Matt Bai Should Concede Logical Defeat

Matt Bai argues in New York Times Magazine that the art of conceding defeat is lost. He posits that Norm Coleman’s extended challenge of his Senate loss to Al Franken is just a microcosm of a broader cultural trend towards resisting defeat. Bai claims:

What happens in politics, however, can almost never be extricated from the culture at large, and the lost art of losing nobly is by no means an exclusively political phenomenon. At the upper reaches of society, we litigate ever more readily and accept misfortune with ever less stoicism. Being fired from a job becomes the beginning of a negotiation, while a routine school suspension instantly goes to appeal. In part, this is probably the inevitable reckoning for a culture that gives trophies to every Little Leaguer because, as the saying goes, we’re all winners. Shouldering defeat is, after all, a skill that has to be learned early, like speaking Mandarin or sleeping through the night. Then, too, we are guided by an unflagging faith in modern technology — a sense that no discrepancy is small enough to defy absolute quantification. A blown call on a home run hooking foul used to be part of the game, a generations-old lesson in the randomness of adversity. Now the crowd breaks for hot dogs while the instant replay delivers its verdict and the homer is revoked. There are no more bad breaks in life — only bad umps.”

I take umbrage for several reasons:

 1.     Accuracy is a good thing. Why? Accuracy allows those who are truly meritorious to get their just desert. The baseball player who hit a foul ball should not be credited with home run just as the player who hits a home run should not be credited with the foul ball. Bai appeals to the argument from tradition that John S. and I have resisted so strongly in our prior posts. “[A] generations-old lesson in the randomness of adversity…” apparently justifies maintaining incorrect calls when they could be corrected. Seriously? I mean, sure, it’s valuable to learn to cope with unforeseen circumstances but these circumstances are notdesirable. If we have the possibility, through technological innovation, to limit the effect of these circumstances so merit—rather than luck—dominates, then we should take advantage of that possibility.

2.     Sure, Norm Coleman went overboard but—on balance—the benefits of a culture of appeals FAR outweigh the costs. Yes, long court battles and wrongful appeals are not desirable. But, ensuring that innocent people are deemed innocent and that meritorious individuals are deemed meritorious—in other words, maintaining justice—outweighs the transaction costs. I mean, sure drawn-out court cases are bad but when compared to the jailing or execution of innocents, they pale in comparison.

3.     Bai ignores one of the main causes of election contestations: holding federal political office is very lucrative. Bai himself even mentions that there is not a second Minnesota Senator to “[dole] out a few trillion dollars in stimulus money and bailout funds”. Inevitably, as Congress gains more power and responsibility, Congressional seats will gain desirability and will become more contested. This has little to do with a general cultural trend (which Bai doesn’t even come close to proving anyway) to avoid conceding but rather has to do with the perverse incentives of our federal political system. I’m sympathetic to Bai’s claim that excessive legal battles are not desirable but if we want to reduce them we need to identify the correct causes.

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