January 24, 2010

Punish politicians through elections, not trials, prof says

Losing elections is punishment enough for political leaders who make mistakes, making it unnecessary to put them on trial, Michael Walzer said in this year’s Dewey lecture in Law and Philosophy Wednesday.

Walzer, a prominent political philosopher, examined the long history and questionable morality of political trials around the world, including the 1793 execution of Louis XVI and the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

He also addressed trying political opponents after losing an election, such as those some Democrats proposed against the Bush administration. “It is easier to justify a trial after a major break such as a civil war than it is after a minor one such as losing elections,” Walzer said. “There will always be a reason for a trial but it is dangerous to start down that path.”

While Walzer said political leaders who make mistakes while acting in the public’s interest should be spared from prosecution, “if the President’s violation of laws aims at the creation of a tyrannical regime, then overthrow him and have a full-scale trial.”

Walzer agreed with an audience member that prosecuting subordinates and not leaders was impractical, but wasn’t sure “how far up the chain we should go.”

“Perhaps we are not a community of absolutely equal citizens,” he said.