by Henry Oliner
“It would seem that reasonable people ought to be able to get together and get things done.”
This seemingly obvious and innocuous statement, a statement of pragmatic democracy, underlies the frustration voters feel and why they think an outsider is appealing. But the problem is not that we are getting nothing done; the problem is that we are getting way too much done.
You and I should be able to get together with a few other reasonable people and decide which kind of car people can drive. That would be a democracy and the outcome would not be much different from a dictator deciding. The way to improve this process is not to extend democracy to more people or to change the way we elect the official who will select our cars for us. The way to improve this process is to eliminate it and let everybody buy the car they want, and let the producers produce the cars they want, and let the market place balance the two.
That would be freedom. It is much different than democracy.
Democracy is mentioned nowhere in the constitution. The First Amendment, on the other hand, directly addresses the freedom of religious and freedom of the press. When our elected officials are sworn into office they do not pledge to uphold the will of the people; they pledge to uphold the constitution.
The constitution was written by an elite group of leaders to ensure individual liberty and natural rights and then the mechanics of the government were designed to make it as difficult as possible to alter these rights enshrined in the documents. Power was split between the states and the federal government. Then the powers and responsibilities of the central government were split into three branches to check and balance the powers of the others. Then the terms of the elected officials were staggered to keep populist change from sweeping into power.
The constitution was not designed to enact the will of the people, but to protect the populace from that will. They clearly rejected the idea of monarchy in favor of a republic, but they also clearly designed the government to avert mob rule as well. Shortly after the establishment of our constitution the Founding Fathers witnessed the madness of the French Revolution and observed what unfettered democracy could bring. The supremacy of the written law over the power of rulers, elected or otherwise appointed, was a radical departure although it was trending in English law.
The business of government remained. How should the money supply be managed? Should we fund the government with import tariffs or income taxes? Should labor unions be allowed to organize? How should government be involved in education? Who should be allowed to marry? Should we fund railroads and highways? Should the government protect the environment? How?
Voters get to weigh in on these issues during campaigns, but few study or understand the nuances of political economics, the impact of science on policy, the complexity of international relationships, or the accumulation of consequences of the policy decisions as the government has grown to become more involved in more area of the voters lives.
They may vote to restrict imports if they blame foreign competition for the closing of the plant in their town and the loss of their job, but do they also consider the benefit other voters that they never see receive in the supply of lower cost products? Do they consider the exporters of goods that stand to suffer if tariffs are reciprocated?
Do the farmers who supported the monetization of silver to inflate the price of their farm products understand the impact on foreign trade and global credit and how that will raise the prices of products they purchase and the growth of the economy? Do the voters supporting the road to war understand the commitment and uncertainty, or do they just change their minds when the body bags are unloaded?
In a modern democracy we depend on the voters to know and understand much more than they do. We elect representatives who we trust to have the competence and character to exercise their responsibilities and we expect a media to inform us to help us hold our elected officials accountable.
As voters we lean towards leaders who address issues we find important, but we too often ignore the principles they hold dear. We may prefer the candidate who prefer pragmatism over principles; who are able to work together and get things done. Principles and political philosophies are dry and boring to most voters and political campaigns but we sacrifice much when we bury these considerations and focus on the public mood and the urgency of issues.