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Reinventing the government
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Forsyth County News
Trust, once lost, is extremely difficult to restore.

Recently, in a press interview, Florida’s Sen. Mel Martinez voiced his opposition to President Obama’s $500,000 cap on salaries of executives in companies which received bailout funds. He agreed that some compensation levels were excessive but felt that industry should regulate itself.

The interviewer felt that self-regulation was not working and asked if public opinion (which is largely opposed to these high payouts) should not be considered. The senator agreed that public opinion was important, but reiterated his position that government has no business regulating private industry in such matters.

The focus of this article is not on the $500,000 cap. It is rather on the issue implied in the senator’s comments, which clearly distance the concept of “the will of the people” from “government,” a distinction which probably exists in the minds of most Americans today.

My contention is that this separation between the government and the governed is both accurate and a critical impediment to dealing with the challenges we face, and until it is reduced, we will continue to flounder.

Merriam-Webster defines “government” as: “the act or process of governing; specifically, authoritative direction or control.” The key words are “authoritative” and “control.”

But let’s start by examining the genesis of government and in particular, democratic government.

Governments are needed for many purposes, but the underlying reason is to carry out the will of the people. As communities grow, they need mechanisms to provide stability and security and to pool resources and undertake tasks that are too large a scale for individual effort. Residents take time from their daily lives to participate, and the pressing issues are addressed in ways that are responsive to their needs.

But then, over time, everything changes. My last article focused on our current economic institutions, applying three simple, oft-overlooked principles that seem to be universal. Let’s do the same with respect to government. If you read the previous article, there will be similarities.

When things happen, there is a reason. Our government seems to be ineffective in dealing with the crisis we face. I believe that the effectiveness of a democratic government is directly proportional to the degree of trust and confidence it has from those it governs.

Clearly, public opinion polls speak out on the lack of these traits when it comes to the Presidency and the Congress. Our new president has an enormous task ahead to change this pattern.

But few in government seem to recognize that their behavior is at the core of the issue. Without a major change we’re unlikely to move from the path we’re on. And without substantial citizen involvement, it is unlikely that government officials will take actions they believe to be adverse to their individual, short-term interests.

Over time, nothing is enough. We keep striving to become bigger and better. That, in itself, is commendable. But when greed and unethical behavior become part of the equation, we undermine the very system we employ.

The citizen legislator has been replaced by the “professional” politician. The seniority system tends to stultify new ideas and, together with lack of financial campaign reform, provides the stability for special interest groups to purchase support of their causes.

And the quest for power, both by elected officials and special interest groups working through those officials, widens the gap between government and the people it was designed to serve.

Power equates with control and, in particular, control over resources. Thus we see a tendency to exercise more and more control over larger and larger numbers of issues, independent of what “we the people” may want or believe. And, unfortunately, too many taxpayers unwittingly give support to this process with a “what’s in it for me” attitude.

Too much of anything is bad. As government expands, communications channels become more convoluted. It becomes more difficult for individual voices to be heard.

Social, defense and other programs are vital, but when significant elements are added, not specifically to help society, but to further political motives of those administering them, we have a formula that erodes the very foundation of government.

These practices tend to split the nation and undermine the trust that is so important to create positive motion. Soon government becomes a controlling entity, divorced from and unresponsive to many of the needs of the governed.

We forget that government should be people serving people. In this perspective, Martinez’s comment makes a great deal of sense. The will of the people and the actions of government become largely, if not totally disconnected.

We need to bring the people and government back together. Rules and regulations, procedures and policies need to be changed. But change won’t come easily from within. It will take strong citizen involvement (which, unfortunately, can be characterized as “from without”) to make it happen.

There are two other principles which I believe are important to recognize. First, “any policy, rule or practice, no matter how carefully developed, will have justifiable exceptions,” and second, “the essence of a just and moral society is the ability to deal with those exceptions.”

A large, impersonal government that hides behind past practices and policies won’t do. A government that bases its actions on what is “politically correct” may do well in the short run, but is flirting with long-term national disaster.

We need a government that is closer to the people, that has the courage to do what is right (not what serves the egos and interests of officials) and which considers issues of moral integrity in every decision it takes.

Obama has a tough task ahead if he decides to undertake such reform. But even if he does, the power of the White House is insufficient to the task. It will require the active support of the population – you and me.

We created the problem over time. Now it’s up to us to change things if we have the courage of our own convictions and the willingness to get involved.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at