Good Government: The impossible dream that never was and never will be?
To found principles of government upon too advantageous an estimate of the human character is an error of inexperience, the source of which is so amiable that it is impossible to censure it with severity.
John Quincy Adams (1767-1848)
Ten years ago, in the midst of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) campaign, a friend said ‘you can govern, or you can spend.’ I thought it a witty insight; in the years since, I’ve come to see it as a pithy expression of our dismal state of affairs.
The American experiment embodies the concept of self-governance: ‘government by the people, of the people, and for the people,’ the opposite of being governed by royalty – a King who wields total power over his subjects. We are subject to the impersonal rule of law, not the innately personal rule of a Monarch.
At least in theory.
In recent years, it seems we have increasingly become ‘people by the government, of the government, and for the government.’ Self-governance has transmogrified into fiscal and regulatory subservience. Instead of government serving us, we exist to serve government.
Good, or Generous?
So I began to ponder whether the conditions even exist to promote and sustain ‘good government.’ Half the population (or more) will take this to mean government that is good to them. They want GENEROUS government, not GOOD government. However, that’s not what I’m talking about.
Jeb Bush, in a speech in Portland a few years back, said America began with ‘give me liberty, or give me death;’ then it became ‘give me liberty;’ now it’s simply ‘give me.’
By good government, I mean government that lives within its means, that adheres to the constraints imposed upon it by its defining precepts, and that in all things recognizes that it is subservient to the people. Government should do those things well that can be done by no other means, and not much more. It should stay out of our way, and create the context for individuals to prosper and enjoy the inalienable rights described in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Without liberty, property rights, and the like, we are lost. For those who cannot fully partake of this promise, we have the public safety net.
I believe that government should be the option of last resort for resolving societal problems, not the port of first resort. When we behave otherwise, growing dependency follows, and as we have seen for decades, society’s fabric decays. Our structural and cultural foundations erode until they can no longer support the load and still embrace the great dream of the founders.
This belief puts me in the minority. A shrinking minority, overwhelmed by a growing majority that expects the opposite: equal outcomes, and remedies for the destructive consequences of behavioral poverty.
Let me ask again: is good, responsible government even remotely possible in this age? This inevitably leads to a second question: are there any incentives for good government?
I believe that we get the behavior we accept, tolerate, and reward. Or, more broadly, we get the government we deserve.
If you have or have had children, and have or have had pets, you know exactly what I mean.
Self-Governance: The Role of Morality
It’s evident that self-governance exists on two levels. As a people, we can govern ourselves collectively via our republican form of government, in which we democratically elect those who represent us.
As individuals, if we are to enjoy ‘ordered liberty,’ we have an obligation to govern our personal behavior. Without this individual commitment, the hope of a larger governing process that works well is futile, unless you consider dictatorships and police states acceptable.
Morality, unfashionable in our age, is the key to individual self-governance. Honor, reputation, integrity, self-respect, ethics, core principles, respect for the rights of others; these are the foundations of self-restraint and self-governance.
To be capable of embarrassment is the beginning of moral consciousness. Honor grows from qualms. -John Leonard, critic (1939-2008)
Shame, the flip-side of honor, is all but passé. Moral bankruptcy has taken its place. Value-free education is typical, and non-judgmentalism and tolerance are essential social graces.
Standards? Expectations? What are you, nuts? Some sort of Victorian zombie?
Conviction, integrity, principle, determination; since when did they matter? These are obstacles to bi-partisanship, compromise, and ‘doing the people’s work.’
When is the last time you saw an elected ‘public servant’ act embarrassed? Instead, defiance in the face of irrefutable evidence has become a fine art. Circling the wagons is de rigueur. Charges of partisan witch-hunts are a predictable reaction in political circles, and a willing press readily joins in the obfuscation.
What’s right, or what’s popular?
I’m just naïve enough to believe that in addition to moral factors, doing what’s right was once the incentive for good government, motivating decisions that might not have been popular, but were in the best interests of all. Nowadays, it’s hard to avoid concluding that getting re-elected is the overriding incentive for most politicians, and this fosters generous government at the expense of good government. For most, the issue is making sure not to hand their opponents an issue with which to defeat them, and protecting their favor with a shallow and self-absorbed electorate.
Making popular decisions, right or wrong, is the game. That’s how we find ourselves borrowing forty cents of every dollar we spend, and national debt ready to bring our economy down.
One of the things that scare Democrats most about Governor LePage is him saying he isn’t going to worry about re-election. Stripping opponents of their Billy Clubs is a beautiful thing to watch. And frees a leader to do what’s right.
Now let’s consider the terms ‘public servant’ and ‘honorable,’ both of which have been around forever. The former is generally applied to anyone who works for government at any level, and is claimed passionately by those who hold high office. In this day and age, when government employment provides a higher standard of living than the private sector, and virtually iron clad job security, it’s nigh on impossible to view such individuals as servants in any sense of that word. Frankly, the label should be eradicated from the public lexicon; keeping it in use perpetuates an outdated conception.
The same might be said for the designation ‘honorable.’ It likely stems from a belief that anyone elected to a position of leadership by their peers is, by definition, worthy of being honored because of that fact alone. We wish that were true, but it clearly is not. The examples of the title ‘honorable’ being blatantly dishonored are beyond counting. We’d like to see the designation earned by merit, but good luck with that.
If the ruling class has decided that breakdown of the family and other social norms is acceptable, noble, and worthy of support, isn’t it obvious they would consider ‘honor norms’ in public service and politics to be just as outdated?
On another note, how often have we heard elected officials moan about the ‘tough choices’ that lie ahead? Most often, this is because sound principles, priorities, and constraints are not in place, or ignored. Instead, squeaky wheel budgeting becomes the norm. If the aforementioned were in place, the choices might be agonizing, but there would be clear guidelines on how to make them and illuminate them. Squeaky wheel expectations would not be allowed to run wild in a free for all of entitlements and preferences.
Guns or money?
What it seems to boil down to is this: until, as Mao said, ‘Political power grows from the barrel of a gun,’ political power in America comes from the checkbook. Clearly, we have a ruling class that loves power.
They may have it because of personal wealth; or they may get it from power over the public checkbook. In the worst case, they may get it from power over the public revenue stream. Personal wealth is most often used to buy an office; the other two are used to keep it. In the worst case, all three forms of the syndrome afflict some.
The ability to extract more revenue from the commoners to further personal ambitions and fund good intentions, and to consolidate power even more, has proven irresistible. If you don’t think control over the checkbook and the revenue stream is addictive, let’s go back to that phrase I began with: ‘you can govern or you can spend.’
TABOR was a modest initiative to put consent of the governed back in play for increasing taxes. Yet millions were spent here in Maine to fund an opposition campaign of fear, unrest, deception, and distraction to ensure that those with their hands on the public purse either directly or indirectly would not lose one smidgeon of their power to spend. You would be hard pressed to find a more compelling example of refusal to give up power over other people’s money.
More recently, the Maine teachers union is engaged in a legal battle to see that their $400 million insurance business, the source of millions in discretionary political funds, is not challenged by competitive market forces.
Taking advantage of ‘the workers’
Utter incongruity is at work here.
Think of the disdain for capitalism and corporations on the part of liberals, purportedly because ‘profits are made by taking the assets of others’ or ‘on the backs of the workers.’ Yet Government is about achieving power and control over ‘the workers;’ if ‘executives’ didn’t come into power by means of personal wealth, they will seek to gain it by taking the assets of others, against their will, and giving it to those whose favor they seek.
How is this any different from so-called corporatism? Actually, it’s worse; capitalism is based on voluntary transactions. Every transaction in government is compulsory, by and large.
Emily Cain, for example, may as well be a corporate profiteer. She’s working incredibly hard to acquire power, and would love for her ‘firm’ to have a monopoly in their ‘market area.’ She focuses on taking the hard-earned assets of those below her in order to build her market dominance.
As I heard recently, as Government grows larger, everything else grows smaller; how true. Milton Friedman, the renowned economist, said this:
I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office.
Can the tide be turned?
So what is the answer? I don’t know. Reversing the societal decline that plagues us, and is part cause and part effect of personal decline, is beyond reach. So we must try other things. Like term limits, and other ways of preventing elective office from being seen as a career choice with a guarantee of lifelong power, security, and wealth. Having a personal stake in the enterprise, like they do in the private sector, seems like a fertile area for exploration. Tying compensation and extended terms in office to spending, debt, taxes, unemployment, etc, might make for an interesting experiment.
I’ll close with a statement of the obvious: there are ethical, honorable, and principled elected officials, but sadly, they are not the majority, and they are not the norm. As a business associate observed some years ago, ‘the shame is that the mere 80% who are crooked give the other 20% a bad name.’ I hope you catch the irony in that statement, and use it to inspire thoughts on how we might come to grips with the human frailties that plague us both as individuals, and as a society that seeks to be governed well and honorably.