Monday, September 19, 2011

How To Keep The “Bums” In Office

It has been brought to my attention that we should make a distinction between policy makers and politicians. It isn’t inevitable that a politician would lack the skill for, or eschew the desire to engage in, policy making. Nor is it unthinkable or inappropriate for a policy maker to engage in politics. But they are not the same thing. A policy maker is looking for solutions to real problems. Politicians, as we currently know them, are looking for arguments that endear them to voters and get them elected.

In our political system politicians are inevitable and ubiquitous. They also want us to believe that they are useful, and so they present themselves as policy makers. They profess to believe in certain philosophies of government and often claim to have devised policies that, if enacted, would be consistent with their philosophy – or, more particularly, with the philosophies of those whose votes they are seeking. Most often such “policies” are vaguely described without enough detail for voters to judge their worth.

Policy, in our system of government, is almost always devised by unelected bureaucrats, either hired to assist the President and his cabinet officers in crafting bills to go before Congress, or hired to advise and assist the Congress itself in creating such legislation. Lower level bureaucrats write the regulations required to execute the laws that are passed. We hope – undoubtedly in vain – that those crafting the laws and writing the regulations are apolitical; that their only desire is to create policy that causes our nation to prosper and live in peace.

Sadly it is too often the case that even our legitimate government bureaucrats have political agendas that go beyond the mundane tasks we often think of them performing. They are beholden to the politicians who appoint them and must do their bidding or risk losing their jobs. It is a hard and eternal fact that policy grows out of politics.

But most citizens are unaware that there are large privately financed, non-governmental “think-tanks,” committed to particular ideological and economic policies, that produce legislation and regulations to be passed on to legislators and policy makers. (Think National Rifle Association or National Association of Manufacturers and Commerce.) Their common name is “Lobbyist”. A tiny minority of legislators at the state or national level have the skill or the will to write their own bills, or even to direct their paid staff to do so. They “buy” their policy off the shelf from those who have an economic interest in being policy makers, i.e. lobbyists.

Given those hard facts, voters should be insisting, at the least, that their politicians: 1) be, in fact, capable of devising policy, or articulating their preferred (purchased) policy, on those issues that are most pertinent to their constituents, 2) have policies clearly devised, or be capable of articulating policies of which they approve, before beginning their campaigns for election, and 3) articulate their policies in great enough detail that the voter can know what they are getting if they elect them. Ideally, every politician would have detailed policy statements available on-line and in print form. And, in our dreams, they would reveal the sources of their policy proposals; the private, partisan organizations that devised them.

Further, responsible voters should, themselves, be able to distinguish between demagoguery and legitimate political discourse. Demagogues push emotional buttons that they know will fire up the electorate. They know that a group of voters, energized by the mention of their favorite issue, will seldom require them to explain their position in any detail. The goal is to be elected. And after that, re-elected. Legitimate political discourse invites the voter to think, not just of the moment; to focus, not just on a single issue or two, but to see how a particular range of policies fit with the kind of community or nation we want to be.

Only when the men and women we elect to serve us are capable making good policy, or at the very least, of choosing good policy, will we break the cycle we are currently in; a cycle of throwing out the bums every two or four years.

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