James Comey is an altruist, not a moralist.

James Comey is an altruist, not a moralist.

As James Comey, the endlessly embattled and morally cocksure and golden-tongued former FBI director, makes his rounds promoting his new memoir-slash-leadership-tome, the internet’s been in a predictable tizzy, and various commentators have attacked Comey’s high-minded recollection of his controversial actions during and after the 2016 presidential election. Of Comey’s handling of the Clinton email probe, David Harsanyi conjectures in the National Review that “the FBI director believed he was insulating the future president from criminal charges, as well as preserving his reputation by being tough on her.” At The Federalist, Mollie Hemingway offers a nearly incoherent conspiracy theory that Comey briefed President Trump on the infamous Steele dossier so that James Clapper, an Obama holdover, could then go ahead and leak it to the media. At the American Spectator, George Neumayr angrily dismisses the former FBI director as “just a garden-variety ambitious and greedy D.C. operator, [who] because of his various pompous complexes…has a need to sanctify all of that in the mumbo-jumbo of quasi-religion and ‘betrayed’ ideals.”

Such vicious, weird criticism does not just come from the right, either. At Vox, Alex Ward expends about a thousand words explaining why Comey’s no hero, making in the process the curious assumption that the media – yup, all of it – have deemed him one. At the New Yorker, Masha Gessen is determined for some reason or another to prove that Comey is in fact just exactly like Trump, and seems frankly to arrive at her conclusion before she actually ever puts the argument together. And on and on it goes. At Pod Save America. At the Chicago Tribune. At New York.

Weirdest, possibly – beyond the interview with theSkimm’s Carly Zakin, which takes on the tone and tenor of a friendly celebrity chat – is the interrogation Comey receives at the hands of the New York Times Michael Barbaro, whose massively popular podcast (and now radio show) The Daily, tends toward Vox-style explainers of newsworthy events and trends. During the interview, Barbaro’s typically affable voice takes on a manic, litigious quality as he grills Comey, courtroom-style, about his thinking during key events. It was actually a little disheartening to hear Barbaro press Comey for something he knew he wouldn’t get; much better was Terry Gross’s interview days earlier for Fresh Air; she candidly asked Comey the same set of difficult questions, but she did so in that earnest and gently pressuring way of hers that’s been so disarming to guests and enthralling to listeners for so long.

There was, however, one useful exchange between Barbaro and Comey that’s worth quoting, because in it Comey articulates a self-awareness about his actions that lots of folks seem to be ignoring in their hot takes. Here’s the exchange:

BARBARO: But in every case, it feels like you’re playing things out in your mind and determining how you think things might play out, how they might be perceived, and making a decision based on your belief of how those things might play out and how those things might be perceived, rather than just following protocol and letting things fall as they may. Does that feel fair?

COMEY: I think that’s fair. And reaching a considered judgment, again, not on my own – a considered judgment, with very smart colleagues – that the normal thing will be much worse for the institution, and that the unusual thing – This is why I cringe a little at the notion that it’s ego. I knew how much this was going to suck for me. I knew my reputation was going to take an enormous hit. I knew it in July, and God, I knew it in October. It was going to be even worse. And so I don’t – you know, I’m trying to cross-examine myself and be fair, but I don’t think that’s a fair characterization to say it’s driven by ego. I’ve heard it a lot. I just don’t think it’s fair.

This protect-the-integrity-of-the-institution-at-the-expense-of-my-reputation thing is a defense that Comey has stuck to with remarkable consistency. He returns to it repeatedly in this and other interviews, and frankly, given his history of public service and putting justice ahead of authority, it should not be controversial. But of course, because everybody’s got something to blame James Comey for, it is.

What’s interesting here, at least to me, is not so much the endless cycle of litigation and blame-shifting. It’s that at least two of Comey’s controversial actions – his announcement regarding the Clinton email probe in July, and his “leaking” of his unclassified memo after his dismissal – conform to a sort of behavior, termed altruistic sanctioning, that seems to be fundamental to open, democratic societies.

Although its definition varies across the different fields of human activity, altruism is generally understood to be a kind of pro-social behavior in which an individual does something beneficial for someone else at a cost to his, her, or their self. It’s believed by researchers like Tania Singer to stem from empathic concern – also termed sympathy or compassion – which is not, as Singer explains in Caring Economics, “merely feel[ing] as someone feels (as with empathy); rather you feel for someone, and you have a motivation to alleviate their suffering.”

Altruistic sanctioning, or altruistic punishment, is a related concept – it’s a behavior that people engage in to ensure that rules are followed. Societies, which are basically just a collection of rules and norms developed over time via the twin shaping forces of necessity and trial-and-error, rely on people’s willingness to enforce those rules and norms, and sometimes, this enforcement incurs a cost, not just to the person being sanctioned, but to the person doing the sanctioning. That’s why it’s altruistic.

Ernst Fehr, a behavioral economist, illustrates the concept using a modified version of a typical social dilemma experiment. Two strangers are each given $10. Person A can give between $0 and $10 to Person B, and whatever he gives is doubled by the experimenter. Person B then has the opportunity to transfer money back to Person A, which will again be doubled by the experimenter. As Fehr explains, again in Caring Economics:

This experiment looks artificial, but in fact what we are capturing here is an economic exchange. I have a good that you value more, and you have a good that I value more. If we exchange the goods, we are both better off [because their cash is doubled by the experimenter]. The trick is that this happens sequentially: I have to go first, and you can go second. In principle, if I send you all my money, you can say thank you and keep it, and send me back nothing. We never meet again. We are strangers to each other. You have no future gain from being nice to me. There is no way you [Person B] could benefit materially by giving me your money, because you have already received my money. That’s the reason we can evaluate your transfer to me as an altruistic act, because there is nothing but altruism that can cause you to make a transfer.

In the version of the game meant to detect and measure altruistic sanctioning, an observer is added, Person C. Person C also has $10, and as they watch the exchange, they can choose to spend $1 to destroy $3 of someone else’s. They receive nothing in return, however; their only motivation is to punish someone who’s not engaging in pro-social behavior.

What Fehr found running this experiment is that about half the people in the experiment did in fact spend their own money to correct the behavior of others. In other experiments measuring altruistic sanctioning, that number has reached 100 percent.

So how, exactly, does James Comey engage in altruistic sanctioning?

Well, it’s undeniable that he’s incurred an enormous cost to his reputation – which, to an admitted egotist, is likely what’s most valuable – in order to, in the case of the July announcement regarding the Clinton email probe, deter harmful behavior (by issuing what amounts to a public warning), and in the case of President Trump’s problematic behavior, trigger a Special Counsel probe that will itself function as a sanction.

For the record, Comey’s October announcement – which has attracted most of the criticism from the left, for good reason – is not, as best I can tell, an instance of altruistic sanctioning. Instead, it may actually believe it or not just be altruism proper. As he recounts, he faced two extremely difficult choices: to reveal the investigation into those newly-discovered emails, or conceal it. To reveal they were reopening the investigation in light of newly-discovered emails, just two weeks before the election, would of course have a significant impact on it. Concealing the investigation, however, would also have an impact on the election – one that Comey correctly reasoned would be catastrophic. Because regardless of what you find, you’d need to announce these new results, and once you did so, American citizens would know you’d hidden the investigation. In other words, you can’t just announce new results to an investigation you’d told everyone you’d closed. That’s for an obvious reason: people would conclude, reasonably, that you’d lied to them earlier. The public coal-raking over your intent in concealing would be exponentially more intense than it is now. You’d lose people’s trust, in a profound way. That loss of trust is the corrosive, catastrophic thing Comey was so keen to avoid, regardless of the hit to his reputation.

Mindless institutionalism is often a hallmark of unfree societies; vigilantism, on the other hand, is a symptom of dangerously fractured ones. Comey’s behavior represents neither one nor the other; instead, it’s a synthesis – dynamic institutionalism? – that’s characteristic of how the US engages in democracy. That’s why our Constitution is so slim and often more suggestive than prescriptive. It’s why each branch of the federal government has the ability to check the others. It’s why we’ve got elections and term limits and officials who are empowered to make difficult decisions (which sometimes they get wrong).

And too, Comey’s altruistic behavior, is indicative, as Benedikt Herrmann, Christian Thöni, and Simon Gächter discovered in their widely cited research, of countries with strong civic norms:

Social norms exist at a macrosocial level and refer to widely shared views about acceptable behaviors and the deviations subject to possible punishment…The stronger norms of civic cooperation are in a society, the more free riding might be viewed as unacceptable and the more it might be punished in consequence…the strength of the rule of law in a society might also have an impact on antisocial punishment. If the rule of law is strong, people trust the law enforcement institutions, which are perceived as being effective, fair, impartial, and bound by the law. Revenge is shunned. If the rule of law is weak, the opposite holds. Thus, the rule of law reflects how norms are commonly enforced in a society.

By “free riding,” Herrmann and co. are referring to antisocial behaviors, like tax evasion, welfare fraud, and dodging fares on public transport. But, of course, these aren’t the only instances of antisocial behavior – for example, you could ask your FBI director to shutter a potentially damning investigation into your national security advisor. Or you could recklessly transmit classified information using a personal, unsecured server. James Comey, as a longtime public servant, grasps the importance of social and political norms – his “sounding the alarm” about their degradation, as Terry Gross puts it, is the other remarkably consistent – and underappreciated – thing about his interviews. None of this is normal, he’s reminding us. But we’ll keep shooting the messenger, because we always do.

header image: "james comey," fbi / flickr

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