Wednesday, September 9, 2009

One Big Ethical Problem in Government

© 2009 Joshua Stark

And it's not what you think. I'm no anti-government individual; my Uncle suffered through Bataan for something, and the only thing that makes America is its free and active, democratic, political institutions, which provide us the framework for everything else.

I've been unable to add to this blog, recently, not because we lack environmental ethics issues, but because I've been inundated with them at work and through friends & family. For example, I just got off the phone with my cousin, who had an encounter with a hunting guide who just leaves his empties because the river will flush them out. And that's the smallest one. So, when I get home, the last thing I want to do is hash out some ethical or environmental problem.
This last week, I've been in a back-and-forth at the Sacramento Bee's website, in a debate with an anti-hunter about the nature of hunting, killing, and wounding. It comes in response to an article by Holly Heyser over at NorCalCazadora. The article is here, and if you scroll down to the bottom, you'll come across my comments (as JStark7777) opposing one MonicaZ. She is civil, and has some strong feelings. I feel good about what I've written. Also, Holly's article is great!

But the biggest issue on my mind lately has come from the looming doom over the California Delta, and just how badly the Legislature will screw it up in the hopes of doing something this year. The last few weeks, the Senate President pro tem, known for banning water meters in Sacramento, removed from "debate" the only Senator representing the Primary Zone of the Delta, or what we folks from the Delta like to call THE DELTA. Our Senator Wolk had authored a bill in the mix, but she wasn't allowed to work on its final appearance, because, says the Contra Costa times, "Steinberg said he could not be assured she would vote for the final product. As a Sacramento lawmaker, he said, he would represent Delta interests." How's that little, refreshing bit of truth in politics and reporting? Well, half of it, anyway. It's interesting to note that he could be assured of his own vote, without even knowing what the 'final product' would look like.

This issue has taken a lot out of me. I've had a conversation with a prominent political writer who mistook "upstream" for "North of". I've had conversations with farm labor organizers leading groups of concerned workers into the Capitol, wanting more water for the parched Central Valley (and, some say, who had been threatened into attending), but who have never spoken with farm labor in the Delta. But, the worst conversations I've had have been with "special interests", in particular environmental groups, who think that the only politically feasible thing to do is to back the majority, and accept a peripheral canal. It's this last point where I dive into the realm of applied ethics and politics, and tangentially, environment.

In my time, I've had a lot of "political feasibility" conversations, and though they have often left a sour taste in my mouth, I hadn't really stopped to ask why, except to note that advocates for a cause shouldn't concern themselves so much with political feasibility. Political feasibility is the reason we vote representatives; it's their job to make the deals and decide yes or no.

And, that's it. Last week, driving home alone from my last day of bow season, it struck me: Political advocates, what many derisively call "special interests" should not concern themselves with political feasibility.

First off, I do not deride special interests. We are a democracy, and to condemn those who participate makes no sense. In fact, if one reads the Federalist papers, one comes away with a profound sense that democracy only works when folks make their interests plainly known, and so I applaud organizing for one's interests. However, to point out again that democracy only works when folks make their interests plainly known, it is imperative that organizations created for particular causes be completely honest and plain in defending those causes.

For years, environmental organizations had been brow-beaten because of their staunch, unyielding support for what some thought were wacky ideals. However, over time, some of these organizations became successful, and organized political actions that gave them the ability to wheel-and-deal. Now, a few of these groups are multi-million dollar outfits, with authority and responsibility. Unfortunately, this means that they do not always passionately advocate their cause (from the oath lawyers take), and sometimes give up the "perfect" for the "good."

I offer that this is not only not their role, but that when political advocates pursue political feasibility instead of their stated goals, they actually damage democratic institutions. Political deal-making for general progress is the role of politicians, this is why we elect representatives; this is not why we join organizations. When those power-broker organizations self-censor, they remove from the public discourse information vital to democratic institutions, they warp the understanding of subjects (because they are often experts in their subjects), they warp the perception of their constituents' desires for protection, and, in time, they lose their own goals.

If you've made it this far, please comment.


Donald "Bud" Stark said...

Josh, great point. But I wonder if it is always possible for special interest not to consider political feasibility. I'm thinking of cases where the interested group has enough influence with the politician that it can give him guidelines for what they will accept. Maybe, secure the good by sacrificing the perfect.

Josh said...

Dad, that kind of information is exactly what organizations should be doing. They should be clear and consistent in their advocacy.

I'm referring to conversations that organizations have before they go into that room with the politician, in which they self-censor in order to give the politician something they think they can get.

It is not a perfectly fine line, of course. However, so many groups find themselves on the edge of that line, and the more financially powerful the group, it seems, the more often they find themselves there.

However, in regards to securing the good: that, I posit, is the role of the politician, to make the big decisions, the big compromises. An advocacy group can quickly find itself lost from its goals by trying to divine political feasibility, and they are often wrong. Leave that to the people we pay to make those decisions, and instead inform, advise, and cajole over a particular set of goals.

In my head, I compare it to my role when I was a teacher - I could not ever know which kid's light bulb would switch on that day, so I couldn't ever pick one. If I did, I would inevitably make a mistake, so the only way to get it right was to act like they were/would ALL switch on. It's the same with politicians and concepts; you may think you know, but why self-censor and get it wrong, when you can stay true to your goals, and when you get it right, you win your goals. In the meantime, you aren't withholding your true motives or important facts from the democratic process.

Donald "Bud" Stark said...

Again, I agree and am glad your are the one doing what you do and not I. I couldn't trust myself to always hold strongly to my specific principles. For that. Thanks!

David Zetland said...

Well-written post on the complexities that most people do not know and the rest try to ignore.

Keep up the struggle!

Josh said...

Thanks for the comment, Dave. Feel free to chime in any time.