Max Weber Takes on the Left and Lieberman

December 19, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The politics of health care reform presents a dilemma for those who want change. It’s the dilemma of compromising with evil. Do we sacrifice real improvement for the sake of ideological purity? wants me to sign a petition that says, “America needs real health care reform—not a massive giveaway to the insurance companies. Senator Bernie Sanders and other progressives should block this bill until it’s fixed.”

With illness, we have to understand that bad things happen to good people. But with health care (and other issues) the difficulty is that good things may happen to bad people. With the bailout, it was galling that in order to save the country (i.e., most of us) from economic disaster, we wind up rewarding the bankers and traders who got us into this mess.

With health care, it’s the insurance companies. says better to risk letting the whole bill fail, with its added protections for millions of people, than to let the bad guys continue make a profit.

The dilemma sent me back to Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation” (and not just because the squabbles on the left made me think that maybe the German title was “Politik als Beirut”).

Weber distinguishes between the politics of purity (“ethic of ultimate ends” and the politics of the possible (“ethic of responsibility”)
There is an abysmal contrast between conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of ultimate ends – that is, in religious terms, ‘The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord’ – and conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of responsibility, in which case one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.
I like “abysmal.”
The believer in an ethic of ultimate ends feels ‘responsible’ only for seeing to it that the flame of pure intentions is not quenched: for example, the flame of protesting against the injustice of the social order. To rekindle the flame ever anew is the purpose of his quite irrational deeds, judged in view of their possible success. They are acts that can and shall have only exemplary value.
I like “quite irrational.”

So Weber knew about the MoveOn.orgs in his day and in history. Weber also had this to say about Joe Lieberman.

Vanity is a very widespread quality and perhaps nobody is entirely free from it. . . . The sin against the lofty spirit of [the politician’s] vocation, however, begins where this striving for power ceases to be objective and becomes purely personal self-intoxication, instead of exclusively entering the service of ‘the cause.’ For ultimately there are only two kinds of deadly sins in the field of politics: lack of objectivity and – often but not always identical with it – irresponsibility. Vanity, the need personally to stand in the foreground as clearly as possible, strongly tempts the politician to commit one or both of these sins.

Weber, however, lacked YouTube and sock puppets.

Hat tip Ezra Klein.


Mr. Benes said...

Can you cite a source for the quotes from Weber. Great use in the context. Would love to go back to the original to get more details.

Jay Livingston said...

Mr. B. I'm away from my own underlined copy, so I have no notes, but no snow either. I merely Googled "Max Weber politics." Here's the link I used: