The Ecology of Political Systems
Making a World to Which People Want to Belong
By Merilee Dannemann-Kamerman
(Contributing Ghostwriter: Ken Kamerman)
What do you really know about politics? What do you know about the functions of government? Consider that what you “know” may be a collection of unexamined presuppositions that have been hanging around in your brain since elementary school, which are not true, and which lead you to make poorly informed decisions in voting and other activities of citizenship. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, many of these common presuppositions are so widely shared that they shape the political dialog whether they are true or not.
The purpose of this essay is to offer NLPers information and insight about the real world of politics and government, and invite you to think about some of the ways we as NLPers can bring our unique tools and abilities to the political process. It’s also to argue that our world is in serious danger as a result of the current direction of political processes, and to suggest that the world community vision of NLP gives us compelling arguments to get involved in politics.
As I wrote this, I struggled with applying the linguistic tools of NLP to sociological generalizations that in themselves were metamodel violations. The language of NLPis not well adapted to talking on this level, using terms like “popular culture.”
At the same time, the use of the metamodel as an analytical tool is central to the theme of this article. I hope the reader will allow me to use nominalized sociological terms, while analyzing the use of metamodel-violated language as it has permeated our culture and produced an epidemic of fuzzy thinking.
The ecology of political systems — making a world to which people want to belong
Imagine a village, spread out with many family homesteads surrounding a large common pasture. The population has grown, and the village is faced with a serious problem: the common pasture isn’t big enough to support the number of grazing animals required to feed its growing population.
If every family puts just one sheep on the common pasture, the pasture will be sustainable — but one sheep is not enough to support a family. If every family puts enough sheep on the common pasture, the pasture will be overgrazed and become unusable. Complicating matters is the fact that families are not identical or equal. Some are larger than others, some are stronger and healthier than others; some have more resources than others outside the common pasture.
Now imagine that you are the mom or dad in one of those families. Your daily reality is your own hungry children. Maybe you have an ageing parent in the home as well. Your commitment to the wellbeing of your own family is your highest priority.
Think of yourself in that situation for a moment and consider the alternatives. There are many possibilities. Depending on the culture and the relationships among the villagers, there are many different ways of making decisions. But, regardless of how the problem is resolved, one thing is clear: the interest of the individual is not identical with the interest of the community.
This model is known as the “Tragedy of the Commons” (see footnote). It is usually applied to environmental issues. I am applying it here in another frame for another purpose: to challenge the belief, often applied to government, that there is such as thing as a “best” solution, biased neither for or against any individual, affecting everyone equally or “fairly,” and that a collective structure that might be called “government” is capable of arriving at that solution.
Thinking again of yourself in this situation, imagine that the community comes together to solve the problem. You intend to do everything you can to protect your family’s interest. You are not there to be “fair” (whatever “fair” means). Also, you know that even if you have an intention to be fair, most of the other people in the room don’t. They are there to protect their own families. You know that. Therefore you must consider that in whatever strategy you adopt. Everybody else knows it, too. It is assumed that every person in the room is representing a self-interest first and the common interest second.
If a decision is made, the decision is going to be based not on fairness but on power. It could be physical power, cleverness, wealth, personal persuasiveness, the ability to invoke fear of the supernatural, or any other of a myriad of forms of power. But power it will be. Some people will win and some will lose.
It’s possible to label this “bad.” I don’t. I label it natural. The most natural biological urge in life as we know it — the most ecological impulse — is to protect ourselves and our families. Through most of history, human society has been organized around the scarcity of resources and the competition to control them.
The scenario above is the everyday stuff of the political process. Politicians at all levels of politics know it, understand it and act on it. Some politicians would find it laughable that the competitive aspect of politics would have to be explained to anybody. Other politicians, especially in today’s world, understand that some of their constituents are operating out of a different paradigm and exploit the heck out of the mismatch.
That alternative paradigm exists in the loose agglomeration of thought and dialogue that we can call popular culture. It’s what many of us were taught in school. It’s what we hear as an underlying assumption in national and local news, especially on TV. It’s what we tend to assume when we think about what our political system is supposed to be and how we are supposed to make decisions about it.
The concept of government and politics that popular culture teaches us is a sloppy, fuzz blur of nominalizations, universal quantifiers, unspecified referential indices and other metamodel violations. As with any metamodel violations, you may not notice them until you stop and pay attention.
Popular culture vs. political reality
The paradigm of popular culture is that political leaders should be better than ordinary people, that they should be motivated by the best interest of the society as awhole, that the general interest should be the norm, and variations from it should be the exception.
Popular culture also teaches us how we should respond to political leaders: with trust, admiration and respect. It trains us to assume that they will be better and wiser than we are in solving society’s collective problems. It expects us to accept their visions of what our national future should be and — at the most personal level — to trust them with our money, our safety, and recently even our health.
In today’s world this is what our culture has set as the standard for the behavior of political leaders. When they don’t live up to the standard we are disappointed, shocked, disillusioned. Disillusionment today is an epidemic. Citizens are dropping out of the activities of citizenship in record numbers, as evidenced in part by declines in the percentage of eligible voters who show up to vote.
Suppose we didn’t have an idealized standard. Suppose we assumed that politicians, on average, are no better than ordinary people. Suppose we assumed that the decisions they make will not necessarily be wise or enlightened and that we had no more reason to trust them with our money or our resources than any other strangers.
If those had been our assumptions in the past, we would have trusted our political leaders less. We would have designed a government based on the understanding that government was necessary but that the power of government was dangerous. That government, we would have assumed, must contain within its structure the balancing factors to compensate for the inherent self-interest that is part of human nature. It would have been a self-perpetuating ecological system.
How lucky we are. A few immensely wise men, who happened to be in the right place at the right time, did that for us. The system they designed is documented in the Constitution of the United States.
The system worked until relatively recently in our history. The paradigm has been shifting in the last generation or two. The driving force behind the shift may be, in part, the increasing complexity and interactivity of the world — from mass transportation to the Internet — and the need for centralized solutions to common problems. But whatever the reason, the paradigm shift has moved in a direction that is not serving us well.
I ask you to consider your own beliefs and assumptions about the nature of government and the political process. Be open to the possibility of inspecting those beliefs and assumptions using tools of NLP, especially the metamodel. Note the great amounts of deletion, distortion and generalization that take place in popular dialogue and consider whether you might be deleting, distorting or generalizing in some of your own unexamined conclusions.
Here’s a simple challenge: if you want to build what Robert Dilts calls “a world to which people want to belong,” then as part of realizing that vision you must participate in the collective process of politics and government. It is a requirement of your ecology as a whole person.
Besides, if collectively we attempt to go around it, over it or under it, or otherwise ignore it, we will end up having to reinvent it from scratch, and it’s doubtful we could draft a better blueprint than the one we have already been given.
The system as designed can only work if a high proportion of people actively participate in comparison to the number and complexity of the decisions that have to be made. The system can’t carry itself without you. Your participation is not a matter of your choosing the lofty goal of “making the world better.” Rather, your participation is required in order to prevent it from becoming worse. Just by being born into a nation of free citizens, you have an obligation to do what citizens do. You have to. That’s a modal operator of necessity. The metamodel question in response is: what will happen if I don’t? Answer: if enough people don’t, the system will crash, and civilization — including all the resources that safeguard your personal safety — just might crash with it.
Here is my thesis reduced to its simplest essentials.
- Big, specialized, complicated government is necessary whether we like it or not. The world is too crowded and too complicated to rely on simple or direct forms of government like tribal elders or direct democracy. In this big, crowded world, we must also accept some limits on personal freedom.
- Government tends to increase its power and its intrusiveness unless prevented. Every increase in power is a loss of freedom and choice for individuals.
- The control of government is in the hands of two groups of people: those who have the power, and those who show up and participate. Anybody can join the second group.
- Optimally, government should be limited to that which is really necessary and can’t be done through other means. That restriction will still leave us with an enormous amount of government and will give us more government than we can meaningfully monitor or participate in.
- The only way we will get a government that comes even close to reflecting our model of the world is by participating. Government will be “of the people, by the people, for the people” to the extent that “the people” participate actively.
- Government functions not only in three branches but at many levels — federal, state, city, and several others — that interact in complex ways. Much of the most important work of government is done at the local level where it is accessible to the general public. However, over time government tends to centralize, concentrating power in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals.
- We will only preserve freedom and choice and prevent tyranny if we work actively to preserve the ecology of the political system, which is designed to limit the growth of governmental power. The source of this ecology is the Constitution of the United States: specifically, those parts of it that provide for representative democracy through free elections and the separation of powers.
What does freedom look like, and how will you know when you have it?
Freedom is another nominalization. To understand it, we have to unpack it. Before you read on, please take a minute to picture freedom.
Describing freedom is tricky. Freedom is the absence of limitations. In the political context, it’s the absense of limitations imposed by government, whether through rules or through force. And it’s not just your freedom. It’s the freedom of everybody else, including the people whose lifestyles you disapprove of.
What does freedom look like? What does a free society look like? What was in your picture? How did you fill in the deletions that were left out of the instruction to “picture freedom”?
It’s likely that your picture of freedom will be of what freedom would be like for you. If I ask you to picture “freedom for everybody,” you might make a picture in which everyone somehow looks like you, has your values, or wants what you want. That’s not freedom. That’s imposing your own choices on others — a temptation difficult to resist. Somebody else’s picture of freedom might be completely different from yours. Somebody else’s picture of freedom might be in conflict with yours or even involve taking away your freedom.
Freedom means your picture does not prevail over somebody else’s picture. One way to describe freedom is a world that no individual can make a picture of. Our challenge is to create a social and political structure that has enough space for the very different pictures of millions of individuals.
A “free society” is not the same as this absolute “freedom.” It has practical limits. It does not mean chaos or complete freedom for everyone to do whatever he wants. In a crowded world, the enjoyment of freedom has to be limited at the point where one person’s freedom interferese with another person’s freedom. It’s sometimes said that your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose. More realistically, your freedom to swing your fist ends at the point where I reasonally believe you are threatening my nose.
Where specifically is that point? What is a reasonable belief? It’s what a lot of people who take the time to think about it intelligently decide it is. That’s not perfect. It’s the best we can do. To make it happen, a lot of people have to show up, think about it, talk about it, make agreements about the specifics of it, and keep on reexamining those agreements. The process is never finished.
The society I want to live in — the world to which I want to belong — is not one of total licentious, libertarian freedom. It’s one that maintains maximum individual freedom consistent with reasonable social order and safety. It’s one that places limits on its own ability to limit. That world is also a crowded world with limited resources in which people have competing interests. Based on those factors I understand that I have to accept some limits.
But notice how most people commonly think. The tendency when they picture what they want from a political system is to fill in the picture with their own values and criteria. For the majority of people who do not consciously examine their own thought processes, a normal next step is to impose their vision on everybody else. To the extent that they participate in the political process, they will be driven by that picture and the unexamined assumption that what they want is right for everybody.
Taking advantage of the common thought process is the essence of political demagoguery. It’s what politicians are good at: evoking pictures that are specific, richly detailed, and appealing to all the senses (a chicken in every pot, a hundred thousand policemen on the streeets). When the pictures are specific and detailed, they tend imply promises to limit other people’s freedom.
The resource: the Constitution
The genius of the Constitution is that it’s grounded in reality. It was written by people who profoundly understood human nature and did not romanticize, idealize or glorify it. The Constitution did not require wisdom, character, vision or even scruples on the part of either the electorate or the elected. The Constitution recognizes that people are just people, and that the individuals who govern will tend to be ordinary or a little worse.
Assuming that the power of government would be in the hands of ordinary individuals who would try to take advantage of that power, the Constitution designed a government in which nobody could become too powerful. Through a dynamic process, based on natural human behavior, that came to be known as “conflict and compromise,” a tension would be maintained in which people who seek power would oppose each other and thus stop each other from accumulating too much.
A brief review of what you might have learned in high school civics:
There are three branches of government: legislative, executive and judicial. The three branches are separate and are not supposed to overlap. This separation is what prevents any one branch from becoming too powerful.
The power to make laws — to decide what is permissible, what is impermissible and what is taxable — is so subject to abuse that the Constitution makes it the most cumbersome and restricted of the branches. It’s hard to get a law passed through Congress. The Constitution made it that way on purpose, to prevent laws from being enacted until their merit been tested by a lengthy process of deliberation and argument.
Deliberation, reality testing (futurepacing), and exhaustive public debate — ecology checks involving large numbers of people — are highly valued criteria for the legislative branch. Efficiency is not. An unexamined presupposition of popular culture is that argument and procrastination in lawmaking are bad. They’re not. They’re valuable and precious, even if the wrangling and posturing are “political” — in fact, especially if the wrangling is political. The political process is a prolonged ecology check. Political differences between parties and among individuals and factions represent real differences in the opinions and values of the people. A lengthy process of political argument, motivated by the self-interest of the politicians, makes it possible for every interest and viewpoint to have a chance to be considered.
It’s a mistake to wish for a legislature in which everybody agrees. Either the legislators are brain-dead, bought off, or — most likely — you’re in a communist country or a religious dictatorship. There’s a saying (which might have originated with Winston Churchill) that those who like laws and sausages should not watch either being made. Lawmaking is a messy process. But that messiness — including the obnoxious head-butting of strongly opinionated egotistical loudmouths — prevents the unintended consequences that lead to tyranny.
Under the ingenious doctrine of separation of powers, the legislature can’t take any actions to implement its own decisions. It can only make laws. Laws can only be made by the vote of a majority, or in some instances, a supermajority of two-thirds — but never by a single individual.
A member of Congress has no official power as an individual. Unofficial influence, not official power, is the only means by which Congressmen and lower-level legislators can be powerful as individuals. (Note: Some apparent exceptions, such as the powers of the Speaker of the House, are only internal powers over the governance of the House. The Speaker can’t make laws.)
Because the legislative branch establishes the boundaries of the power of government and sets out what powers the other branches will have over the citizens, the legislative branch is the closest to the people, having a large number of members chosen by direct election.
The legislature establishes the powers of the other two branches. The executive and judicial branches are only permitted to do that which they are authorized to do in the laws made by the legislature. In this way, the legislative branch protects the people from their government. The authors of the Constitution understood that this protection would be necessary.
The power of the individual official is also limited in the executive and judicial branch. In our system of government, power never belongs to a person. It belongs to a position — governor, judge, police officer, etc. Power is limited to what the law says that position is authorized to do. One person holds power only as long as that person holds the position. This is what is meant by “a government of laws, not of men.”
The executive branch runs the government, doing everything from building roads to making war. The executive is the only branch that is supposed to be efficient — in which getting things done is more highly valued than making well-deliberated decisions. That’s one reason why the executive has a single person at its head. It’s understood that in war, for example, there must be one individual who has the power to make quick decisions and give orders.
The Constitution presupposes that the executive branch will take all the power that the legislative branch will permit. That’s why there are safeguards such as the power over the money, which resides with the legislature. When the legislature gets lazy, things happen like undeclared wars and the Internal Revenue Service.
The judicial branch has an entirely different focus: the narrow focus of individual cases, usually heard by a single judge. The judicial process is a complete contrast from the legislative process, which requires the agreement of dozens or hundreds of individual officials in making a decision that will affect broad populations. The highest criterion of the judicial branch is justice under law.
The criminal justice process illustrates the importance of the separation of powers. In a criminal case, police officer, the prosecutor and the judge all work for the same citizenry and are paid by the same taxpayers. Yet their interests and outcomes are completely different. The judge’s job is to ensure that the individual on trial — whose future is at stake, whose freedom could be taken away — is given fair treatment according to law. The impartiality of the judge is not merely the result of the judge’s personal character. It is an effect of the structure of the judicial branch, which is designed to reinforce that impartiality.
The news media cover only the most prominent of court cases, and most of those are criminal. As a result, the judicial branch is the least understood of the three branches.
Most of the activity of the judiciary is on the civil side of the law; that is, cases involving lawsuits between private parties. It’s hard to understand the power of the judiciary until you have experienced it for yourself. If you have been in a courtroom and stood in front of a stranger in a black robe who had the power to order you to give up your fortune (or, in a divorce and custody case, your child) then you know this power. You may have said to yourself, “Who the heck is this person, and how did he get qualified to control my life?” If you haven’t been there, you may not really understand it.
The Constitution in its genius anticipated that the powerful positions in government would be filled with ambitious individuals who would try to add to their own power by stealing power from the other branches. It set up the relationships among the branches so that they would be at loggerheads with each other, constantly holding each other in check.
But the “checks and balances” don’t work perfectly. The three branches of government routinely try to steal each other’s power. To some extent they are successful.
The legislative branch steals power from the judicial branch by taking away the discretion of judges in politically popular areas. For example, legislatures show they are “tough on crime” by passing laws that limit the discretion of judges in sentencing convicted criminals rather than letting the judge make a judgement. In doing so, they take away the authority of judges to make intelligent decisions based on the individual circumstances of cases.
Congress may be encroaching on the judicial branch in another way, by granting to itself subpoena power and related powers and then exerting those powers over individuals.
The judicial branch steals power from the legislative branch by so-called “legislating from the bench.” This power is generally limited to the appellate courts. When an appellate court reviews a case, it issues an opinion, which explains how the court interprets the meaning of the law. The judicial opinion, which is published and becomes “case law,” thereby has the effect of a rule telling the people how the law must be interpreted in future. It expands the level of detail of the law.
The line between merely interpreting the law as written and writing new law is fuzzy. Major changes in the rights and freedoms of individuals in the U.S., such as several in the area of civil rights, have resulted from court decisions rather than the lawmaking of elected representatives. An example is the school bussing programs to achieve racial balance in public schools. In mandating bussing, a federal court chose to take away the freedom of thousands of school children to attend their local neighborhood schools, in the interest of what the court considered a higher cause.
You may agree or disagree on the merits of that decision. (As it happens, communities all over the US are struggling to undo their bussing programs, which have created a range of new social problems that were not considered by the courts at the time; Governing Magazine, Sept. 1999.) The point here is that the decision was made by a court, not a body of lawmakers. It illustrates the power of the court to reach beyond its initial mandate and issue orders that affect the lives of private citizens.
Judges, especially federal judges, are far more insulated from the citizens — and therefore from the political consequences of their decisions — than lawmakers, who must face reelection. Judges are well protected. Many of them enjoy high salaries, lifetime appointments, and excellent pension plans. These benefits are intended to release judges from daily concerns so that they can feel free to judge impartially. Their protected status also allows some of them to judge creatively — in ways that expand the power of government and limit the freedom of citizens.
The executive branch has its own insidious way of taking the power it’s not supposed to have. It’s called administrative law.
Administrative law is also known as rulemaking. It is the power of an executive agency to make the laws, enforce the laws, and try cases based on those laws — cases in which employees of the same agency act as prosecutor and judge.
Administrative law is the place where the separation of powers collapses. It’s where efficiency — the highly valued criterion of the executive branch — wins over careful deliberation, justice, and law, the valued criteria of the legislative and judicial branches.
Administrative law begins when the legislature delegates to an executive agency the power to make rules that add detail and clarification to the how a particular law is administered. The rulemaking agency makes rules based on its experience and expertise in that specialized area of law.
The procedure for making rules is different from the process of making laws. The lawmaking process is designed for a great deal of public observation and debate. Rulemaking, by contrast, is done with much greater efficiency and much less public participation — by minimizing those pesky ecology checks.
Typically, rules are drafted by the staff members of the agency who will later enforce them. Public involvement is limited. Once rules are in effect, they have the same force as the laws upon which they are grounded.
The rulemaking process is governed by the most common factor in human nature: when people get to write the rules that they will later have to enforce, they write them for their own convenience. They set up systems that are easy for them — not easy for you. This is not only arrogance but also ignorance. If their rules cause you difficulty, and you don’t show up to tell them, they won’t know.
In an environment governed by administrative rules, the regulators have the power of tyrants. An easy-to-see example is where the regulations involve licensure of business. If you run a business that is licensed under a certain set of regulations, and it’s necessary for you to maintain your license in order to stay in business, you are at the mercy of the regulatory agency that has the power to take away your license. If that agency imposes rules that are unfair, illogical, or even illegal, you have a difficult choice. You can protest the unfair rules, and risk making the regulators angry. If they get angry they can find some excuse within their rules to punish you, up to the extreme of taking away your license. Or you can shut up and accomodate to the unfair rules. You have the legal right to protest, but it will cost you money, time and anxiety, and you may be deprived of your means of making a living while you do it.
I have seen this abuse of power firsthand. I was initially appalled to find politically sophisticated people, who represented organizations with money and influence, knuckle under to illegal and unfair rules and even pay fines that had been illegally imposed. But they were making the most expeditious choice for themselves and the people they represented.
When one branch of government adds to its own power by intruding on the prerogatives of the others, the net effect is that you lose — that is, you, the individual citizen. The sum total of the power of government has been increased, and the sum total of your freedom to live your own life has been reduced. Your freedom has been reduced by quite a lot, because the protective barrier — the separation of powers — has been breached. You end up with more of your choices being taken away.
You could call this a constitutional problem or you could call it an ecology problem. Both interpretations can be applied; it’s the same problem viewed through different filters.
Cities, counties, states, etc. the other government
Power is divided in our government not only among the three branches but also among the jurisdictional levels of government. The levels are, basically, local, state and federal, with many complexities interwoven.
These levels do not correspond to NLP’s logical levels. They are nested inside one another in some ways but not all ways.
When freedom is considered as a highly valued criterion, the highest level is the most local.
Here are a few common presuppositions that ought to be examined and challenged. Some of these concepts may be familiar to you. You may find that you have presupposed them without ever having thought much about them.
- Levels of government are a hierarchy. The federal government is “above” the states; the states are “above” the cities and counties, and so on. Each level has the power to govern the levels below.
- The federal government is smarter than state or local government and has the resources to make better decisions than state or local government about most things.
- The federal government is managed better than state and local government.
- Federal oversight makes state and local governments function more responsibly.
- We know that our state and local tax dollars are spent inefficiently and wastefully; with federal tax dollars we aren’t so sure.
- Federal grant money that comes to our community is free.
- Uniform rules and laws for the entire nation are better than a hodgepodge of different laws and rules.
- Local politicians are sleazy; national politicians (such as United States Senators) are statesmen.
Here are a few responses to these presuppositions.
- Competency and excellence are randomly scattered among all levels of government. So are incompetency and corruption.
- Federal decision-making produces some improvements and some disasters.
- There is not a hierarchical relationship between state and federal government.
- The governor of your state is not answerable to the President (there may be some exceptions for national emergencies).
- Most activities of state and local government are not subject to federal oversight. The states stand on their own authority; local governments are granted their powers from the states and have varying degrees of autonomy and authority. Where federal oversight exists, it typically makes local governments more bureaucratic; if the highest incentive is to please a higher level bureaucrat instead of the local voters, bureaucrats will act to satisfy the bureaucratic requirements, which often are paperwork rather than substance.
- Federal grant money is our tax dollars returned to our communities, minus the processing costs. It is redistributed so we don’t get it back in proportion to how much we paid in taxes. The redistribution is common knowledge within the political class. National statistics are available to show the winners and losers — which states got more money than they paid in taxes and which got less. If you live in any state but New Mexico, you’ve been supporting me. (Thank you.)
- Uniform rules and laws are good for some things and not good for others. In some cases, the effect of uniformity is to prevent flexible, varied approaches that might seek the best solutions and test them.
- United States Senators are former county commissioners and state legislators, now dressed in better suits.
It is not correct to assume that the federal government has higher authority than your state or local government. In most areas of governance, the only oversight comes from the citizens (that is, you) and from affected special interest groups. On the level where philosophy and theology meet politics, it is the people, not any level of government, who stand at the top of the hierarchy. The Constitution is the grant of powers to the government by the people. This structure is not pyramidal at all. The people, at the top, grant power both to the federal government and the states. This can be seen as the ultimate end of political evolution starting from the divine right of kings.
The tenth amendment to the Constitution guarantees that the power of the federal government is limited to that specified in the Constitution itself, and that all other powers are reserved to the states and the people. The specifics of what “states’ rights” mean is a subject of endless debate, but as a principle it is clearly established.
States have the primary authority on the prosecution of criminals. Laws on crime originate from the states. Each state defines specific crimes and what the punishment shall be. Most police forces are local. Often their authority stops at the county line or some other jurisdictional boundary, and they may cross those lines only if there is a joint powers agreement — something like a treaty — between the neighboring jurisdictions.
The federal government does not have a superseding right to prosecute criminals. In fact, most “crimes” are not defined as crimes on the federal level. When you hear federal politicians talking about “the death penalty for drug kingpins” or some such odd language you may wonder why “drug kingpins” are singled out. The answer is that prosecution for drug crimes is done by the states. The “drug kingpin” law is justified to some extent by the need for an interstate law enforcement agency such as the FBI. Beyond that, it’s federal posturing that intrudes on the authority of states because the current fashion is to be tough on crime.
Until recently, federal criminal laws were limited to certain areas where the crimes were genuinely federal in nature, such as tax evasion, espionage, smuggling, or forgery of the currency. Political pressure, fueled by national TV talk shows, has moved Congress to intrude on the states by adding to the list of federal crimes.
You probably learned in school that a person, once found “not guilty,” could not be tried twice for the same crime. Remember the four Los Angeles police officers who beat up a man named Rodney King and were found not guilty by a California jury — and were then tried again on federal charges for the same crime?
Your sense of justice may have been offended by the “not guilty” verdict in the first trial. My sense of justice was shaken to its roots by the fact that our government had found a way to try a defendant twice when the first result was unpopular — and that in all the news coverage of those trials, I never saw or heard the issue raised. Long ago I read a statement by the American Civil Liberties Union to the effect that “we have to defend the sons of bitches because if their rights are taken away, then ours can be also.” The ACLU was silent on the double jeopardy of those police officers.
To return to more ordinary things, joint powers agreements and other forms of inter-jurisdictional agreements have produced what is in effect a second national government, one that most citizens don’t know about. It’s not secret, it just doesn’t get much attention.
The centralization of taxes
In the small town in northern New Mexico where I used to live, the mayor was a genuinely nice man who took his responsibility seriously and was popular with the townsfolk. He occasionally told me with pride about how hard he had worked to obtain a federal grant for a new sewer system, or a road, or some other program.
The mayor of my town liked being liked by his constituents, who were his lifelong friends and neighbors. The last thing he wanted to be was a tax collector.
It is much easier for local politicians to keep local taxes low and let the bulk of the money be raised by that paragon of evil, the Internal Revenue Service. Then, when the town needs money, the local officials can go to the federal government and apply for a grant. If they get the money, they are heroes. If they don’t, the federal government (that big inhuman shapeless nominalization) is the villain.
The federal-grant game relies upon the delusion that federal money is free. The mayor’s constituents were happy in their belief that they were getting something for nothing rather than just their own tax dollars back, minus the handling charges.
Federal redistribution programs have two effects. First, they redistribute money from rich to poor so that poor communities can do things they probably couldn’t afford on their own. This is an argument in favor of federal dollars for things like local public education and environmental projects.
Two, they take away local power and increase federal control. The federal control begins with the federal government’s selection of which activities are worth funding. Local governments are under great political pressure to do the things that federal funds pay for, rather than setting their own priorities. Next, the federal agencies that distribute the dollars also establish the standards and criteria for use of the dollars. Local government thus becomes accountable to a federal agency and not to its own citizens. The important decision-making is removed from the local level.
As the control of money migrates toward the center, and the decision-making power moves with it, so do the prestige and the public’s perception of what’s important. Increasingly, the citizens tend to think disparagingly of their local government, and to pay minimal attention to it, while presuming that all important decisions will be made at the center. As they look to the center for action and leadership, they add momentum to the continuing flow of power to the center — away from where they as individuals can have any meaningful influence on it.
When decisions are made by a faraway central authority, citizens tend to assume that that is the natural and normal order of things. Deletion of memory takes place as citizens forget that decisions now made at the federal level were once made in their own communities and neighborhoods, by public officials and community members who were their friends and neighbors. They gradually drift into a belief that “the government” is an outside force somewhere far away, over which they have no influence.
About the author Merilee Dannemann-Kamerman:
In my professional life, I have worked either with or for all three branches of government — all on the state or local level. As a newspaper reporter for a small-town weekly, I covered the district court, the county commission, several school districts, the town council, police and various executive agencies. I was a consultant to local government executive agencies. I later worked in the New Mexico state legislature, where I met my husband (now deceased) and became a legislative spouse. For the last nine years I have worked for a state agency that houses both a regulatory function and a court. I have been press secretary to a gubernatorial campaign and a volunteer in numerous campaigns for legislative and local offices.
I started by NLP studies at NLP Comprehensive with practitioner training in 1987, tool masters in 1990 and most recently took the AnchorPoint Health Certification program with Smith, Hallbom and Dilts in 1999-2000.
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The Tragedy of the Commons / Internet information resources: The commons relationship between people and their environment was noted by Garrett Hardin in a 1968 paper published in the journal “SCIENCE” (162:1243-1248).
The essay can be found at:
The following reference is to a web page linking to numerous essays about “the tragedy of the commons” and environmental issues.
I found a long list of other related references by searching for “Tragedy+of+the+Commons” on the Infoseek search engine. The model is primarily applied to environmental issues.