News Story

Good Government: Whose Duty Is It, Anyway?

In my travels around the state recently, it’s become apparent to me that Michiganians are spending an increasing amount of time discussing these questions: Should we keep, modify or scrap term limits? Should we replace our full-time legislature with a part-time one?

To be sure, these are not inappropriate topics given the frustration many people have with Lansing these days. I have my own views on all these subjects. But by the same token, they deal with structural tinkerings that dodge some really fundamental matters. They imply that the system is the problem, not the citizenry. I’m not running for anything, so I can afford to say right up front that "we the people" are more to blame for bad government than we ever admit.

What I’m saying is that we could tweak the structure till the cows come home, but if nothing else changed, you’d hardly notice a difference. Ultimately, people in a democratic republic get the government their opinions and actions (or inactions) naturally produce. Satirist and commentator H. L. Mencken once said that "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." He also famously
defined an election as "an advance auction of stolen goods." If politicians pander, it’s because too many of our fellow citizens are panderable.

A story in the July 15, 2001, New York Times Magazine provides me with a useful example of the typical panderer. It was about a son of the late Robert Kennedy, Max Kennedy, who was flirting at the time with a run for office. The story recounted his ill-fated attempt at a stump speech riddled with trite one-liners like these: "I want to fight for all of you … I’ll commit myself heart and soul to be the kind of congressman who cares about you … I’ll dedicate myself to fighting for working families to have a fair chance … I make you this one pledge: I will always be there for you."

Kennedy’s handler pressed him repeatedly for a "take-away message," something of substance that his audience would remember. "What do you want people to take away from it?" he asked several different ways. The would-be candidate stammered and couldn’t think of much other than, "I’m a nice guy," until finally he admitted: "I don’t know. Whatever it has to be."

Max decided in the end not to run, but sadly, people elect such unprincipled know-nothings all the time. If our standards for supporting a candidate are so low, aren’t we fools for expecting the winners to rise above them once in government? Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, used to say that virtually no one "will fly higher in office than he flew to get there."

Think of your particular representative or senator. What real expertise did you insist he or she have when first running for office, or were you satisfied that just being a baby-kissing, smooth-talking schmoozer was sufficient qualification? If the campaign brochure presented meaningless platitudes instead of substance, did you complain?

Do your representative and senator show evidence of ever reading anything besides their own press releases? Do they operate from a base of firm principles, courageously expressed and defended, or do they blow with the wind? Do they talk one way at home and vote another in Lansing or Washington, and if so, do you ever hold them accountable?

Do they ever get into a subject more deeply than a bumper sticker slogan? If not, do you ever call them on the carpet, or do you treat them deferentially, as if you work for them, instead of the other way around? If they actually do show depth, do you ever thank them for it?

Do they ever introduce legislation to repeal something, or do they show interest only in filling more law books? Do you ask them to pursue policies that make sense for everyone, or do you needle them to get you or your friends something special at other people’s expense? If they exhibit questionable character, do you penalize them or re-elect them?

You get the point.

We all say we want more statesmanship and less politics-as-usual, but I suspect that statesmanship is something that bubbles up from the bottom. The quality of our representation springs from the standards on which you and I insist and rarely exceeds them. No one should ever expect politicians to exemplify virtues that those who elected them do not have themselves.

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.