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Welcome to Behind the Lines, a weekly conversation with Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley and BYU economist Val Lambson.

Lambson: I have a soft spot in my heart for Senate confirmation hearings. I attribute my epiphany on the nature of government to the Bork hearings years ago. It took me a few years to recognize the implications of what I had observed, but one thing led to another until I suddenly understood that virtue, if it is meaningful, is a constraint and that the unconstrained tend to do better in power struggles. Hence the importance of keeping power diffused so that there is less of an incentive for power struggles.

Bagley: The Bork hearings left me thinking I was witnessing something new. The Left used scorched-earth, character assassination to get Bork (they had help from Bork himself, who came across as a pompous egghead). Like you, I also had an epiphany: Nothing good would come of this new thing.

Since then we increasingly tend to think of our political opponents as enemies to be crushed. Those who don't share our beliefs are not just wrong-headed, but evil. This is poison to any nation, no matter how its government institutions are structured.

Lambson: I fully agree. I seem to remember Jesse Jackson saying something like, "the contest is not about who loves this country more. We all love this country. That's a tie." The country is polarized and we need to emphasize our commonality while we disagree. Civil discourse is better than civil war.

Bagley: Getting back to the Hegal nomination. Make no mistake, he is a conservative, but I like him as Secretary of Defense for his soberness concerning the use of military force. His views on abortion or gay marriage are largely irrelevant as SecDef. (And let's get real, what male heterosexual his age didn't grow up homophobic?). Accusations that he is an anti-Semite, leveled in particular by neocon foreign policy guru, Elliott Abrams, are especially ugly. What do you make of that?

Lambson: I haven't seen the remarks, so I won't comment on them specifically. In general, I find that accusations of anti-Semitism, racism, lack of compassion, and so on are often substitutes for thoughtful argument and are not conducive to civil discourse. Personal attacks are the stuff of politics, but they are, as you say, ugly.

Bagley: You just returned from a big economist conclave in San Diego. I'm sure it was all academic high-mindedness with no personal animus, unlike politics.

Lambson: Point well taken! It has been said that academics argue so vehemently because so little is at stake. The foibles observable in all human interaction take on greater importance in the arena where humans are vying for control of the guns and the prisons.

Bagley: Then you should be pleased our government is outsourcing both to the private sector.

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