thugs have proclaimed it, and it’s cursed Sicily and Calabria with poverty and terror to this day.

Circumstances matter; resistance fighters in an occupied country ought not to be turning in their pals to the SS – but the current government of Italy is nothing like the Germans in 1943, or the Spanish catspaws and tax farmers of the 18th century. The police and courts in the toughest neighborhoods in US cities, with all their many faults, are not enslaving the citizens, not the ones killing the kids in the street, and they are legitimate authority. The only thing more repulsive than criminals parasitizing their neighbors under the cover of this vicious convention is the smirking collaboration of rappers giving it a glaze of art.

Cases matter: no boss wants subordinates running into his office to whine about every slight from a coworker, or even every box of paper clips taken home, and part of being a kid in school is learning not to go to the teacher about every little thing. Anyway, kids don’t choose their overseers, so there’s some analogy with the citizens under an illegitimate oppression. But Bush lied us into a catastrophic war: McClellan isn’t blowing the whistle on fraternity pranks, he’s letting some sunlight illuminate what may well be high crimes, perhaps even treason.

Finally, what does McClellan’s personal righteousness have to do with any of this? Accurate testimony by a criminal, or a coward, or a really yucky person you wouldn’t want to dine with, is accurate testimony and implicates the other perps. None of the mud thrown at McClellan has any bearing on whether he’s telling the truth, or how incriminating his story is. So far, the judgment on those is “yes”, and “very”.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.