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The Concept of Loyalty and George W. Bush

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Jim Arnold
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There seems to be a consensus about George W. Bush, among pundits and the public at large. Whether they’re for him or against him, it’s often said that he’s loyal to his subordinates, and loyal to a fault.

Loyalty is usually considered a virtue. It becomes betrayal if once given, it’s not given faithfully. On the other hand, loyalty that’s not reciprocated is considered foolishness. And even if loyalty is reciprocated, it isn’t necessarily considered a virtue. Loyalty to a principle or ideal is usually placed higher than loyalty to a person, as loyalty to an immoral person is usually considered to be immoral as well. But in any case, a moderate, imprudent loyalty is generally regarded as a sympathetic, relatively pardonable fault.

Webster’s defines loyalty as faithfulness in allegiance to one’s lawful sovereign or government, or else to a cause, ideal, or custom. Allegiance is defined as the obligation as of a vassal or subject to a lord or government. Loyalty might also be considered faithfulness to one to whom fidelity is due, which can apply to a personal relationship between partners. But it may be best for the sake of clarity that devotion to a partner is distinguished from loyalty to a superior, as being two kinds of faithfulness.

Somehow it seems to have been lost, the understanding that except when it’s carelessly identified with devotion between partners, loyalty actually comes from those in positions subordinate, or below, and not from those above.

So if loyalty is one side of a reciprocal relationship, the subordinate side, what is it that a lord, a sovereign, a government, or a leader provides, in return for loyalty? What is the flip-side of loyalty? It might be called obligation, responsibility, gratitude, or reward. We might conveniently classify all such reciprocation to loyalty with one word, patronage.

Patronage so defined is appropriate if given in return for competent loyalty. But like undeserved loyalty, patronage given in return for ineptitude is foolishness. And while patronage can be considered virtuous if given in return for virtuous loyalty, patronage in return for immoral or unethical service is a form of corruption.

Philosophical analysis such as this, of the meaning of concepts, is commonly regarded in our culture as nothing more than word-play. We’ve come to discount the careful consideration of concepts, and to trust in judgment as if its proper exercise were instinctive or intuitive. But sometimes it’s only after careful consideration that what’s obvious actually becomes clear, when what seems valid proves mistaken.

By the careful definition of loyalty, President George W. Bush confers loyalty to no one. His supposed loyalty to his subordinates is actually patronage. And if his patronage is indifferent to competence, his patronage is foolishness. And if his patronage is indifferent to virtue, it is corruption. As the superior aspect of the reciprocal relationship of obligations and responsibilities, as patronage rather than loyalty, it should not be regarded as a sympathetic, relatively pardonable fault.

This isn’t just to criticize George Bush. Even less is it to criticize those who depend upon his incorrigible patronage in return for their obsequious loyalty. Far more importantly, it is intended to draw attention to the general lack of clarity with which most pundits and citizens in our country exercise political judgment. When by the denigration of considered judgment citizens confuse patronage for loyalty, and thereby confuse foolishness and corruption for a pardonable overindulgence, it leads to a predisposition for choosing incompetent and disastrous leaders.

Just look around. Concepts matter, concepts count. Concepts vote.

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A former visitant of UC Santa Cruz, former union boilermaker, ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, anti-war activist, dilettante in science with an earth-shaking theory on the nature of light (which no one will consider), philosopher in the tradition of (more...)

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