Monday, April 22, 2013

Honest Disagreements

In an ideal society there will be honest differences of opinion. No society prospers without them. Progress is made only because we disagree with each other or with our own previous conclusions. If there were constant consensus it would indicate one of two things: 1) we live in a perpetually perfect world or 2) we are constrained in expressing disagreement out of fear, either of societal censure or political and penal penalties.

So differences of opinion are the fuel of a prosperous society. But the key is that those differences must be “honest” differences. Another phrase used to express this would be “good faith” differences. In other words, in order for our differences to have a positive effect upon our society they need to be unselfishly aimed at producing the most good for the greatest number of people.

It seems to me that people expressing honest opinions should not always be in conflict with the same people. Today A may be in conflict with B but not with C. Tomorrow they may all be in conflict with each other. And next week A and C will be in conflict with B. And on some occasions they should all be in agreement. A, B, and C, being people of different personality, background, and location, they will naturally have different perspectives on the issues they address. But the key here is a determination on the part of each of them to honestly position themselves on the side of truth and to seek the common good.

Unfortunately, our opinion makers today – politicians foremost among them – have too often proven themselves to be unable or unwilling to look at issues through any lens other than their own self-interest. No doubt all of our national political leaders fail the test of objectivity many times in their career. But there are those whose honesty (objectivity) is evident more often than that of their colleagues. We need to be thankful for that and give them the affirmation that will encourage them to continue to work toward honest collaborative solutions to our many problems.

There are others, Senators Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain (most of the time), to name the most prominent, whose opinion on an issue seems to be decided solely on the basis of opposition to the President. I would be the last to argue that the President (this President or any other) is always right, but the odds would seem to dictate that, given a hundred different issues, any honest man would have to agree with him on at least a handful of occasions. Not so with Senator’s McConnell, Graham, and McCain. The media conveniently has a podium and microphones permanently placed near the exit to their offices so they can provide instant rejection of any policy or proposal the President offers. They may smile at times when the public cannot see them, but they seldom appear in public with anything but a frown on their faces and a snarl in their voice.

McConnell, Graham, and McCain are not alone, of course. Three men cannot obstruct the work of our government without the aid of others. In fact, our hapless Senate has so hogtied itself with its own rules that the three Senatorial Trolls need the aid of thirty eight others like themselves to shut down the government, impose sequestration upon the nation, or block sensible legislation to require meaningful background checks for those buying semi-automatic (and other) guns. A body initially intended to operate in most circumstances as a democratic institution now subjects itself to rules that can, and often do, require agreement of 60 percent of its members to appoint a judge or authorize the purchase of a pencil.

This is not the first time our nation has been held in the grip of men who were incapable of honest disagreement. At the start of the 20th century the United States Senate was filled with unelected men appointed to their position by state Governors and approved by state legislatures. They were notorious for their graft, corruption, and dishonesty. A Republican from Wisconsin, Senator Robert Lafollette, was instrumental in getting the U.S. Constitution amended so that Senators were elected by a vote of the entire population of the state they would serve. While not a complete solution to the problem of graft and corruption, the “direct election of Senators” did serve, for a number of decades, as a corrective to the problem.

Today, the introduction of millions of dollars of special interest money into our political process, and into the election of Senators and Representatives particularly, has brought us again to a point of crisis. Our legislative leaders are incapable of the honest disagreement necessary for good government. They are now capable only of self-serving disagreement. Programmed, party-dictated, oppositional disagreement. What’s to be done?

It isn’t reasonable to expect the political parties to change their ways. It isn’t possible for the Congress to change its ways; it has handcuffed itself and thrown away the key. The people, through their state legislatures must propose a Constitutional amendment doing away with the direct election of senators, in fact doing away with the election of political leaders altogether. Democracy as we have practiced it is a failure.

I propose (and this simple proposal would need further elaboration, of course) that all our leaders be selected by random lottery just as we select those who serve on our juries to decided the fate of citizens brought before our courts. Those so selected to serve us should be adequately paid, but their term of service should be limited, and they should be strictly prohibited – under severe penalty of law – from profiting from their service in any way other than the salary they receive for that service.

How well would this proposed system work, and for how long? That is hard to tell, but if we got as many decades of improved service from it as we got from the direct election of Senators it might be called a success. We will never tame the perversity of mankind but we dare not ever cease in our efforts to do so.

You are free, of course, to disagree with my assessment and my proposal, but please make your disagreement, honest disagreement.

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