tl;dr: Opponents of things should never be appointed to oversee them.
So President Biden has nominated David Chipman to lead the ATF – and he was wrong to do so.
It’s not that Chipman isn’t qualified to lead the ATF – he’s a 25-year ATF veteran. It’s that Chipman is explicitly disqualified to lead an agency that oversees firearms – because he’s a gun control advocate. It’s not that he can’t be trusted to make good decisions: he can be trusted to make bad ones.
Previous presidents have made the same mistake. To lead the EPA, Donald Trump nominated Scott Pruitt, a noted environmental skeptic who had sued the EPA. To serve as ambassador to the UN, George Bush nominated John Bolton, a noted United Nations skeptic who said that it does not really exist.
Political cards on the table: I voted for Joe Biden, and I’m happy with him. And while I’m a gun rights proponent – if the Second Amendment didn’t exist, we’d need to invent it – I recognize both the need for and constitutional legitimacy of gun legislation, which shouldn’t be set in stone as our society evolves.
But intellectual and moral integrity demands that if I call an opponent out for their misbehavior, that I also call out allies for the same behavior. Calling out misbehavior only on one side is worse than hypocritical: it undermines trust in the political system, and encourages further distorted value judgments.
And humans are great at distorting value judgments when emotions are involved. From the most basic arguments all the way up to the most complex adjudication of fact and law, our moods and emotions affect whether we judge something to be true or false.
In a way, we should expect this: researchers like Antonio Damasio have shown that rational decision making breaks down in people whose emotions are impaired, because the value judgments provided by our emotions are necessary for making mental decisions.
But a functioning emotional system can also lead us astray: emotions can impair our judgments. Studies show we’re more likely to screw up simple if-then syllogisms if they’re emotionally charged. Even judges, trained to be impartial, are more likely to make mistakes with legal arguments on “hot” political topics.
Heightened emotion distorts perceptions, leads us to attribute our feelings to arbitrary targets we come across, and reduces self-control – precisely what you don’t want to have in someone who needs to make impartial decisions about something, and precisely what you do have in the person of a political activist.
Now, I’m not questioning Chipman or Bolton’s integrity (Pruitt’s lack of integrity is well documented, down to his sound-proof booth), or Chipman or Bolton or Pruitt’s patriotism, or their expertise. But all three of them are interested enough in the areas they later oversaw to have gone into them as opponents.
In our public life, there is politics, and there is civics, and the two should not mix. Politics literally means deciding how to allocate scarce resources, and it is right and expected for us to dive in rough and tumble to ask for what we want – a participatory political system grants moral authority to a government.
But government’s purpose is to bring the use of force under rational control, and more broadly, to allocate resources correctly when policy has been made. Inevitably, decisions will need to be made on matters of fact at an agency – and a political partisan can be trusted to screw them up even if they’re trying not to.
When a partisan appoints a opponent of something to oversee it, the person that they’ve appointed will, very likely, whether they want to or not, “lean their hand on the till” to make things come out for their own partisan ends – meaning they will, sooner or later, fail in their civic duty to make an honest decision.
If you’re passionate about something, you might feel that it’s all right to put a partisan in charge of it, because then you’ll get what you want. But that’s evil, on two grounds – first of all, because you are subverting the political process to get a result through the back door that you can’t through the front.
But more importantly, impartial decisions will need to be made – and by putting a partisan in charge, you’re explicitly hoping for them to make a wrong decision to help implement your political desires. Tyrants, bigots and the corrupt throughout history have employed the same tactic. Stop doing it.
Regardless of our political desires, we need to step back and decouple our understanding of people into (at least) two parts: their politics, and their competence. If their political orientation isn’t a direct conflict of interest for to the matter at hand, their basic competence is the primary qualification for doing the job.
I was happy when Trump picked Bolton as National Security Advisor: whether I agree with their politics or not, Bolton had the experience to do the job and the attitude towards the job to do it right. Bush should never have appointed Bolton to the UN: even when he made the right decisions, we couldn’t trust them.
I might not have agreed with Scott Pruitt politically, but as a lawyer and state Senator, he was well qualified to be Attorney General of Oklahoma. It was morally wrong for Donald Trump to appoint a climate change denier to lead the EPA, and, predictably, that led to Pruitt lying about climate issues.
I thank David Chipman for his service at the ATF, and would approve of his nomination to another agency. But the moment that he joined a political movement against guns, he disqualified himself from overseeing gun law enforcement, and if confirmed, he will inevitably make some serious mistakes.
Pictured: Chipman, Pruitt, Bolton