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December 2018
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2018-12-08 »

Honourable Governance

From a book I've been reading:

    Power is certainly important, particularly in dictatorships, in places where constitutions, laws, unwritten rules, traditions and understandings don't count. But in a healthy democracy, power is a surprisingly limited element. And the unwritten conventions, understandings, forms of respect for how things are done, for how citizens relate to government and to each other, are surprisingly important. Why? Because if democracy is only power, then what we are left with is a system of deep distrust. Why? Because if only power matters - even if it is the result of an election - then the government feels that it has a mandate to do whatever it wants, that the law is there principally to serve power. If democracy is only about winning power and using it, then it has been deformed into a denial of society and of the idea of responsible citizenship.

    And that is the increasingly common characteristic of government, even in democracies. Only power matters. This is partly the outcome of government being de-intellectualized. Elections are now thought to be unsuitable moments for real debates over ideas. In between these elections the focus is on administrative problems - legalistic, managerial undertakings. In this case, real debates over ideas are unnecessary because the decision about power was taken on election night. There is nothing, therefore, to debate. Worse still, the efficient putting in place of programs to be administered can only be made inefficient by debate.

    And so we are witnessing a growth in the Napoleonic or Mussolinian corporatist idea that when citizens vote in an election, it is actually an all-purpose referendum or plebiscite. It is then the winner's job to get on with running things. First win an election, then administer as you wish. Omnibus bills are one of the ways you can speed things up; they are a great way to convert the deeply inefficient process of democracy, with all its thinking, debating and complex differences of opinion, into a sort of shop-floor system of utilitarian efficiency. Therefore, once elected, a government has broad, unlimited permission.


    In any case, today's plebiscitary approach is both populist and anti-democratic. What it amounts to is this: We won the election. We have power. It is now a matter of administrative efficiency. We can do what we want.

        - John Ralson Saul, The Comeback, 2014

This finally put into words a concept I've been struggling with for a long time: the idea that ethics and responsibility come with (should come with) political power, and how they seem to be on the decline lately.

For example, I recently learned, to my horror, about the concept of a Frankenstein Veto, where in some U.S. states, the governor can just delete words (eg. "not") from a bill passed by the legislature, producing and then approving a bill with a completely different meaning than was intended.

The exact legal machinations of this are beside the point. The point is, politicians increasingly feel that they "first win an election, then administer as you wish." That almost sounds logical, so why does it feel so wrong?

Because it is wrong. The job of an elected official isn't to do whatever they want. It's to figure out what the people want (or need), and to deliver that, in accordance with principles and ethics. This is a surprisingly selfless expectation: sometimes the right thing to do is the opposite of what you want to do. And it can be hard to figure out what's right, which is why we have debates, and why we listen to our opponents in those debates, even when we have a majority and they're "merely" the opposition.

Even direct polling on issues doesn't always work, because sometimes issues are too subtle for the population to simply vote yes or no; that's why we elect representatives who will presumably do their homework, consult the right people, and figure out the right, complex answer. At least one thing is clear: if the legislature vigorously debates an issue and decides one thing, a governor passing a law that does the opposite - or even rejecting the one that was so carefully produced - is just not right.

I've been struck many times by the way the U.S. system of political "checks and balances" treats politicians like children: none of them can be trusted, so we must restrict them at every opportunity. The underlying assumption is that they will all operate without honour. As most of us eventually learn in our human relationships, if you treat people as children - or worse, as actively malicious adults - then they will tend to meet your expectations. The great irony is that in countries with less of a focus on checking "power" (such as Canada), politicians seem to abuse their power less often and less dramatically.

The above quote made me think that maybe the secret recipe is some combination of traditions, conventions, understanding, and respect. Maybe those are more effective balances to power than any system designed to simply neutralize it. And maybe this was obvious to the people who designed it, and we've forgotten, long ago.

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