The messiness of democracy

So my newspaper published this staff editorial the other week, and I feel compelled to offer a response. I’ve been mulling over it, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to jot anything down. Here is my belated rebuttal.

If you haven’t read the editorial, you should; otherwise, what I’m gonna say here isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense. It’s short, so it shouldn’t take long. Again, you can read it here.

Back yet? Okay. First, full disclosure: I posted this article online as part of my regular duties at the newspaper. Further disclosure: I believe our staff editorials, which are written by members of the paper’s editorial board, are assigned on a rotating basis. That is, there’s no guarantee that the person who actually wrote this editorial fully agrees with it. So it should be stated upfront that I’m not addressing this to any person in particular. I’m merely speaking to the issues raised by the piece.

Basically, the editorial makes an argument which sounds beautiful and tidy in theory: Florida’s state legislators shouldn’t press for legislation which unduly benefits their particular industry at the expense of the public. Rather, legislators should firmly adhere to the Roman maxim Salus populi suprema lex esto“the people’s good is the highest law.”

Okay, a little background: Florida, like all states, has what is theoretically a “citizen legislature.” That is, the people who serve in the state legislature are supposedly drawn from the great mass of the common people, the idea being that the state House and Senate will be comprised of eminent persons with a variety of interests, experiences, and professions which will constitute a miniature reflection of the Florida demos. The decisions of these lawmaking bodies are, therefore, supposedly a reasonable substitute for a general poll of all Florida citizens.

Naturally, this idea is poppycock.

For starters: Like many states, the Florida constitution has a stupid-ass allowance for amendment by voter initiative. This innovation is offensive to the very notion of small-r republican governance, but more importantly, it’s a testament to the fact that Florida citizens do not, in fact, regard their legislators as a stand-in for the larger Florida electorate; they regard them as a separate class with its own collection of interests which must occasionally be overruled by the great and unmediated voice of the people.

But more to the point: Florida’s legislative branches are not filled with selfless citizens who have answered the call of public service out of pure, noble motives. (Nobody who works in the news media, such as your humble author, can possibly believe this.) As with every legislative body everywhere on the planet, the elected representatives of Florida are almost without exception a gaggle of unstable narcissists with tendencies toward sociopathy. With very rare exceptions, the folks who aspire to and attain these posts are indelicately ambitious political hacks.

Now, according to the theory of government espoused by the Chronicle’s editorial, this is all just terribly scandalous: Why, individual legislators are pushing bills which stand to benefit the industries to which they have dedicated their careers! How awful is that?

“In that case,” the editorial intones, “the smell test comes into play.” Or to quote the editorial’s summary: “They” — that is, our legislators — “should be acting in the best interest of the public, not their industry or business.”

Like I said: It sounds beautiful and tidy, right? Except that this issue — determining what, exactly, is in “the best interests of the public” — constitutes the entire core of the Western world’s disputes about the legitimacy of government.

Seriously: It’s a fundamental question in the Western tradition that goes all the way back to Plato. One solution — the solution endorsed by Plato, and one embodied, in a somewhat degenerate form, by Western ideas of monarchy and nobility — is that the “public” in abstract is best served by a professional governing class, altogether divorced from the concerns of the commoners.

Since about 1776, the idea of a sober, disinterested ruling class unanswerable to the ignorant masses has not proven terribly popular in educated Western societies. Other notions — such as re-“public”-anism, and “demo”-cracy, can be characterized as attempts to better incorporate the wants and needs of the “people” into the decisions of government. But these ideas are, naturally, subject to their own peculiar drawbacks.

In the Western tradition, saying legislators should always focus on the “the best interest of the public” is not, in principle, any different than saying “legislators must always make decisions that are good” — it’s a meaningless platitude. The small-d democratic process of lawmaking (of which small-r republicanism is a subset) is based on the notion that different people will define “good” in different ways, and the best we can hope for is a stable compromise between radically different notions of what constitutes “the good society.”

Look, one of the fundamental insights of democratic government is that we have developed no reliable method for manufacturing philosopher-kings. Now, many elected officials will of course be spineless crapweasels, but even virtuous, respectable lawmakers are going to disagree, and even the most cool, objective individuals are going to have extreme difficulty seeing beyond their own narrow interests. To give an example: One of the recurrent controversies that crops up in Florida’s legislature (as well as many other legislatures) is the neverending battle between the respective rights of optometrists and ophthalmologists.

I am not going to even attempt to wade into this controversy, but I’ll note this: If you read up on it, you’ll see that both sides are heavily slanted towards what is best for their respective professions, yet both are capable of presenting solid, neutral arguments rooted solely in concern for the public good. It is simply not fair to accuse one side or the other of selfishly “defending its interests” at the public’s expense. Rather, both sides are arguing for the public good as they understand it based on their particular experience.

The theory of a democratically-based government is not that all representatives will rigorously devote themselves to a universal notion of the common good. That’s a polite civic fiction that you might feed to elementary school students, but it’s not taken seriously by anyone with an ounce of intelligence.

Instead, the theory of democracy is that the dynamic tension resulting from clashing interests, each devoted to their own pure vision, will bring about a compromise that is acceptable to everyone.

So of course a guy like Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner “support(s) the Senate proposal for a state-run health insurance exchange to extend Medicaid coverage” — which would incidentally benefit his own industry. Gardiner is not being corrupt — he’s a human being, and like all non-saintly human beings, he has an extremely hard time distinguishing between his own interests and the interests of the public as a whole. Democracy is based on the idea that people will have difficulty making these distinctions, and the best way to neutralize the selfish goals of legislators is to have them opposed by the selfish goals of other legislators.

And this, finally, gets to the heart of why I’m a conservative: Decisions made by a democratically-based government are inherently based in compromise. But if you believe in absolute right or wrong — a notion which our paper’s editorial seems to take for granted — then compromise is unacceptable. You can’t meet Satan halfway.

But if you believe there are certain issues which aren’t amenable to compromise, then consensual democratic government — for which compromise is a fundamental principle — is largely an inappropriate venue for settling these disputes.

“Every law represents a failure,” as one of my college professors used to put it. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s a colorful way of expressing a fundamental truth: all too often, laws represent a point where reasonable people could not work out a solution among themselves, so they had to turn to the heavy hand of the state to settle their differences. If you believe a particular issue touches on a higher law that transcends the frail understanding of humanity, you should hesitate to place that issue before a tribunal built upon humanity’s crooked timber.

That is: Government is human, and therefore corruptible; hence, really important issues should be decided outside the bounds of government as much as possible. Government should govern at the level of the lowest common denominator; to bring an issue into the purview of government is to render it corruptible.

That, I suppose, is my ultimate response to this editorial: Want to prevent government decision-makers from making stupid, selfish decisions? Put government in charge of less stuff.

It’s really that simple.


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