October 10, 2003


Just Supposin': In defense of hypothetical questions. (Michael Kinsley, October 2, 2003, Slate)

Hypothetical questions are at the heart of every election in a democracy. These are questions the voters must answer. Voters are expected to imagine each of the candidates holding the office he or she is seeking and to decide which one's performance would be most to their liking. Every promise made by a candidate imposes two hypothetical questions on the voter: If elected, will this person do as promised? And if this promise is kept, will I like the result? The voter cannot say, "I don't answer hypothetical questions." And voters cannot sensibly answer the hypothetical questions they've been assigned without learning the answers to some hypothetical questions from the candidates.

Hypothetical questions are essential to thinking through almost any social or political issue. In law school they're called "hypos," and the process is called "salami slicing." Imagine this situation, and tell me the result. Now change the situation slightly--does the result change? Now change it in a different way--same result, or different one? It's just like an eye exam, where you peer through a series of alternative lenses until you zero in on the correct prescription.

A refusal or inability to answer hypothetical questions is nothing to be proud of. In fact, it ought to be a disqualification for public office. Anyone who doesn't ponder hypothetical questions all the time is unfit for the task of governing. In fact, it's hard to see how any halfway intelligent person can manage to avoid taking up hypothetical questions a dozen times a day.

But we can all name a few politicians we suspect are up to this challenge.

What we could really use is a campaigner who tells questioners to get stuffed and tells the various organizations that regularly extract pledges from candidates--including the no tax pledge--to buzz off. The Founders would find the entire process that Mr. Kinsley defends here to be ridiculous. Representative democracy is premised on electing people whose judgment we can trust, not automatons who are bound to a series of speculative answers to hypothetical questions. Mr. Kinsley's vision of democracy could be accomplished more simply by just letting the people vote on every issue themselves and binding the government to do as it's told. Some might favor such a system, but it's not America's...yet...

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 10, 2003 10:28 AM

These guys on the left who worship democracy in the abstract just can'r admit to the fact that our's is a constitutional republic which theoretically limits the potential for the damage that bad people in power are capable of doing. They love government and the power that accrues to government through "democracy". After turning our constitution into a "living" document and dumbing down the electorate with New Deals and Great Societies the only challenge they face is keeping the right kind of ivory tower theorists on the bench.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 10, 2003 11:07 AM

Interesting that Kinsley would mention salami slicing - it seems that is what the press thinks is their mission in life, to slice up any candidate who isn't as cool or as quick as the average reporter. Of course, many candidates prove to be a lot more, with grit and insight and wisdom that the press will never have. Kinsley, in particular, has his head so wrapped into his navel that no firm pronouncement will ever come out. He must get as disappointed as much as Tom Daschle does.

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 10, 2003 11:21 AM

The problem with salami slicing is that what's clean and easy in the theoretical always turns out to be messy and hard in real life. And a lot of those so-called "hard" theoretical questions are arrived at backwards-- come up with some way to force a paradoxical situation, and then come with some seemingly rational way it could actually happen.

You can see similar things in sci-fi "what if" alternate history stories-- the author will posit one change, then assume everything else stays the same.They never seem to look into how those changes will cause other changes. The worst of the genre posit historical characters acting the same way hundreds of years after the change in question. (Their usual goal is to make some ham-handed, unsubtle point about the present which quickly becomes dated as times change.)

Also, "salami slicing" and hypotheticals are appealing to intellectual types because it's just like the line of work they are in, in environments like classrooms where one doesn't have to live with the consequences of those sliced hypothetical decisions.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 10, 2003 12:14 PM

OJ: I have to agree with your sentiments here, at least as regards "pledges" and other hoops special interest groups on both the left and right make their chosen candidates jump through. On the other hand, any time a candidate states his position on this or that issue, he/she is answering a hypothetical question. It is only by stating positions on the issues that we can judge certain candidates--given that state legislators or governors often have no record on issues that might be important in a federal election (foreign policy, for one), and amateurs like Schwartzenegger have no record at all, how else do we decide whether to vote for them?

Posted by: M. Bulger at October 10, 2003 4:57 PM

On whether we think them honorable. Mr. Schwarzenegger seems not trustworthy by this standard. I'd have voted for McClintock.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2003 5:17 PM

For such a smart person as Michael Kinsley certainly is, he can be horrifyingly stupid sometimes.

Posted by: Joe at October 10, 2003 7:44 PM

More than just sometimes.

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 11, 2003 12:13 AM