David Rodeback's Blog
Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Friday, September 23, 2005
I Met the Candidates, Part II: Harold Smith, a Special Case
This article, like Part I and Part III, consists of my own thoughts and impressions, based mostly on two and a half hours I spent at a meeting and informed somewhat by things the individual in question has said or written elsewhere in the public forum. This does not add up to knowing the candidate well, but it's all I have at present. It is likely that the candidate and his supporters will disagree with most of what follows. There is a link at the end to allow them or anyone else to coment.
Like the four gentlemen I labeled "also-rans" in Part I, American Fork City Council candidate Harold Smith doesn't stand much of a chance in the primary. But at least he came last night conversant on numerous issues and spoke fairly articulately. Politically, he's a bit of a special case; hence the lengthier treatment here. He also appears (so far) to be typical of a certain sort of self-defeating arch-conservative that is especially common in Utah, but that is essentially a topic for another day.
I have heard around town that Harold Smith, private individual, is a kind man and a skilled craftsman. (I report these rumors without compunction because they are positive.) I have no personal experience with him on either of these points, but I find the rumors perfectly believable. He seems intelligent and very sincere. He was cordial last evening when I introduced myself, but he did not seem at all pleased to meet me. (We have to cut him some slack on this one. He thought he was shaking hands with the next Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile, my sister has the opposite fear: She thinks I went back east to graduate school in the Ivy League and returned as an East Coast liberal. Hmm. I may have a public communications problem. But I digress.)
The political world of Harold Smith is black-and-white, untroubled by subtlety or the inconvenient ambivalence of facts. His unshakable conviction on some issues is not balanced or tempered by conscientious study and consideration of the whole picture. In this, he is quite human, but not quite promising as a political leader.
In politics it is important to distinguish between principles and policies. Principled people do not compromise principles. But policies, which must, of course, be informed by principles, must also frequently involve much compromise. Smith's commitment to his principles most likely makes him a good man, a loyal friend, and an excellent neighbor (as long as he isn't defending the neglected hazard in the lot next to yours), but the views to which those principles lead him will keep him from being useful or even electable as a leader. His is the sort of conservatism and constitutionalism which gives the rest of us conservative rule-of-law-not-men types a bad name. Yet, besides offering one of the best closing statements at the evening's end, he injected some much-needed energy and passion into last night's discussion. More to the point, some of his views, though extreme, spring from a grain of good sense and insight.
For example, he has read in the Constitution that he has property rights, which he maintains passionately; but he does not grasp the implications of the fact that every other property owner has property rights, too, and that these rights often conflict and require some compromise and some intervention by government. Nor, apparently, does he consider that a lot of the rest of us have read and studied the US and Utah Constitutions. He has long been on record, and discoursed last evening, as a bitter opponent of nuisance abatement ordinance revisions and enforcement. He does not seem scheming or manipulative, so I have to assume he actually believes that people like me want to hire a lot of cops to go enforce a subjective, intolerant standard of beauty on all the buildings and yards in the city - and seize the property of anyone who won't cooperate. Property rights are both critically important and somewhat threatened now in the United States, to be sure. But the first problem with his straw man is that it only very vaguely resembles what the Nuisance Abatement Committee actually proposed last year. (That proposal is dead, by the way. The Mayor, titular head of the Committee itself, took it to the back room and strangled it without ceremony, and no one on the City Council responded to its cries for help. But the issue in general is very much alive.) The second problem is that Mr. Smith gives his fellow citizens no credit for having concerns similar to his. We actually do care about property rights - very much - and the overwhelming majority of us want nothing to do with deciding what's beautiful and what's not, let alone imposing that decision on others. But in Candidate Smith's black-and-white world, we're not his preferred shade of white, so we must be black.
Here is what he is missing on this point, in his rhetoric if not in his thought: Some things are clearly hazardous; they need to be removed or otherwise abated. Some very trashy yards and buildings are diminishing neighbors' property values; inspiring good, stable neighbors to move elsewhere; and attracting criminal activity both major and petty. These situations, too, need to be abated. The City needs a more effective mechanism for doing that and needs the spinal column to use that mechanism as needed. That's all. End of story. No jack-booted thugs, no reprise of the Holocaust, no uppity aesthetic tyrants fining us because they don't like the color of our Glidden Latex Exterior. I've studied fascism and lots of other -isms, in theory and practice, and this isn't any of them. Neither is anything else I've heard at all those Nuisance Abatement Committee meetings. There is a diversity of opinions there, but an absolute dearth of fascists.
One more example: Mr. Smith also says the City needs to sell off or simply end a lot of unnecessary, unconstitutional programs and services, so that it can lower our taxes substantially, so that mothers won't have to work and can stay home to parent their children, and then most of our other problems will be solved, too. Apparently, he approves of police, fire, water, and sewer services. He disapproves of recreation centers and programs, broadband Internet systems, and possibly even parks.
There is a point to be made here, too, but it's not quite the one he made. Our government (speaking of many levels as if they were one) takes far too much from us, in order to provide far too much for us, and far from efficiently. One consequence of this is serious strain on family budgets. In many cases, one parent cannot earn enough to support the family and pay taxes, so both work. This can mean that the children suffer to some degree, which means, in turn, that society suffers. Or the one working parent has to work an extra job, with some of the same effects on marriage, family, and health. These hardships are real, and taxes are too high overall (especially state and federal taxes). But there is more going on here than high taxes and working moms. For generations many hard-working single mothers have raised spectacular children alone, providing both the family income and the needed parenting, while other single parents (and many pairs of parents) all around them have raised far less satisfactory children.
In any case, if my taxes have to be ten dollars higher every year so the City can afford an extra police officer, it's worth it. If I have to sacrifice my (very dubious) right to turn my residence into a junk yard or a crack house and to trash my neighbors' property values, so that we can have a decent nuisance law which will keep my children from having to walk to school past abandoned houses, overgrown vacant lots, and other hazards, I can live with that, too. In fact, I prefer it. This is a proper, even essential, role of local government.
As to mothers, I think their commitment to raising their children ought to be roughly equal to the fathers' commitment and vice versa. Both are critically important. Only one or two priorities higher than parenting are even imaginable for either of them. As to women in the work force or serving in the community, I take Brigham Young's stated view: Women make just as fine accountants, mathematicians, lawyers, physicist, etc., as men, and "in following these things they but answer the design of their creation." (If you think I'm making this up, check out pages 216 and 217 of Discourse of Brigham Young, or Journal of Discourses 13:61. If I were making this up, I'd have added city councilors to President Young's list.)
Copyright 2005 by David Rodeback.