Sunday, April 25, 2010

Good Government?

"Peace, order and good government" - British North America Act, 1867, part of Canada's Constitution.

While Urban Legends predate the Internet, they thrive there and it often pays to double check facts and quotes you see in email and on websites. I’ve read many great quotes which after a little research turn out not to be authentic (for the person quoted). Does this make the quote less “real”?

I just finished reading the novel “Time Travelers Never Die” and in one plot line, lost Greek plays are rescued from the ancient Library of Alexandria. They are anonymously given to a modern Greek scholar who translates them and believes them to be real despite the scorn and skepticism of her colleagues. When one of the plays is successfully performed to acclaim, the Director says, Who cares if the play is an “authentic” Sophocles, it’s still a great piece of work.

One of my favorite quotes is

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

This is attributed to Edmund Burke, an Irish statesman pictured above, but wikiquote says there is no evidence to support this attribution. However Burke did say something similar in 1770,

"When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."

Perhaps someone paraphrased this quote and improved it unintentionally? Is the quote less effective for being falsely attributed?

What inspired this blog post was a quote I read for the first time today,

A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years.

The quote became popular during the 2000 US election and is attributed to historian Alexander Fraser Tytler (sometimes misspelled Tyler) (1747-1813). The website Snopes.com, which investigates urban legends, calls the attribution “apocryphal”.

And yet someone created this great quote. The real question should not be “who” but rather “is the quote accurate?” There is much evidence in the world today, be it Greece, California, or soon the US, that elected officials have been way too generous in handouts to appease voters. They have undermined the financial stability of the country/state/city they govern. And the saddest thing is, those on the receiving end feel entitled to it. In California, the unions are saying there’s nothing wrong with the pension system that another $40 Billion in new taxes won't fix. The fault, they say, lies with the fall in the stock market which made it impossible for California to pay what the contracts require. At the Illinois capitol last week, the Teachers Union held a protest aimed at state legislators demanding more money for schools (and salaries) and higher taxes to pay for it.

Bottom Line

When municipalities are hemorrhaging money, why is anyone asking for “more”? Whatever happened to civic responsibility and promoting the common welfare?

"Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country"
- JFK

Sometimes I wonder if the seed of destruction lies in the Declaration of Independence itself with the famous line,

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

A marvelous quote often misunderstood:

1. “all Men are created equal” should be interpreted as all are equal in the eyes of God and the Law. No class entitlements (e.g. a king vs a commoner). It does not mean that all people have equal talent or that everyone should make equal money. Some use "equality" to declare that being wealthy is “unfair” and try to pull down the rich to pull everyone else up.

2. “certain” unalienable Rights – as a nation founded on rights it is unfortunate that there is no definitive list of rights. The Bill of Rights listed many rights but did not close debate. We still argue law over hand guns and free speech after 200 years. And people claim new rights such as a right to healthcare, to housing, or to unionize. Is there a right to government subsidies?

3. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” – this may be the straw that breaks the camel's back. The original quote by Locke is “"no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Possessions was changed by Thomas Jefferson, with the endorsement of Ben Franklin, to “Happiness”. But the pursuit of Happiness may well destroy this country. Higher taxation is an assault on property so we are seeing the sacrifice of possessions for the happiness of others (civil servants, uninsured, etc). Over a third of my earnings are assaulted to pay for others' healthcare, unemployment, subsidised housing, disability and retirement.

Who is going to pay for my welfare and happiness?

British Commonwealth nations use a different foundational principle:

"Peace, order and good government".

This is tricky too – it sounds great and is greatly desirable but without Liberty this principle can lead to dictatorships. I’ll risk Godwin’s Law here and point out that Hitler was democratically elected under such promises to the Germans.

Plato in his Republic did not trust Democracies - the people are too fickle. He believed that peace, order and good government would come from a benevolent dictator. This may work in theory but fails in real world. America was founded in opposition to a monarch and a tyrannical parliament so we created a system whereby potential Presidential dictators are checked and balanced against a Congress and a Supreme Court. In particular the Senate, with 6-year terms, is supposed to act as a buffer against mob rule and the fickleness of fads and demagogues. The "Senators" (old men in the Roman empire) are supposed to add wisdom and deliberation to new laws. Sadly our Senators are not doing their job when they go along with a President who asks for volumes of new law in a hurry with no time for anyone to study it properly. Bad law can be worse than no law at all.

If only we could combine the best of the two foundations into a new principle of

“Life, Liberty and Good Government”

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