Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Weak Tea, part five

Here, at last, is the ninth principle of Glenn Beck's "912 Project": 

9. The government works for me. I do not answer to them, they answer to me. 
Who works for whom? “I consider the people who constitute a society or a nation as the source of all authority in that nation.” Thomas Jefferson

Yet again, the principle as stated obscures and distorts some genuinely interesting and important questions.  And, again, it openly contradicts the fifth principle, that no one is above the rule of law.   How is the rule of law carried out, except that executive power is entrusted to a government, and each of us thinks of ourselves, in this respect at least, as answerable to the government?  There seems to be a muddle here, which can only be sorted out by going back to the basics of democratic theory.

I would note in passing that the quotation from Jefferson is a bit ambiguous.  What does he mean by “the people”?

On the one hand, he could mean the sum of individual persons.  This is what the grammatical form here suggests: “the people who constitute” – with “people” being used in the plural.

On the other hand, following the conventions of democratic theory at the time, he could mean the whole that is in a sense greater than the sum of the parts: the people, used in the singular, as a kind of collective entity.  It’s us, not just you and me and him and her and everyone else.  The idea, for Locke as for Rousseau, is that there has to be a people first, before its members can organize themselves into a political society.  Jefferson might better have written: “the people that constitutes . . .”

Looking at the principle itself, what seems to be happening here is akin to the fallacy of division, attributing a property of a whole to the parts that make up the whole.  For example: the universe is vast, and the universe is made of atoms, so atoms must be vast.

Now, in modern democratic theory, all legitimate political power comes from the people, and those entrusted with political power "work for" and are answerable to the people.

So far, so good.

But “the people” here is understood in the singular, collective sense already noted.  Put simply, the government works for and is answerable to us.  It does not follow that the government works for and is answerable to me, not even to you and me and him and her . . .

So, what is my part in all this, as an individual?  In Rousseau’s terms, I am both citizen and subject.  As citizen, I participate in the sovereignty of the people, contributing my own voice to the deliberative process whereby we make decisions about what is in the public interest.  As subject, I am bound to obey the results of that deliberative process, as carried out by the government.  Government is a body of hired functionaries, to whom we entrust the responsibility of acting in the public interest.

(The complication for us, over what Rousseau has in mind, is that we have also delegated most of our legislative power - the power to deliberate and make decisions about laws that serve the public interest - to Congress and to the various state legislatures.)

Even if it could be said, then, that the government answers to me insofar as I am a citizen, it does so only to the extent that I am part of the assembly of citizens deliberating about the common good. 

It does not follow that it answers to me as an individual.  I cannot, as an individual, go telling the President what to do and expect him to obey me, any more than I can walk up to an infantryman in the U.S. Army and start issuing orders.   Even if 60,000 of us get together and scream at the President, he’s not bound to obey us; we are, after all, only .02% of the people.  66,862,039 voted to entrust him with the Presidency in the first place, following the proper Constitutional procedure for doing so.  But even they, as individuals, cannot tell the President what to do and expect him to obey.

Are we bound to obey the government?  Well, yes, insofar as we are also subjects, insofar as we have committed ourselves to the rule of law.  Otherwise, the whole social contract breaks down.

Here, as I see it, is the real question, the one obscured by the rhetoric of “stomping on” the federal government: How can we, the people, best ensure that the government is living up to the trust we have placed in it, that it will act in the public interest?

Some of that insurance comes from the Constitution itself.  We elect representatives and members of the executive branch from time to time, which is supposed to bind them to us.  It's in the nature of the democratic process that not everyone will be happy with the outcome of any given election . . . but there's always next time.

Once in office, those entrusted with political power are supposed to be hedged about by checks and balances, each branch answerable to both of the others, and all of them differently answerable to the people.

But then, there is the corrupting influence of special interests, with money and power behind them, each claiming to speak for the public.  Then, there are the mass media, which can distort understanding, stoke emotion, and trivialize public debate.  There are historical circumstances that call now for a stronger executive (9/11, for example?), now for a stronger judiciary (undoing segregation?).  And there is the corrupting influence of power itself, the struggle among the branches that goes this way and that. 

What can we do?  I can’t really begin to answer that question in this one post, but I have my own approach to the matter.  We citizens, each of us as individuals, must start to live up to our own responsibilities as citizens: to inform ourselves, to think clearly and critically, to engage in the kind of deliberation that generates more light than heat.  (Note: I do not say the deliberation should be without heat.)  We must be more willing to do for ourselves the hard work of democracy, finding a way to go on living together despite our disparate perspectives and projects.

And what do I mean by the public interest?  I mean what is good for the body politic as a whole, the conditions under which a political society can thrive.  There is a wide range of possibilities here, and lots of room for really interesting disagreement.

For myself, as I’ve already written, I’m convinced that we, the people, really are better off if, most of the time, all else being equal, we as individuals are left alone to pursue projects that fall within the private sphere.  On that general principle, I have no disagreement with the tea partiers.

However, I also hold that we are better off, even better able to pursue our own private projects, if we undertake a variety of public actions and make a variety of judicious public investments for the common good.

You and I may disagree on where to draw the line between what is properly private and what is properly public, and rightly so. But then, let’s focus on the substance of the disagreement itself and commit ourselves to real, substantial deliberation on this most difficult question, rather than throwing tantrums, calling names, and threatening to pull down the entire government if we as individuals don't get our way.

No comments: