Who is responsible for the well-being of the nation?
A simple question, but in reality, with an extremely complex answer — one that is of critical importance, particularly in times like now.
The current economic situation presents the nation with a situation that is different. Normally, when we face external challenges, the sources of the problems are clear — e.g. attacks fomented by al Qaeda. The challenge is how to respond, although there may be great uncertainty and differences in opinion over the paths to take.
But when it comes to dealing with serious economic issues, not only the solutions, but also the causes are often unclear. And to quote my favorite Georgia philosopher, Pogo, “the enemy is us.”
Solving economic problems may be somewhat akin to treating a cancer. The ideal is to destroy only the bad cells, but we don’t know how to do it yet without also destroying many of the good. In the case of the cancer, your best bet is to go with physicians who are skillful, knowledgeable, have the interests of the patient at heart and inspire trust.
With the economic situation, we have to rely on those in positions of leadership — both in government and in the private sector.
But here is the rub. Normally, the physicians are not part of creating the problem, whereas the economic problems often seem to stem from greed and lack of moral principles within the leadership of the private sector and indifference, partisanship and bowing to special interests within the government.
Government exists to serve the people. But does it? The ideal, in theory, would be a totally moral community, where each person and each organization was free to do as they pleased, but each decision they made considered the greater good of society.
It doesn’t work and that’s one reason why we have laws, and a government to oversee what takes place. Let’s look at the realities by briefly examining the structure of or national government as established by the United States Constitution.
The legislative branch (the Congress) has broad powers to address national issues, ranging from establishing a post office to declaring war.
At no point does the Constitution indicate that the purpose of those in Congress is to look after their own or their state’s special interests.
In fact, the 10th Amendment to the Constitution specifically deals with issues that are state-oriented, rather than national-oriented: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
In essence, this critical part of the Bill of Rights distinguishes between issues that must be dealt with on a national scope and those that can be left to individual jurisdictions.
Representatives, by virtue of geographic boundaries, a two-year term and the nature of the apportionment process, are closest to their constituents. In theory, they would be more subject to the special interests of those constituents than senators, who are elected by larger numbers of voters, for six years and who deal with larger land masses.
The framers of the Constitution recognized natural human tendencies when they developed this hierarchy. But now comes a subtle question. Was it intended that Congress be a place where people do battle to attain their special interests (i.e. the most powerful and canny do so at the expense of the others) or was it intended as a place where individuals try to do what is the best for the nation?
The first implies that the regional structure of Congress is designed to give everyone an “equal” chance to prevail on the battlefield. The second is that everyone would focus on what’s best for the nation, but insuring that all regional perspectives were included.
The difference is enormous. The first implies maneuvering, power plays and constant turmoil, as one group tries to best the others and undo any advantage the “other side” has achieved. The second implies consultation, dialog and compromise as solutions to national issues are sought.
The first seems to be the attitude that prevails in Congress today — two parties at war with one another. So forget national leadership coming from Congress, unless a crisis situation becomes so enormous that it shocks our legislators back to their senses.
So we turn to the office of president. We elect a president to lead the nation. Yet, in reality, much of the efforts of the president are directed to and controlled by party politics.
Most decisions are made with a heavy emphasis on the long range good for the party — which, at times, may conflict with the long range interests of the nation. When party politics are confrontational, executive decision-making processes often become confrontational as the chief executive deals with Congress. Clearly, this makes presidential leadership much less effective.
All members of Congress and the president are required to take an oath of office. Its core is that they will “”support or defend” or “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution of the United States.”
Nowhere in this oath does it mention catering to the special interests of regions, fund contributors or political parties. Perhaps they should be required to renew these oaths annually.
Finally, we have the Judicial Branch. But it was never designed to lead the nation. Its role is to assure that the laws we have and the way they are enforced are just. But once again, the selection process has allowed party politics to enter the fray, and even the Supreme Court has been tainted in recent years.
And since it has become the primary vehicle for interpreting the meaning of the Constitution, patrician politics moves it even further from either asserting leadership or from being able to support the development of non-partisan leadership in Congress or the Executive Branch.
Who does that leave? It leaves “We the people of the United States …. (who did) … ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Sometimes the best place to look for a helping hand is at the end of your arm.
What happened to those people? Where are they today? Why aren’t they involved? Why don’t they vote? Why have they become so partisan that winning a point (sometimes at any cost) is more important than working out equitable solutions? Why aren’t they demanding greater moral integrity from our elected leaders and the leaders of the private sector?
The dilemma we face is less one of poor leadership. It’s one of poor “followership.”
If we demanded more cooperative effort, we probably would experience fewer crises. And if we insisted on collaboration (which means compromising on some of our own desires), we’d probably come up with better and quicker solutions.
Moving from crisis to crisis is not a healthy way to live. But until we — that is “we the people” — establish and assert a set of values that will change things and force our leaders to live up to our standards, we are liable to continue from crisis to crisis, with half-baked solutions at best. Like the old adage, “if we do things today the way we did them yesterday, tomorrow will likely be the same.”
Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.