Sometimes here in Washington you begin to see a pattern among seemingly unrelated things. Sometimes you begin to wonder if a certain prevailing atmosphere can have a common impact on starkly different decisions. Reckless expedience, for instance, could be blowing in the wind just now.
The phenomenon seems to begin as high-level Washington officials itch for action. The evidence that could justify a desired action is weak or lacking altogether. The officials, nonetheless, are convinced their cause is just. They’re certain the end is so desirable and will so well serve the higher good that flaws in the data can be ignored or papered over.
As enthusiasm for the action builds, the importance of the proximate cause begins to fade. It’s there all right, the officials say, don’t you worry. In a flurry of high feeling, the blood is up. Cry havoc, bark the zealots. Somewhere a bugle sounds. All at once, the charge is on.
Later, as the din subsides and the smoke begins to clear, hard questions begin to swirl. Hasty procedures that initially seemed legitimate come under scrutiny. Support no longer looks unanimous.
It’s not so much that the first causes turn out to be flimsy or incorrect. Now, as the officials reflect on it, the initial reasons seem simply to have been irrelevant. The object was to get to Point C, and it didn’t really matter much if you had to go by way of B or D.
If the Washington officials are daunted, as the dust begins to settle, nobody will admit it. The outcome is the justification, the last refuge of the besieged. Just look at how well it all turned out!
But just a minute. Did it really?
Didn’t we used to deny that the end could justify the means? Didn’t we lambaste this sort of thinking as dangerous? If you aren’t careful, we admonished, severe wrongs will be tolerated in the service of allegedly inspired ends. Heaven knows, history is replete with the examples.
Global examples of this phenomenon have been prominent in the news of late. Now, I’m getting the sense that rash expedience is settling on our field as well. At least, that’s what occurs to me as I read our Front Page story on the controversy surrounding the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School District (WSSD) in North Carolina.
It looks like IBM was making the most aggressive use it could of the eRate program. The Schools and Libraries Division (SLD), the agency that administers the eRate, wanted to ensure fair bidding and deflect congressional criticism. It latched on to forms submitted by school systems that resulted in IBM’s selection as equipment supplier.
The SLD apparently called foul on the very same IBM procedures it found perfectly acceptable in applications involving other vendors. The desired end was to protect the eRate and ensure sound use of public funds.
That outcome is no doubt commendable, but not if the means to this worthy end undermine the eRate process. If the SLD is pursuing a worthy goal “by any means necessary,” we all have something to worry about.
And the eRate insiders we talked to think what happened is that the SLD–feeling enormous pressure to crack down on eRate abuses, but lacking a solid technical reason upon which to hang their argument–denied millions in IBM-related requests this year, in the belief that what IBM was doing was morally, if not technically, wrong. In other words, it appears to eRate insiders that SLD tried to manufacture a reason for a preemptive strike on IBM, even though it knew this reasoning is unlikely to hold up in the appeals process.
Thus, in an attempt to make the program fairer for participants, the SLD ironically opened itself to further criticism, both from critics of the eRate in Congress and from program participants, who–although they might well be uncomfortable with what IBM and others were doing–also worry that the SLD might believe it can simply make up the rules as it goes along.
That would be a tiny tyranny perhaps, but it would be worth noting. The atmosphere already has grown noxious. Fear and uncertainty are arising from the SLD’s well-meaning action. Those most knowledgeable–all highly respected experts on the eRate–are afraid to speak for attribution. Going on the record, they fear, could mean that they, too, might be targeted or singled out unfairly by the SLD. This is not the relationship we want to foster between the governors and the governed.
Acting without regard to good and sufficient cause, even in pursuit of a worthy outcome can have a chilling, deleterious effect. Sometimes unworthy means can befoul an otherwise worthy end.
In the early years of the Cold War, we denounced the Soviets for a belief that the “end justifies the means.” Americans, we used to tell our children, understand that what you have to do to get there is every bit as important as reaching your destination–sometimes more important.
Officials in several locations around Washington these days might do well to learn that venerable lesson once again.