The Corner

Goldberg Hypocrisy Doctrine

I just opened an email titled “Puzzlement with Last G-File.” Since it’s slow in the Corner, I thought I’d respond at length. First, the email:

Your last G-File was a rather more spirited defense of Bennett than I would have expected. Since you invoked your previous columns on hypocrisy, I thought I’d mention that the Goldberg Hypocrisy Doctrine seems to be undergoing a subtle but (to this observer) sinister transformation. I understood you previously to be saying merely that in certain situations hypocrisy can be the leser of two evils, i.e., if you must do wrong you could at least show enough shame to keep whatever you’re doing out of broad daylight instead of flaunting it. However, the utility of that defense would seem to end once you’re discovered. At that point, you’re in broad daylight and you can only maintain the appearance of probity by, well, maintaining the reality of probity.

To apply the Goldberg Hypocrisy Doctrine (hereinafter “GHD”) post-discovery seems to raise the relative defense of hypocrisy to an absolute defense–the wrongdoer may persist in his previous course of misbehavior even with public knowledge, provided (I guess) that the public discovery was due to the actions of others–a point I readily concede in the case of Bennett but which I think is irrelevant. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, the only way he can set an example is to abandon gambling, which I’m glad to see he intends to do, although in a welter of statements about how since he could afford it it was OK.

Which brings me to my second and (I’m sure you’re grateful) final point. The GHD has always been expressed with the Madonna Corollary (MadCor) to the effect that the rich shouldn’t encourage destructive behaviors with consequences that they, but not the nonrich, can partially buy themselves out of. Again, I never understood your previous columns to be condoning those behaviors, even for the rich, only to be making another relative point that Madonna could at least keep her sex life to herself. However, your (apparent) approval of Bennett’s “I could afford it” defense seems to likewise elevate MadCor from a relative to absolute point–if you can afford it, there’s nothing wrong with it whatsoever. Aside from the problem of moral principles that vary with income tax bracket, I’m very doubtful that the poor will ever be convinced to refrain from behaviors which they are told are perfectly acceptable–once they get more money.

After all this, I’ll just say I love your columns and keep up the good work.

My response: Okay, first let me say this guy has not only nailed the Goldberg Hypocrisy Doctrine he has christened it the “Goldberg Hypocrisy Doctrine” (if this was Marvel Comics, he’d win a “no-prize.”). A+!

Second, I’m not sure I’ve contradicted or extended the GHD with my defense of Bennett. I did say that Bennett gambled too much. And I guess I didn’t say it here at NRO, but I have said in a couple radio interviews that I do think Bennett did the right thing announcing he will stop gambling. Why? Because he got caught. Unlike Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan, my reading of “hidden law” is that once you get caught doing something that should have remained private, you cannot rely on the defense that it should be off-limits to public scrutiny. This is why I have such contempt for, say, Scott Ritter when he says his shennanigans with teenage girls should remain private because the public found out about them “unfairly.” Who care if it was unfair? I’ve even defended police “brutality” when it stays out of public view.

But for me the case with Bill Bennett flies under the GHD to a certain extent because I don’t think the “sin” is particularly great. I don’t condemn gambling (or drinking or smoking or eating for that matter) I just condemn gambling “too much” (Ditto: drinking, smoking, eating “too much”). Do I think Bennett gambled too much? Yes. But, in accordance with GHD, he kept it private, didn’t lie about it and didn’t celebrate it. Short of not doing it at all, he did everything right. And he did the right thing when he got caught gambling too much. But I hardly think that gambling too much disqualifies him from condemning drug abuse or adultery. But that’s clear already.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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