Monday, September 15, 2003

Re: The Great Litmus Test

My earlier post was not meant to quarrel with the value of a republic, but rather to assign chief responsibility for our predicament to the people. Ours is, after all, a government by the people and for the people. But as we have now gone down this road, we might as well see where it leads. And I recruit Thomas Jefferson as my traveling companion.

I wholeheartedly agree that our "system needs to be constructed in such a manner as to be able weather these storms of turbulent sentiment." It is precisely the structural integrity of our Constitution that is its value, not its representatives. Of course, I do not mean to say there is no worth to great leaders, only that it is the system and not these leaders that makes our nation great.

Joe, you claim that "the very reason for [elected representatives'] existence is an effort to buffer public policy from the random tides of public opinion." Who are these representatives but humans as destined to err as the next? (Indeed, the self-selection of politicians may lead them to even greater fallibility). Jefferson put it best: "Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question." (First inaugural Address (Mar. 4, 1801)). History has cried out the answer, but it appears to have fallen on deaf ears. But deafness isn't what plagues us most; rather, people have lost the will or capacity to speak. And "all tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent." (Jefferson, reference unknown).

Delegation of authority should not distance the government from the people but should afford the people greater access. For "governments are republican only in proportion as they embody the will of their people, and execute it." (Jefferson, Letter to Samuel Kercheval (July 12, 1816)). Representatives can invest greater effort exploring the complexity of government and navigate through the tumult of the masses, but they must not never transcend their delegation. "I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion." (Jefferson, Letter to William Charles Jarvis (Sept. 28, 1820)).

I fear that people conflate the delegation of authority with delegation of responsibility. If Congress has failed in any respect, it has abdicated its duty to educate the public and attended to its own concerns as though somehow separate from the people. But it is the people in the end who must be blamed for their ignorance or at least their inattentiveness. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." (Jefferson, Letter to Colonel Charles Yancey (Jan. 6, 1816)).

"Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day." (Jefferson, Letter to Du Pont de Nemours (Apr. 24, 1816)).

No comments: