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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Beyond Any Politician's Ability

Peggy Noonan wrote a thoughtful essay today where she recognizes the vast complexity of issues facing modern-day politicians.

Politicians must vote on a variety of topics containing scientific, economic, legal and ethical facets that are well beyond the knowledge of people with education and intellect. There is simply too much to know to decide issues in time for Congressional votes---votes that enact permanent laws that affect the citizens of the US and the world for generations. Certainly these various topics are well-beyond the average citizen's ability to comprehend fully.

Noonan writes:

Why are we asking so much of them? Because everything comes down to law and law comes down to politicians…And yet this is all good for politicians. Because it's good for business. Yes they are overwhelmed and yes they are out of their depth--how could they not be?--but the endless number of questions on which they must legislate leads to an endless number of lobbyists and groups willing to give them money and support in return for a vote.

Besides trying to understanding an issue well enough to make a rational vote, a politician must then be facile in explaining it to the public. Whether it is done to bring a point home to the voter or to avoid appearing ignorant of the subject, politicians provide us with little catch phrases again and again rather than provide in-depth analysis. They are actually unable to boil a subject down to the basics for our understanding. I suspect that if they were pushed harder on any given topic, we would see they have nothing of substance to provide beyond their "sound bites".

Yet, their votes are cast, laws are enacted and the citizens must obey them. And to obey laws, the citizen must understand them. John Stossel recently provided an instance where the head of the EEOC could not apply the Americans With Disabilities Act to a hypothetical hiring scenario. If the head of the government department in charge of employment laws cannot readily apply the law, needs to consult one of the EEOC lawyers for an answer, then how can a businessman with other matters of greater import (like providing a product or service that a fickle public will purchase at a profit) be able to figure it out. And at what cost?

I recently saw former Boston Mayor Flynn questioned about the death at the Big Dig when the concrete-steel brace fell from the tunnel onto the car. Flynn claimed that he knew more than anyone about the construction project but he became an ambassador and left Boston before the construction was completed. He claimed the fault laid with the politicians (Republican naturally)that succeeded him on the project. I wondered how can a politician oversee such a construction project and still feed, educate, clothe, provide moral and sexual guidance, enforce criminal laws (a low priority in Massachusetts), oversee all commercial transactions and myriad other functions, large and small, for the public's benefit while removing all garbage and snow and attending nationally televised Red Sox games and Teddy Kennedy testimonials. All of this is done at the same time! No wonder The Big Dig exceeded the original cost estimate of $3 billion by $15 billion(half of which was paid by US taxpayers) ---and it still fell apart.

Noonan’s answer is simple but true:

It is good to keep in mind, at such a time, that we must let as many questions devolve into the private sphere as possible. Not all can but many can, and on so many issues it's better to err on the side of individual freedom than the authority of the state.

Government and its individual members are not competent enough to handle as many issues as it does. It is best left to the millions of individuals who can voluntarily converge or work solitarily to develop what is in their best interest. (See Hayek)

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