Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The State of the System

Yesterday was election day. I voted by absentee ballot a week early so, with that out of the way, I got to spend election day and the few days leading up to it listening to other people comment about the State of the System - their worries about how bad things are and how bad they might get, depending on who is elected and which referenda pass.

Well, the election is over and we have a bunch of new folks in office and, as usual, everyone is complaining. Some people are even suggesting that the form of government we have is the problem; it encourages behind-the-scenes shenanigans, abuse of power, you name it.

I’ve thought about this subject for a long time, in fact, since I first registered to vote at age 18. I’ve studied the various forms of government people have had, around the world and over the millennia. And I’ve come to one inescapable conclusion: The problem is not with the systems, but with the people.

Here’s the thing: Pretty much any system of government will work well if all the people are ‘good guys’ - fair-minded, responsible, unselfish, not greedy or power-hungry. In fact, if everyone is a Good Guy, you probably don’t even need a system of government. The problem is, the human population has always had a sizeable proportion of Bad Guys. And they’re really good at finding ways to subvert the system, any system, for their personal gain, regardless of the consequences to everyone else.

This reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with the man who lived across the street from us. He spent about twenty years as the town chief of police, then did a couple terms as county sheriff before retiring. He asked me why we had laws. I suggested that the purpose of laws was to make people behave. He laughed. Then he pointed out something that staggered me, and that still rocks me when I really think about it.

The Good Guys don’t need laws; they’ll generally do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing. The Bad Guys ignore the laws and do whatever they want, regardless. About the only thing laws really do, in the grand scheme of things, is define which line the Bad Guys are crossing in a particular situation. Whoa.

Believe it or not, I’m not a cynic. I do think human nature has a powerfully positive side to it. It’s just that, throughout history (and probably through prehistory as well) the nasty bits of human nature have tended to float to the top, like so much greasy scum in a city puddle, and take over, simply because the nice bits of human nature tend to let them. Because they’re nice. Catch-22.

What’s the solution? Beats me. Maybe invent a better human being? I’ll check with God and get back to you about that. In the meantime, I’ll continue to surround myself with people who radiate those positive traits I mentioned earlier. I can’t change the world but I can sure as heck build a buffer between me and it.