Monday, November 19, 2001

We Choose Our Rulers

Once upon a time, in Cathay …

In ancient China, in 221 BCE, the Ch’in Emperor came up with a nifty new form of government. It is now called “bureaucracy”. Basically, you have a bunch of what we now call civil servants, answerable only to their own superiors, enforcing a bunch of rules established by the Powers that Be, for the good of everybody. Everybody up to the highest levels of government below the Emperor and his immediate staff was part of the bureaucracy.

Now, it’s obvious that you have to be very careful in selecting the bureaucrats. You have to have some criterion for selecting people. Traditionally, the people running things were friends of Number One, or people that somebody owed a favor to, or even a warlord that Number One didn’t want to mess with right now. This essentially guarantees a mess. You can’t really govern a real Empire like this. You have to have Objective Criteria.

So what was Ch’in’s solution? In a stroke of brilliance, he came up with the criterion that lasted until 1911, when Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the last emperor. (Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, instead of a modern liberal democracy, what they got was Fascism, followed by Communism. Not an improvement.)

Culture. Ch’in established a series of Official Examinations that covered classical literature, literary criticism, poetry composition, calligraphy, and all the other things that a cultured gentleman would be expected to know. The true brilliance of this was that it ensured that the aristocracy would get most of the jobs in the bureaucracy (after all, they were the ones setting up the exams), while allowing for exceptional men from the lower classes to make good. This was the first time that a man who was “poor but honest, hardworking and intelligent” to go as far as his talents would take him, without support from a sponsor inside the government. This is an incredibly useful safety valve – when the poor have no hope at all of improving their condition, they’re ripe for rebellion.

(In case you’re wondering, yes, this is the guy that China was named for. He’s also the Bad Guy in the truly superb fantasy novel Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart. He was a really serious nutcase in other respects.)

Fast Forward …

Now, in the US, we live in a democracy. We choose our rulers by election, with the process set up so that we always get the best candidates to select from …


So how do we select our rulers in a democracy? Well, it varies. The President of the Czech Republic is a playwright – close to the Chinese model. The British like orators – the British Parliament has been the scene of some of the greatest speeches of the last several hundred years. In the US, the most important thing we have culturally is money. Our leaders are the best political fund raisers. (The second most important thing in our current culture is sex. Hence Bill Clinton.)

In US elections, the candidate with the most money almost invariably wins. Not always – gotta keep that safety valve. Some people are jerks enough that all the money in the world won’t get them into office.

The result of this is that our elected officials are indifferent in most respects, but they are absolute wizards in extracting money from interest groups. Basically, we have an institutionalized system of bribery. After all, nobody is interested in Good Government in the abstract – Good Government is government that looks out for my interests. Want to have some input? Cough up some dough. Want more input? More dough. Life Lesson: Watch the money.

So What Should We Be Looking At?

In current political theory, there are two ways of looking at this. The theoreticians call them the “liberal” view and the “populist” view. Unfortunately, they’re using these terms in a way that is violently opposed to their normal usage. In this context, a “liberal” is someone who votes for a candidate based on his or her character and personality, while a “populist” votes based on “the issues”.

It’s pretty obvious that current popular theory favors the “populist” side. We have endless debates on “the issues”. Pundits spend endless hours debating how well each candidate’s position on The Issues match up with the Public’s views on The Issues, as determined by examining the entrails of a computer (err, sorry, by polls).

Of course, it all comes down to money. The candidate who can convince the Public that his or her views most closely match their own wins. To do that takes a lot of money for polls and especially for advertising to convince people that The Candidate really agrees with what you think, despite those unfortunate statements reported by an unfair and biased press. For most people, what matters is the volume of advertising, not its content. If they remember the name, they’ll vote for it. Noting else matters.

Note that here, for general elections, we’re only talking about the so-called “independent” voters. About 2/3 of the voters in most areas are “yellow dogs”, who are committed to one party and will vote for that party’s candidate even if it is a “yellow dog”. (Near as I can tell, this comment refers to a canine. It doesn’t seem to have racist connotations of any kind.) In areas where the two parties are of roughly equal strength, the general election really does come down to the independents. In more lopsided areas, the real battle is in the primary election.

Now, the Right Wing has been talking about “character” for a long time. Unfortunately, the “character” that they’re interested is exclusively “party loyalty” for Republicans and “sex and drugs” for Democrats. Neither gives any indication of philosophical depth, analytical talent, coolness under pressure, diplomacy, organizational ability, or any other personality trait that we might want in a leader.

My own view on the subject (you knew I’d get around to this sooner or later, didn’t you?) is to vote based on character. Problem with issues is, first, that circumstances change. Last thing you want is somebody with an ossified worldview when the world shifts. Second, there are just too many issues. Some people have “litmus issues”, where nothing else matters. Most don’t. By looking at issues, we have to deal with candidates who agree with our views on some issues and disagree on others. Figuring out who agrees with us the most comes down to as much of a judgment call as anything else.

The thing is, when you talk about “character”, you have to look at the aspects of “character” that mean that the person will be good for the country, not whether he or she would win a Sunday-school popularity contest. Unfortunately, when you look at our current crop of politicians, we have a vast surplus of utter slimeballs.

Reform? Not gonna happen. Prediction — we’ll continue to stumble along with our current system of legalized bribery until we get a President who is utterly unqualified for much of anything, but has all the money in the world. He’ll let the economy go straight down the tubes, push through a bunch of laws that quite obviously benefit only his cronies, start a war or two, put out a bunch of orders to let the FBI go after people he doesn’t like, and … what’s that you say?

Never mind.

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