Before we can think for ourselves, we are taught the “rules.” First, at home, then, at school, and finally on the street. We learn that everywhere we go, there are rules, and all these rules must be obeyed. We may not like the rules nor understand why they are made nor guess who made them.
Some of us have a strong desire to break them or ignore them. There are too many to remember and too hard to obey. Many are impossible to enforce, and the punishments for breaking them are frequently unfair, if not unjust. Everyday there are more rules and more restrictions! Every place we visit has its special, unwritten rules that we must respect! Every person is frustrated by a multitude of them that seem necessary and overly intrusive in our simple lives!
If you aren’t familiar with the rules, though, you can’t begin to understand what freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is all about. Resistance to being ruled seems so natural. Freedom is best understood when a person can do exactly what he or she wants to do, like escaping all those limitations our authority figures place on our lives. Jail time is the ultimate restriction to our freedom, and solitary confinement is considered the most severe, just short of death.
Liberty from suffocating English government intervention enabled this country in its youth to experiment with free enterprise. “Do what you want (or can get away with) to make money” motivates the more ambitious of us. Laissez faire, the French expression, “Let them do their thing,” acknowledged the early free enterprise movement. “Them” of course being the cagey entrepreneurs and their scheming lawyers engaged in business. Let competition establish the rules, and watch the “unseen hand” guide the macro-economy.
At home, rules are usually administered without harsh consequences. Children eventually discover that some rules are made to be broken. They quickly learn how to “get what they want” by manipulating their parents. There is no democracy in the family structure. Youngsters have no vote in making the rules. Some parents suggest “don’t break the rules, make the rules,” and try to prepare their charges for a life in politics after law school. Democracy is a difficult modus operandi to introduce and demonstrate in a nuclear family, and impossible in a single parent situation where dictatorship is the norm. If a family has two children or less, then “the majority rules” makes no sense to the young ones because they either have a 100% agreement or a 50-50 split which requires “supreme court” (parental) intervention to settle.
We begin to form our opinion about “democracy” in elementary school. As authoritarian as a classroom is, teachers look for ways to teach students that the majority rules. Punishment of the whole class for the bad behavior of one pupil is often the case. Teachers who know how a vote is likely to turn out will allow voting on innocuous issues. Shall there be a Christmas gift exchange this year? Shall the class wear costumes to school to celebrate Halloween? Shall the class join in the trip to the local museum? Students are never allowed to participate in an important vote. Issues like changing the hour that school opens, determining how many days the student body must attend classes to complete the school year, selecting who is to be principal, and deciding what curriculum will be taught are left to the omniscient administrators.
Elections held to pick student council members are instructional, but the issues handled by these councils are superficial and of little consequence. In some high school classes students are divided into work groups to make presentations or pool the talents of the members in preparing a position paper on a debatable topic. This is the first real opportunity for students to experience how a “democracy with majority rule” actually works. Depending on the mix of students and the resultant synergy, the fabled project to design a horse usually renders a camel instead. The ambitious and manipulative students dominate these groups, and the final work seldom represents a true cooperative effort. Compromise is a concept only learned in future negotiations.
A governing body “of the people, by the people, and for the people” sounds fair to most of us. However, a democratic government is never made up OF a minority, chosen BY a minority, nor constituted FOR a minority. An observant citizen gradually discovers that our politicians are not like us, nor for us, nor ruled by us, even when we feel certain that we are part of the unidentified, faceless majority! “Outsider ship” is the role for at least 49 percent of us. In the 2000 presidential election, candidate Gore received over 50% of the popular vote and lost. A “majority” of voters is frequently less than 50% of the constituents, because so many citizens who are qualified to vote don’t even bother to go to the polls! In the U.S. our democracy is normally a rule by plurality.
The lessons we learn about voting in high school are the only taste of democracy in action we get in dealing with issues or candidates we know personally. These lessons hardly prepare us to vote on the many social and economic issues that affect our community, much less our state and country. In our civic life we rarely know the candidates personally. Their ethics are kept hidden from the voters. Their virtues are exaggerated by their supporters, and their weaknesses and vices are distorted by their opponents. We find out that any collaborate action taken by a group of elected individuals usually yields poor solutions, takes affect too late, and creates unintended consequences that need to be addressed later. Whatever governmental action is finally taken seems to demonstrate the attitude of most politicians: “Let the minority be damned.”
No one in the minority feels like he or she is really participating in the election process. They don’t choose any representatives. Their vote is ignored. Yet, this is the philosophical crux of the whole democratic system. The majority rules! A majority opinion on an issue is not necessarily the specific opinion of an elected representative, but that of the majority of the people in his particular constituency. Defining that is quite difficult.
The majority of voters seldom vote on issues, but for “representatives” who vote on the issues. Consequently, most of the elected candidates abide by the wishes of the majority of voters only when doing so serves their political interests. The wishes of their financial contributors, the influential lobbyists, and party loyalists are more important. “Let the majority be damned, too!” appears to be a fact of political life that most of us refuse to admit.
Lest this article appear too cynical, I ask you to think about how your chosen representative in Congress voted to spend tax revenue before September 11, 2001 and afterward. (Before that date the majority in the House approved a small tax refund for those who paid taxes, and after that date the same amount for those who paid no taxes.) Remember how they argued about spending the dubious surplus before, and how they ignored it afterward?
Does the group of only 435 men and women in the House of Representatives really know what millions of adult citizens want to buy with all the tax revenue collected? How much should be spent for defense, for road and bridge construction and repairs, for foreign aid, for farm subsidies, and for the numerous local pet projects called “earmarks?” How the revenue pie should be sliced so that it appears that no one group receives too much?
Be honest, it’s not easy in any household to allocate the after-tax income of a two wage-earner family to cover today’s essential expenditures, much less put aside something for retirement in a 401k savings program! Are our governments looking out for all our interests in earnest? What about the disastrous deregulation of electrical power in the State of California? The overkill measures for increased airport security when the former security system of inconveniences failed? The gross mismanagement of the Indian Affairs Administration? The ineffective “war on drugs,” the unjust “Three strikes and you’re in jail for life,” and the unenforceable illegal immigrant policies? Is this the democracy we are trying to export to Third World Countries who have almost no prior experience in “representative” government? Nor an educated populace of “informed” voters and an “independent” press like we supposedly have here in the U.S.?
We shake our heads and wag our fingers at foreign countries that can’t get the IMF to loan them more money. But does the IMF approve our federal debt ceiling? No, approving that ceiling is in the hands of those who spend our tax revenue. The citizens in those poor countries say that the corruption in their homelands is what is causing poverty, ensuring backwardness, and contributing to the lack of progress versus the richer nations.
Corruption supposedly is minimal in our honorable democracy. But is that really so? It all depends upon how you define “corruption,” I suspect. Ours is more “legalized” and tolerated. Dubious campaign contributions, outrageous speaker fees, automatic employment after “public service,” and boondoggle trips are all examples of how money changes hands. Discreet payments for political favors may be legal, but the practice is fundamentally unsound and unethical.
When we package Democracy and Free Enterprise together to export to foreign countries, we always weld the myth we believe about one to the myth about the other. Democracy is considered a “better” form of government mostly because elected representatives can be voted out of office in a subsequent election for malfeasance or incompetence (that is if they haven’t made themselves into dictators for life!) Our democracy isn’t a representative government as I have pointed out, but we like to tell others it is.
Likewise business isn’t free for two reasons. First, there are all kinds of governmental controls involved: anti-trust laws supposedly aimed at avoiding monopolies and oligopolies that restrict competition, tax regulations, employee protection legislation, product safety rules, environment protection criteria, stock market procedures, etc. Plus a myriad of agencies at the local, state, and federal level with authority to supervise and administer what any business tries to do or get away with each day. But the integrity and effectiveness of these “watchdogs” is often questioned.
Second, there is the political hounding for campaign support that “taxes” business like the Mafia for protection of the status quo or the implementation of legislation favorable to the industry. There are all types of associations formed to lobby Congress and our state legislators which must be financed by business; otherwise the union lobbyists or the environmental lobbyists may gain an advantage in the next important regulation up-grade.
These ways of doing business are not well understood by countries who decide to follow our advice and adopt Democracy and Free Enterprise. The Russians have had a very difficult time trying to convert from their unique form of Communism to some new form of representative government. It won’t be any easier today for some other country to copy our complicated myth of freedom, representation, and centrally controlled, but poorly regulated capitalism.
Some of us may be happy with our form of government, but I am sure they aren’t the majority. Per capita income in the U.S. may be higher than in most other countries, but the distribution of wealth reflects our hybrid government-regulated-free-enterprise democracy, where access to credit and speculation favor the daring, ambitious, and greedy businessperson.
What has made this country rich and powerful is its ability to borrow from the future like no other country can. Any fledgling democracy cannot duplicate our success without either the great sacrifice of the citizens to save and invest intelligently or a monetary hand out from outside capitalists who have their own agendas. Or both! In the area of government, those elected must be watched by an eagle-eyed free press intelligent enough to recognize corruption and brave enough to report it.
Sound like Utopia? Then, where does it all lead? Can you recall the recent “boom” times in our country? How bitter the discussions were about what to do with our forecasted financial prosperity? What polarization existed between factions: religious, political, labor, and educational? There was no unity, nor any great attempt to unify. There were few compromises, and those were back room, secret caucus negotiations. There was little consensus about what to do with the military, education, health care, unemployment, immigration, and drugs. We declared war on poverty, war on drugs, and now a war on terrorism. We haven’t won a decisive war since 1945. And the Cold War was undeclared!
So, dear friends (those of you who dwell happily or unhappily in a foreign country that might be jealous of our Bill of Rights, our industrial strength, our financial wealth, our political turmoil, and our overcrowded jails) look closer at what we are promulgating. What makes a government function fairly are its moral and ethical leaders, not its simple sounding institutions that are managed by political animals seeking to survive at all costs using spin, lies, deception, cover-ups, and revenue from taxpayers.
Yes, leadership is the key to balancing all the demands of the populace, educating the masses about how to use our limited resources, building the common infrastructure that benefits the nation’s people, and creating the legal institutions that make justice not only equal but fair.
Voters aren’t leaders. The majority or the plurality aren’t leaders. The rich aren’t leaders, nor are the poor intellects. The elected representatives of the groups I have listed are merely the factotums in our democracy with the power to accomplish very little because consensus is rarely achieved in a democracy. What happens in Washington is that legislation is promulgated and passed that adopts the least of the apparent evils on the negotiating table. The unintended consequences show up later. Yet, our leaders think that our way of life, our form of government, our temporary “success” should be emulated and copied ex post haste all over the world.
Has democracy been implemented in the United Nations? Not yet. The world isn’t ready for that. A world government based on our American modus operandi might not be advantageous to the last standing Superpower! It might be too slow and too poor to administer all the institutions necessary to govern so many nations competently. It may tax us without representation. It may not agree with our recommended solutions. And its leaders most likely won’t be friendly to the richest and most arrogant nation.
Democracy may be fine for those of us who accept how it functions in the confines of our geographical location. There are many active and vocal dissenters both here and abroad. We could listen to them. Their message might be important and useful. Like the alert we received from our own destructive commercial airplanes on 9-11-01.
Liberty, yes! Freedom, yes! Profit, yes! Wealth, of course! Listen to the powerless, no! Pay attention to the disadvantaged, no! Limit the greedy, we’ll think about it-unless they share some of their windfall riches with us! Put up a needed power plant in our neighborhood, are you crazy? Develop a low-income housing complex down the street? Now I know you are smoking an illegal substance. Build another new jail to house the growing number of drug users and traffickers? Not in our town!
Let’s not go into the abortion issue, assisted suicide, legalizing drugs other than tobacco and alcohol, changing the requirements for vehicle gasoline consumption, and all the other issues that plague our legislators, most of whom are trying to do their “level best.”
There are enough troubles on our American plates! Let’s “fix” OUR country, if we can. Let others take care of theirs. If we can make an example of truly “better” government, let the others copy us when they decide to do so. It certainly won’t be easy for them without some outstanding local leadership and sound financing.
To minimize corruption, Plato suggested hiring enlightened leaders whose personal needs were generously subsidized. It’s too late to go that way, but we can insist that voters become more aware of the things that we do in this country that won’t attract people who live in other countries. Let us lead by example and let the chips fall where they may. Maybe the U.N. isn’t such a bad idea after all! Let them try to guide the mischievous leaders of the other countries. That’s their charter, I think. But with a volunteer police force, good luck!
Our constitutional system of checks and balances hasn’t prevented presidents like Nixon from arrogantly abusing power. Since power-hungry leaders will always be dangerous, long live the fact that they can be mercilessly voted out of office here or compelled to resign! Still, only vigilant whistle-blowing citizens can expose ambitious, selfish, corrupt, and incompetent leaders. Who else can be held responsible? Didn’t our country’s forefathers agree to this notoriously optimistic political and economic marriage? The majority of us may not admit it, but our honorable Constitution is a pact with the Devil himself-who just happens to reside in the details!