Thoughts On The Great Dilemma Of Democracy

In honor of July 4, 2010, I have this to offer:
Thoughts on the great dilemma of democracy

A large percentage of society today, both in the United States and around the world, is dissatisfied with its government. In the United States polls show that citizens want first class health care but they don’t want to pay for it and don’t want the government to run it even though there are abundant European examples of government-run health care systems that deliver care as good as or better than ours at about half the price. This American attitude even extends to the absurd demand by some Tea Party activists to keep the government out of Medicare. In the case of the Gulf oil spill, polls show general dissatisfaction with the government’s role but the polls do not dissect out of the general disapproval that there are two strains. Many people want the government to regulate the oil companies much more stringently and others want almost no restrictions. These same people who want no restrictions on business do want the government to clean up the spill but do not want it to declare a moratorium on further deep water drilling until effective safety regulations can be instituted. Residents of Gulf states do not want a moratorium because it would cost some jobs, apparently remaining oblivious to the current loss of jobs in other sectors of the Gulf economy-fishing and tourism- that are occurring right now and would occur again with another spill from other drilling rigs that have the same “safety” technology as the rig that blew up, sank, and leaked.

It is easy to demonstrate a lot of irrational thought and behavior in electorates. This leads to the dilemma of democracy: the qualities in a candidate necessary for election do not correlate in any necessary way with the qualities necessary to govern effectively. Candidates often depend on misrepresentation of their views on issues or on creating false or irrelevant issues in campaigns. In California the issue of undocumented workers or illegal aliens seems to come up every two years and then is dropped after the election. Some candidates seem to want this issue to remain unresolved because it is reliably useful in stirring up a segment of the electorate. Doing something about illegal immigration, which involves border control, inspection and sanctions of employers, work permits, and pathways to citizenship is complex and has not been seriously attempted by anyone. The argument usually stays at the level of, “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand? We estimate that about twelve million undocumented workers are currently in the United States. That is a huge number and a resolution of the problem will need a lot of careful work. It is not forthcoming.

Energy policy is similar. Even President Bush acknowledged that we are addicted to oil. Yet he never proposed a comprehensive energy policy for the country. The problems are complex. Establishing big power grids to distribute solar and wind power takes thoughtful and firm government action by legislators who are not bought and paid for by the oil industry. To prevent such political corruption we may need to institute publicly funded elections and propose the death penalty for giving or accepting private money in a campaign. The Supreme Court just made such a switch in election funding unlikely. If we increase “green” energy and reduce dependence on coal and oil, those who work in those industries must be retrained to work in the new economy, again requiring huge government programs. Politicians who are against government programs on principle and who get elected by running against “socialism” will oppose such programs just because they are government programs in the same way they opposed health care reform or the public option because it was socialistic.

Many states are essentially broke because they have mandated services but will not levy taxes to pay for them. The United States has a huge deficit because we have not raised taxes to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The voters consistently want services but not the taxes to pay for the services. So politicians promise no taxes, infrastructure crumbles, and services to the poor and helpless are cut. Yet, if those who run for office have to tell a largely ignorant and selfish electorate a string of lies to get elected, how can we expect such people to run an effective and fiscally responsible government? This is the dilemma of democracy.

Stephen Baird