Honest Public Servants

(Re-post from July 14, 2010.  Obviously I was still in the Fourth of July spirit.)

  July 13, 2010

I am sure that I am not the first person to be completely disillusioned by politics. I am sure that there are many well-intentioned people in this country who believe that we must hold our elected officials to a higher standard than the average person. But why should this be?

We call our elected officials representatives. In other words, they stand in the place of those who elected them. Therefore, I think we need to take a look at ourselves and judge to what standards we hold ourselves. That standard should then be applied to our representatives. I am sure that many of us are fine, upstanding citizens who would never willingly set out to break the law. And yet, how many of us can say that we have never played fast and lose with the law? How many of us have never had a crisis of conscience that pitted the letter of the law against expediency, or even survival of life as we know it? If you say that this has never applied to you, let me ask you if you ever exceeded the speed limit because you were late, or if you ever drive through a “pink” traffic light.

George Washington was one of the straightest arrows to ever walk the American political landscape. It can probably be said of him unlike any other president in history that he didn’t even espouse a party or faction. Yet even the appearance that he took a side was enough to cause excoration by the Press. He was believed to be in collusion with Brittain. He was accused of trying to turn the Presidency into a monarchy (sound familiar?).

The more important truth about Washington was that he used his political contacts and influence to gain great personal advantages for himself. Today, these kinds of actions would have met with the appointment of independent counsels to look under every rock of his life. But, in the climate of his day, what he did was perfectly normal. In the thinking of his day, this was the least that could be offered as a recompense for having to set aside one’s personal affairs to attend to the affairs of state.

Today, we have a very different way of looking at our public servants. We expect that they will be happy with the salary and benefits they receive, that they are more than fairly compensated. We feel that any personal gains they receive as a result of their service are somehow conflicts of interest and that they should be above such temptations. But is this always the case? And are such advantages always wrong?

Certainly there is a case to be made for criminal use of one’s office. When Harding’s secretary of Interior Fall made his entire goal in office to transfer drilling rights of all Naval oil reserves to his big oil friends, this was certainly a gross abuse of power and a putting of personal interest ahead of national interest. In the same vein, when a lobbyist gives a large donation to a candidate’s campaign and then that representative votes in favor of the lobbyist’s interest, that smacks of collusion (even though the contribution may not have changed his vote or thinking).

But how are we supposed to stop such things from happening, when everyone is doing it. Since this has become standard operating procedure, it is almost unfair for us to expect anyone to do otherwise. We may wish to elect people who are not in the pockets of special interest. But we will find it difficult, if not impossible, to field a serious campaign without the financial backing of major players. From the very start, then, we encounter a crisis of conscience. To be able to play the game one has to be in it. And the get into the game requires a compromise in integrity.

Is it really any wonder that politicians begin to lose a sense of moral compass when they have to skew the course from the very start? Is it any wonder that many career politicians have played the game of self-justification for so long that they cease to have any independent sense of right and wrong? Is is possible to clean house and elect a new group of representatives who will not be tainted by the current way of things? I don’t think so.

I’ve often had this fantasy of what it would take to have truly fair and untainted elections. It involves each candidate drawing up a written response to his or her views on the pertinent issues. These would all be posted on an election website. Every voter would be responsible for reading the candidates views and deciding which views to vote for. There would be no campaigning, no advertising, no illogical arguments ad hominem for or against anyone. There would be no opinion polls which would cause the candidates to try to hedge their true feelings to raise their numbers. There would be run-offs until a representative was chosen.

I know this is ideal and will never happen for several reasons. The first is that the media would have to lay off 75% of their employees. Most pundits would be out of work, as would political action committees, campaign workers and strategists and, dare I say, most lobbyists. The very government cogs that would have to approve such a scheme would be missing half of their kickbacks right off the bat. Millions of cushy jobs and entitlements would be instantly gone.

Secondly–and this is probably the biggest obstacle, if you can believe that there can exist and obstacle bigger than money and entitlements–most Americans can’t read. At least the majority of them can’t read well enough to digest enough written information to make an informed choice. And most Americans have the attention span of a fly. (If you don’t believe me, try giving the TV remote to most people and telling them not to surf the channels.) Couple this fact with the poor reading skills and you leave only 10% of the people with the capacity to wade through political jargon and find the gems.

Thirdly comes the tired, age-old question of access. Not everyone has the internet. Some people are blind and can’t see the screen. Some people are too crippled to be able to use anything other that a TV remote. And some people are too poor to use the internet. I suppose there may have been a time when lack of access was a valid argument. But today, with all of the advances in text-to-speech and the availability of free internet in almost every library, it’s not so valid anymore. Besides, one would think a family worker or one the the army of social workers could make sure everyone had access to the information. However, we just don’t have enough resolve to get off our fat duffs and make it so, when we can just cry foul instead.

Change in government is not about tea parties, nor is is about ousting those crazy liberals or delusional conservatives. Yes, it’s right to have an opinion, to care. But changing politics has to mean a change in American citizens. We are the government, so we have to raise our personal standards first. We have to obey the laws, all the laws, whether we like them or not, unless they are morally unconscionable. (I would not perform an abortion if the government forced me to do so.) Yes, the speed limits might be too slow. The seat belt laws might be too restrictive. The smoking bans may smack of fascism. But we are still bound, in a civilized society to uphold the law until such time as it is amended.

We have to be honest in our disclosures. Whether it’s filing a tax return or representing a product that we sell or evaluating our job performance, we have to have enough integrity to keep it honest. If we make a mistake or omission, we need to have the fortitude to own up to it. If our job performance was sub-par, we need to do what it takes to remedy the situation and not expect the customer to pay extra for our mistake.  We have to treat others fairly.

We have to do the little things that show our respect for the rights of our fellow citizens. Flicking a cigarette butt out the car window is just as much littering as throwing out a sack of garbage. (I have seen some freeway exits that are so littered with cigarette butts that it looks like snow piles even in Summer.) Revving loud engines and playing loud car stereos is a public nuisance. There are plenty of open roads where you can do that without annoying you’re fellow citizen. In a civilized society, where equality is said to reign, how can one person believe he can exorcise freedom that inhibits the freedom of his neighbor. Considerately, my freedom should end where yours begins. I have a right to swing my arm all day as long as I don’t swing it through the space that your face has the right to occupy.

We have to set the example of the higher standard, because the representatives are us. Lawful society requires responsibility for each individual to uphold the law. No syndicate ever stood without backers and enforcers. If constituents are not promoting an attitude of selfishness and greed, of mutual palm-greasing, then politicians won’t be able to surround themselves with confidence men. If constituents aren’t in the habit of justifying unethical, immoral, or even illegal methods to reaching acceptable ends, then neither will it be tolerated in our leaders.

I am reminded of a recent election in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in which one particular party was planning to use buses to round up potential voters for their candidate. On the day of the election, the tires of the buses were found to have been slashed. Although no one could prove it, it appears the other party was behind it. What can be said about a person who would stoop so low as to commit such a crime in order to assure such a win for his candidate? Winning was more important than the law–the very definition of a lawless society. I wonder whether or not the person or persons involved found themselves rewarded for their actions. If so, I wonder if they will find that the cost of selling their souls was worth what they got in return. I wonder the same about all the soulless leaders of our nation. Maybe it’s not too late to redeem them. Maybe, instead of announcing amnesty of illegal aliens, we should announce amnesty for all public officials who want to leave Washington, or the state house, or city hall and get back their souls and their lives. All they’d have to give up is everything.

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Filed under On Family, Health, Environment and Ethics

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