Saturday, November 20, 2010

Consent of the Governed

First, a Facebook Friend posted this link:
12 Facts That Will Blow Your Mind – Federal Employees And Members Of Congress Are Getting Rich While Those Of Us Who Pay Their Salaries Suffer

So I had a few responses. Here they are, as commented on the thread:
#1: What's the source of her money? Just her salary as a Congresscritter?
#2: The Federal Government employs doctors, dual-PhDs, and people at CEO-level responsibility for government agencies. $150k a year is *low* for those types of jobs.... Do we want all the inmates in our Federal prisons to be seen by doctors who can't get a "real" job? Is that in the interest of public safety?
#3: ...which is why we need campaign reform. You can't become a member of Congress without your own war chest.
#4: there were 4,434,431 US government employees (including uniformed military personnel) as of 2009 ( So that's an average of $100,000 in *total compensation*... which includes things like military pensions, health benefits, etc. The typical ratio for benefits to compensation in the non-profit sector is 25%; it's probably higher for government jobs, as our military members and many civil servants have excellent benefits (like fully-paid health care or actual pensions rather than just 401ks). So then we're talking about more like an average salary of $75,000... including 1.3 million active-duty military members, thousands of doctors, etc.
#5: ...because we want the "average American" crafting legislation and advising on foreign policy? the average American can't find Germany on a map. Let's instead talk about how many people are making *far* below "average".
#6: The right of labor to organize is protected by law, for good reason. Wal-Mart employees aren't. Who do we want in charge of spending our tax dollars?
#7: Again, we need campaign reform. These people were rich long before they became electeds.
#8: We're complaining because people got raises? How many people were making $140k in 2005? $140k in 2005 is $156k now, just due to inflation.
#9: Don't know much about this issue. How much insider trading do members of Congress do? Which members of Congress have had legislation put before them that would make it illegal and refused to vote for it? What about the current legislation in the works... does it address the issue?
#10: And what's the difference in responsibility? You can slip the matre'd a ten-spot and get a table faster... do we want that at the IRS? The airport? Our prisons?
#11: I'll agree that benefits in the private sector suck.
#12: I want to invest in what they did. How much of that was real estate, btw? And how much did they lose in the crash?

This is an incredibly biased, misleading, and destructive way of looking at isolated pieces of information context-free to try to just get people against government. Get the *whole* story; don't let the pundits make your opinions for you.
The OP then asked an insightful and useful question for such a dialogue, which was (paraphrased; I haven't solicited permission to quote anyone) "What does government mean to you?"

So, here it is... again, as posted:
Government is a social contract among the governed. In a hypothetical state of nature without government, there is only natural and acquired power. Natural power is attributes like strength, beauty, and intelligence, which can be used to ...acquire power. Acquired power consists of things like resources, loyalty, or fame.

In the state of nature, those with less natural and/or acquired power (usually highly correlated) are consistently at a disadvantage to those with more. As social creatures, we depend on each other for not just the "extras," but bare survival... people cannot be healthy and whole in isolation. But in the state of nature, there is little one can do to prevent antisocial behavior on the part of someone more powerful. An individual lacks second-strike capacity: if I kill you for your food, you are now dead and can't take action against me.

So we form alliances. Ten people with less power can create a social contract, and best one person who is more powerful than each of them individually. Eventually, even the powerful realize they are better off by engaging in and complying with the social contract.

Modern government has come a long way in developing methods of negotiating and re-negotiating that contract, but in the end, it's still the same thing. Government is made up of people. We agree. We don't all, individually, agree with everything "government" does, but we all agree to be bound by the decisions of government, because we are better off than if we "go it alone." As social creatures, we are infinitely healthier and better-off in alliance than isolated.

When "government" is misbehaving, it's our job, as those who imbue government with its power, to find out why and fix it. To me, an awful lot of the issues we face today can be addressed by reforming campaign finance, so that people, rather than money, elect our government. I also think we need to get back to truth-telling; we seem to have no power to stop those with the acquired power of fame from just flat-out lying to influence people's opinions on the job of government. This causes them to vote, again and again, against the interests of themselves and most people, to the advantage of a few.

The social contract is breaking down. We don't fix that by breaking it further, but by remembering that these people only have the power to damage us because WE GAVE IT TO THEM. We can choose to give that power elsehow, too
...Never mind that "elsehow" doesn't appear to be in my browser's spelling dictionary. I like it.

For anyone who wants to know more about the social contract and the state of nature, start with Hobbes's Leviathan. Rousseau also did a lot on this. I had to read this stuff for some Sociology class, you should too. ;-)

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