I don’t think there is any situation on the sporting field where players are justified in playing the man rather than the ball. Immediately after writing that I have begun to think of exceptions. An exception should obviously be made for technical infringements of the rules that that have become an accepted part of the way some games are played. Should an exception also be made for giving a particularly dirty player in the other team an elbow in the ribs? It might be possible to convince an impartial observer that this could not have happened to a nicer person, but that doesn’t mean that the behaviour should be condoned. If we allow that violations of the code of behaviour can justify retaliation we are likely to end up with an all-in brawl rather than a ball game.
In case anyone is wondering why I am writing about sport, I am just using an analogy to introduce a discussion of the ethics of ‘playing the man’ in discussions of public policy. The post has been prompted by the comment of another blogger, Jim Belshaw, that I made a ‘cruel’ remark about Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, in a recent post on my blog. I implied that Mr Rudd's argument that the proposed resource rent tax will be paid mainly by foreign investors is similar to the nationalistic rhetoric that Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, has used to justify nationalization policies. To add insult to injury I suggested that Hugo, who is famed for long-winded speeches, was less verbose than Kevin.
I regret that comment because my intention on this blog is to raise the tone of policy discussion rather than to lower it. I don’t feel apologetic towards Mr Rudd, however, because I acted in retaliation for his past behaviour. I think Mr Rudd has done more than most other contemporary Australian politicians to lower the tone of public policy discussion in this country.
In trying to explain myself I have made an assertion that I now have to justify. The way politics is played in Australia it is fairly common for politicians to mis-represent the views of other politicians and to attempt to demonize them. But most politicians tend to treat academics with some respect unless they involve themselves directly in politics. Apart from Mr Rudd I don’t think many other politicians in this country who have sought to mis-represent the views of a Nobel-prize winning economist or to demonize him or her. I am referring in particular to Mr Rudd’s misrepresentation of the views of Friedrich Hayek, which I have discussed in an earlier post: Why does Rudd persist in misrepresenting Hayek? (On reflection, I also regret the sarcasm in the last sentence of that post.) In my view the real reason Rudd misrepresents Hayek is so that he can falsely claim that political opponents who respect Hayek’s views are adopting an extreme position.
As I noted in the introduction, I don’t think violations of codes of behaviour justify retaliation in kind. This applies just as much to policy discussions as to sport. The most appropriate response to bad behaviour by political leaders is to make other people aware of it.