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Monday, January 4, 2010
Two New Year's Resolutions (Local Government Version)

I suggest the immediate abandonment of two prejudices which are bad for good government (one prejudice per resolution).

This post is probably both arrogant and hypocritical. I'm actually suggesting a couple of new year's resolutions for people other than myself -- in fact, for you, if the shoe fits. Hence the arrogance. The hypocrisy is rooted in my long-standing practice of making no such resolutions for myself, with the occasional, cynical exception of resolving not to resolve. There are plenty of things I want to accomplish this year, but they don't require new year's resolutions. Somehow, this does not stop me from suggesting resolutions for others, at least in this case.

The title calls this the "local government" version of my resolutions (for you). In theory, they apply to higher levels of government, too, but they are easier to embrace at the local level, at least for most people. I might as well have called them the Baby/Bathwater Resolutions or the Think It Through Resolutions, as you will see.

Now, if you're still reading, it's time to see the resolutions themselves. I ask unanimous consent to waive the drum roll and trumpet fanfare. (Without objection . . .)

First, Lose the Bigotry

Losing any kind of bigotry would be a good thing, but I have a particular sort in mind. It's not something we usually regard as bigotry. Sometimes it feels more like an peculiarly American sort of patriotism. Mark Twain's quip about Congress being America's only native criminal class comes to mind.

I'm talking about the bigotry where we fire up our prejudices instead of our brains and simply assume that a person is corrupt, power-hungry, and darkly conspiratorial just because that person happens to hold elected office in government.

There are those -- more than a few, I'm afraid -- who greet each new challenger in each new election as some sort of political savior, who will displace the evil incumbent. I'm the first to admit that some incumbents are evil, some are incompetent, and others are ineffective or even dangerous for other reasons. Ideally, I'd like to see them all replaced by good, wise, and honest leaders. But the bigots I have in mind are unburdened by these finer judgments. Assuming the challenger wins and becomes the incumbent, by the time a reelection campaign rolls around, the bigot will be eager for the next savior to replace the latest evil incumbent. Principles and character matter little in this scenario; prejudice is everything.

Or prejudice is almost everything, at least. Some of the bigots wait until they disagree with the official on a point or two to fire up their prejudice. They seem to think that, if someone disagrees with them, that person must automatically be evil. (Even I know I'm not always right. And opposing me even when I am right is not necessarily evil, because I'm not God.)

There is a tendency for power to corrupt, to be sure, which is a very good reason to seek out leaders of strong moral character and to pay attention to their work. But to assume without scrutiny that every current leader is evil, corrupt, or incompetent by virtue of holding office is to assert the impossibility of good government. There's a certain lazy convenience here. If good government is impossible, then I'm not obligated as a citizen to work constantly for good government. It's a vicious circle, and, in case you hadn't noticed, the root word of vicious is vice.

The best alternative to such bigotry is to study and participate in government, and to work steadily and patiently for good government. It's more work by far than retreating behind prejudice, and it can be quite frustrating for long periods of time, but it's a lot more useful to society.

I had a little fun at the beginning of this post emphasizing that the resolutions I'm suggesting are for you, not for me, but in fact I have sometimes in the past indulged in this sort of bigotry. When I first began to watch American Fork city government and to get my feet wet in the shallow end of the civic pool, I encountered people, practices, and attitudes which seemed calculated to obstruct improvement and to conceal policies and processes from the people.

I was wrong. The obstacles were real enough, but the causes were different. I had made some assumptions about things like levels of competence and professionalism which led me to believe that what I was seeing was best explained by deliberate obstructionism and the intent to conceal some activities (presumably in order to deceive). As time passed and I continued to observe and participate, I gradually realized that what frustrated me was not malicious. In some instances, I was seeing the results of staff and officials being overworked, because functions had been combined to save money. In others, circumstances in our small city had simply outgrown policies and practices which had probably been adequate to a small town, which American Fork used to be. In some instances, it was the people themselves, their training, experience, competencies, or attitudes, whom the city had outgrown; this does not make them evil or corrupt.

This discovery did not make working with the City easy or prevent all further frustrations, and the possibility of finding corruption or malice still exists, but there is merit in getting past the bigotry. It's easier to accomplish something with an accurate view of the obstacles, and life is more pleasant without unjustified paranoia.

I have not become Pollyanna. I still know what corruption looks like, and I see enough of it in multiple levels of government to admit the possibility that it could exist practically anywhere. And I'm no greater fan of the incompetent and unprofessional than I was before. But I am far less likely to assume malicious intent, when government frustrates me in some way.

Second, Stop Thinking that Taxation Is Inherently Evil

I am no fan of excessive taxation, and you can hardly shake a stick these days without being excessively taxed for doing so. Excessive taxes fund excessive government, and they do so, alas, with great inefficiency. But taxation itself is not evil.

Excessive taxation is tyranny, and tyranny is inherently evil. But to declare that all taxation is evil is to declare that all government should be unfunded -- perhaps because government itself is inherently evil? I don't believe that; I'm not that sort of unreflective libertarian ideologue. But you don't believe it either, do you?

Do you really want to live in a world without stop signs or, for that matter, roads? Do you yourself want to be the only defense against someone killing you and taking your property -- whether that someone is a criminal person or a criminal nation? If you manage to defend your home from such threats, but it catches fire, do you want to have to depend solely on yourself to rescue your children from upstairs, and to depend upon your own garden hose and those of any neighbors who happen to like you, to put out the fire? By the way, you'll have to make your own garden hose, because without some government to enforce property rights and to secure transactions, no business will be able to exist to make a garden hose and sell it to you.

The taxation-is-evil prejudice actually gets in the way of good government. If the loudest voices against some unwise tax increase or new program are the all-taxation-is-evil fanatics, then all opposition to the measure is discredited. In translation, that means that people who think way that look stupid to people who think seriously. Furthermore, if enough of these knee-jerks actually vote, there is great risk that any competent incumbents who may happen to be running will be defeated by dangerous, unreasonable ideologues. If the promise of lower taxes is all that is required to get elected, then any eligible half-wit can underbid any sensible candidate.

Getting past this prejudice allows us to have rational and, we may hope, influential discussions of the proper levels and kinds of taxation. This will lead much more reliably and more quickly toward good and limited government than any half-baked ideology.

One Immediate Application

I'm going later today to the swearing-in of a new American Fork mayor and two reelected city councilors. (MFCC says this is the one day in a four-year term when an official is sworn in, not sworn at.) The new administration faces a very serious issue (among many other important matters), akin to the severity of the water situation four years ago: where to find the money to catch up long-neglected road maintenance. If American Fork residents generally will keep these two resolutions I suggest, the eventual resolution of this problem will be much more amicable, more effective, and less expensive in the long run, and the necessary preoccupation with this issue at the City will be less of a distraction from other necessary functions of local government.

I know, I know. If wishes were fishes, I'd be having grilled grouper for lunch. But still . . .

Leisa Hatch comments (1/6/10):

A previous post combined with this one have made me think and troubled me some. There is a sense for me that the rhetoric in the posts combined together set a stereotype of sorts for most of those that would be aggrieved by local government as being ill informed or prejudiced. If that were the case then it tends to lead to the slippery slope of otherization where one group (aggrieved citizens) is viewed as less than they really are. That can be deconstructing in nature for our society, even in American Fork and for our neighbors to the north.

The well-taken points, for me are these: We are blessed to live in a community where I believe that most people strive to do the best that they can. Almost without exception in and out of government settings people act with good intent. It is completely compatible for citizens to be aggrieved by governmental decisions enacted by honest officials with good character. To call out an official on a governmental action should not be mistaken for calling in question their character. Likewise, I believe citizens that seek change or question government here or to the north are probably most often acting with good intention.

David Rodeback comments (1/6/10):

Thanks for the comment.

I certainly don't mean to suggest that everyone with a grievance against a government is ignorant or prejudiced against government officials generally or any particular official. In fact, there is no necessary link between having a grievance and harboring the prejudice I describe.

As to the aggrieved, they are legion, and this is inevitable. Every time government acts, even when its acts are as wise and just as humanly possible, there is at least the possibility that there will be both winners and losers. Legitimate grievances multiply. But it is not clear to me that there is a direct cause-and-effect connection between having a grievance, legitimate or otherwise, and the sort of prejudice I decry here. On one hand, one doesn't seem to need a specific grievance of one's own in order to be this sort of bigot. On the other hand, many well-informed people with legitimate grievances exhibit no bigotry or prejudice at all, no matter how serious their grievances.

My objection in this post is to those who assume an official's moral guilt prior to or in the absence of knowledge. When the facts reasonably support a judgment that an official is self-serving, corrupt, incompetent, or malicious -- which happens often enough at every level of government -- then we are no longer talking about prejudice, ignorance, or bigotry, and we are well beyond the scope of the new year's resolution I proposed.  I have no beef with those who pass informed judgment based on a cool-headed assessment of the evidence and an awareness of all sides of a story.

Basically, I'm opposing this sort of fallacy: Some government officials are corrupt (or pick another adjective). You are a government official. Therefore, you are corrupt.

Or, to use slightly more concrete terms, Congressman William Jefferson (D-LA), an elected official, was found to be hiding in his freezer some $90,000 he had taken as bribes. The mayor is an elected official and owns a freezer. Therefore, the mayor must be taking bribes, too.

I'm all for scrutinizing and questioning the actions of government. I think calling upon elected officials (or "calling them out," if it is done civilly) to explain and defend their positions is often necessary and generally appropriate. I just think that, when we see a tool handle through the window of the tool shed, we should open the door of the shed and examine the tool, before declaring that it must be a spade. Until we know otherwise, we should bear in mind the possibility that it is a hoe or a rake or a snow shovel. Once we have examined the tool and have established that it is, in fact, a spade, there is no ignorance or prejudice in calling it such.

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