Thursday, December 19, 2019

Working For a Living

There was an Italian political philosopher, whose name I've long forgotten, who explained that his reasoning for preferring Fascism to Democracy was not that Fascism was a better form of government, but that he found it more honest. Democracy, in his view, required people to be educated not only in the functioning of government, but in the issues that government was expected to deal with. In any modern society, he reasoned, this body of knowledge was so vast as to be out of reach of anyone who could not devote themselves to it full time. Hence, there would be a political ruling class, as it were. And if that were going to be the case, one may as well be up front about it.

I am reminded of this whenever I find myself in a discussion of politics where the one point that everyone seems to agree on is that government is somewhere between incompetent and corrupt, yet at the same time, is not worth becoming directly involved in, or even knowledgeable about. People who can't manage to forge a consensus on what should be on a group pizza are nevertheless convinced that in a nation of 300+ million people, it is possible, even easy, to craft policies that everyone would find directly beneficial to them. People who become visibly incensed at the idea that some random person off the street could tell them how to better do their jobs think nothing of concluding that the only reason that government doesn't work in the way they think it should is rank corruption.

Perhaps the highlight of the discussion came when one participant confidently declared that any changes in taxation should only be made by a direct vote of the people, and that neither legislatures, executives or courts should have any greater say in the matter. When I then challenged them on why not simply make all laws subject to direct, rather than representative, democracy and simply do away with much of the rule-making apparatus of government, the answer was: "I'd like to have it done right, not to do it myself." There was a moment of silence. And then the laughter began.

For all that everyone found the sudden reversal of an old adage to be funny, that sentiment strikes me as common throughout the United States. Voting, whether it be for representatives or on citizen initiatives and the like, is the bare minimum amount of effort that participatory governance requests. Yet even that is beyond the desire of many people. For all that much has been made of what appear to be partisan efforts to suppress the vote by Republicans (or, much more rarely in my understanding, Democrats), many more people simply choose not to vote than have their path to the polls strewn with obstacles.

I have come to think that the biggest problem that self-government presents is that it's a job. And often, a full-time job at that. And for many people, two full-time jobs is simply too much to ask. Perhaps because of this, many people see themselves as the customers of government, rather than its managers. And so government tends to serve those people to do take the more active, managerial role, regardless of their goals and/or motivations. The function of representative government is, in large part, to lessen the burden of that managerial role. But it can't eliminate it. And as long as the management of government is uneven, the outcomes it produces will likely be the same.

No comments: