Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Legislating & Public Opinion

Glenn Greenwald's writing can be misinterpreted and his post on Monday, regarding the GOP's newfound defense of "consent of the governed" is a case in point. He is talking about the hypocrisy of the GOP here, not about the underlying issue of whether or not public opinion polls should determine the outcome of particular pieces of legislation. From the article, I don’t know how he feels about that, but I certainly know how he feels about hypocrisy.

The issue of hypocrisy is too straightforward to evoke much of a discussion, and even if I didn’t agree with Glenn it’s really hard to argue with him, so I’m going to focus on whether or not public opinion and polls should affect particular legislation. I’m of the sense that the answer lies somewhere between Cheney’s “So?” and the latest rants of Boehner and Pence about “consent of the governed,” but somewhat closer to the former, which I’ll admit requires explanation.

The question is whether or not legislators should pass certain legislation when public opinion, as reflected by opinion polls, is running against that legislation. If you answer "no" to that question then you are, in effect, suggesting that we should adopt direct rather than representative democracy as our form of government.

The founders chose representative rather than direct democracy for a reason. They knew, from history and from observation, that decisions made by what they referred to as “the mob” and we today call “the public” are too often made based on emotions and self interest rather than on the best interest of the community, and they felt that keeping the public adequately informed so as to make them able to make informed decisions would not be possible in what was, even then, a large political environment.

What we are seeing today rather bears out the part about “informed decisions,” witness the sign reading, “Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare” in the “health care reform” debate. More importantly, it has been widely reported that public opinion was against that legislation until the content of it was carefully explained, at which point a majority then expressed a favorable opinion of it.

So, which group was calling legislators’ offices? Probably both.

Direct Democracy In Action
Some years ago when I lived in Tucson I saw an example of the disastrous effect of direct democracy.

The State of Arizona decided to alleviate the water shortage with a project called the “Central Arizona Project.” This was a rather dubious plan to bring Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson by means of an open trench across 350 miles of the hottest and driest desert in the nation. Evaporation intensified the concentration of salt and other minerals in it, plus animals fell into it and then drowned and decomposed, not to mention other odds and ends that washed into it from the desert along the way, much of it emanating from animals which were not dead, so by the time the water got to Tucson it was, shall we say, more than somewhat unsavory.

Officials in Tucson decided that they really couldn’t put this mess directly into Tucson’s water system, so they decided to “recharge” it; meaning put it into the ground along with the existing groundwater, and then pump it back out as needed. The ground would act as a natural purifier as the water filtered through layers of earth.

But some well meaning nutcase decided there was a risk that the CAP water would not stay in place, but would migrate southward and Mexico would get all of our CAP water. That nutcase may have been more of a racist/nationalist than he was well meaning, but… Since Mexico was not getting any of our existing groundwater, Tucson officials said, that was not going to happen and, in any case, “Trust us, you really don’t want that crap in our water system.”

Nonetheless, the nutcase got enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot and raised enough money to get enough votes to defeat “recharge,” so the CAP water was injected directly into Tucson’s water system.

The immediate effect was a bottled water shortage, as all of Tucson’s water was rendered completely unfit to drink or cook with. People with sensitive skin, in fact, would not even bathe in it. The next thing that happened, in just a few months, was that it began destroying pumps and piping on a wholesale basis, because it was as corrosive as it was foul smelling.

Now, of course, CAP water is being pumped out of the ground as needed, where it has been sitting since Tucson began “recharging” it shortly after the failed experiment of injecting it directly into its water system. Mexico continues to suffer from a total absence of groundwater.

So What About Polls?
The simple answer is that if representatives are going to base their votes on polls then we might as well have, and in effect do have, direct democracy, and the results are going to be frequently as disastrous as Tucson experienced with the CAP water issue.

The more complex answer is that legislators are elected to represent the “best interests” of their constituents, not the “wants” of that constituency. Polls express what the public wants at a given moment, not what best serves the needs of the community.

Those of you who have raised children know that you can keep your kids happy by meeting their “wants” on a day-to-day basis, or you can serve their “best interest” by making sure that they grow up healthy and well educated, in which case they are going to be unhappy sometimes and you are going to be about as popular at times as the Swine Flu. The people of this country should not be considered as children, but the difference between “wants” and “best interest” certainly applies.

Legislators have a responsibility to govern in the best interest of those they represent, but what they mostly do today is serve the wants of those they represent because they are pandering to those who will be voting to reelect them. When the needs of the community and the wants of the electorate are in conflict, we wind up with a failure of government if the legislator abandons responsibility in favor of reelection.

Remember that polls regarding government services are almost always in favor, while polls regarding taxes are almost always opposed. Legislators do appear to be voting based on those polls, which is why we have growing government and growing government debt. Perhaps legislators should pay less attention to what the public wants at any particular moment, which is what a poll represents, and base decisions on what the public needs over the long term.

But, “Call Your Legislator”
One of the blogs I read has several authors, and one of those authors for the last several weeks has essentially posted nothing but “Call your legislator” messages, not only daily, but several times per day. He’s gimmicked them up with polls about how many times you’ve called, posted “if you’ve already called, do it again” types of messages, urged getting your friends to call…

Several liberal blogs are making claims, rather absurd claims in my opinion, that they played a major role in passage of “health care reform” due to the noise they made in general, and specifically due to their influence in getting people to call their legislators.

I think legislators should pay about as much attention to callers as they do to polls; namely, very little. And these campaigns that press for multiple calls to legislators are abusive; all they do is tie up the legislative staff and prevent them form doing useful work. That staff could be doing research to gather facts which the legislator could use to make an informed decision instead of answering the phone to listen to a person voice the same opinion for the twentieth time.

Like the polls, these phone calls represent the public’s emotional wants of the moment and they are not necessarily, by any means, based on facts. Nor do they represent what is best for the community as a whole.

Our form of government is designed such that we elect people whom we trust to represent us; we should then largely leave them alone and allow them to do what we elected them to do. Do you hire an electrician to wire your house and then look over his shoulder and tell him which wires to connect and where to connect them?

We certainly should watch what our legislators do while in office, and if we don’t like the way they represented us while they filled that office we elect someone else. There also is certainly nothing wrong with expressing opinions, and nothing wrong with expressing those opinions to legislators.

But the idea that when a bill arises in which we have a particular interest that we should oust the legislator from his/her proper role and rule on that bill by means of the public vote through polls and telephone calls is a perversion of our form of government. Unfortunately, all to often we do exactly that, and the result is deficit spending running out of control, with blame placed everywhere except on the public that is causing it.

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