Friday, March 27, 2009

Damned Old Gubmint

There have been three stories over the last two days that, to me, are good examples of why more government is probably not better government.

The first is a story Russ sent me. The short version of the story is this. In follow up to a story about (and pretty shocking video of) an Oklahoma sheriff's deputy shooting and killing a dog when stopping to ask for directions, further probing into department activities revealed a different deputy who falsified time sheets at a golf club where he was moonlighting. Whether or not the deputy should be punished at his government gig for something that happened on private time is someone else's debate. My issue is with the sheriff, who apparently doesn't seem to understand why people like me have a hard time trusting their government:

“Law, I don’t know of any law that says you can’t falsify time sheets at a golf course, so no. And if you (Reporter Mike Friend) want to keep asking me questions on this issue you’ll just damage any good relationship I have with the paper. You can’t tell me you don’t ever speed while you’re driving down the road, or that you don’t break the law and sin… so why is this such a big deal if the deputy was not working on department time? If I start calling you and asking you questions about your crimes and sins we’ll see how much you like it.”

It seems to me that the sheriff is suggesting, at best, that people should mind their own business when it comes to wondering if their law enforcement officers' activities are on the up and up. How do you suppose the sheriff would respond if you told him to mind his own business when he pulls you over?

The second story is one you may have heard. A Dallas police officer stopped Houston Texans running back Ryan Moats for running a traffic light near a Dallas hospital. To make yet another long story short, the officer refused to make any accommodation for the fact that Moats's mother-in-law was dying at that very moment. He allegedly drew his weapon shortly after making the stop, threatened to tow Moats's vehicle, threatened to take him to jail, and finally threatened to "screw [Moats] over." While Moats has some culpability for breaking the traffic law, and later for not being able to locate proof of insurance, the story as it is told is of a cold, compassion-less, and power-addicted officer of the law.

The third story
involves the AIG bailout and the rage that was reported to be rampant when the $165 million in employee bonuses came to light. The story is remarkably unclear, as one U.S. Senator has either lied or been very confused about it, and the president is talking out of both sides of his mouth on the matter. It appears that employees who remain at AIG, largely to aid in its being dismantled and sold for scrap, were promised that they would be paid to halt their careers and stay in place until the job was finished. Naturally, many in the government and the media expressed absolute horror that a company would pay "bonuses" on the government dime.

According to this now-former AIG V.P., we didn't really get the whole story. A New York Times op-ed this week contained nothing but a resignation letter from the gentleman, whose explanation sheds new light on the nature of the so-called bonuses. Campbell Brown says, "It is hard to feel sorry for someone who is getting $742,000 and may end up with the final say on where it goes, charity or otherwise, as taxpayers spend $170 billion to save your company." She may be right. But if our government promises to pay individuals money to hang around and help pick up the pieces, it's not okay for it to renege as soon as the lights come on the wind changes direction.

All three stories, and thousands more throughout human history, point to one truth. You can't trust anyone, including agents of government. That's cynical, but it is true. You can't trust them to do the right thing. You can't trust them to hold themselves to the same standard as those whom they govern. You can't trust them to keep their word, especially when public opinion turns against the promises they made.

A mistake I believe we started making with the Patriot Act and continue to make today is that of believing that the people who work in our government are somehow more trustworthy than those who don't. They aren't. The only difference is that agents of government make decisions that are more-or-less final, often can't be challenged by competition, and can be implemented with deadly force.

I understand the compulsion to "do something" when things aren't going well. We elect leaders and expect them to solve problems. But much like managing your relationship with your in-laws, making a pot of chili, tending to your front lawn, or fishing, trying harder doesn't necessarily produce better results. When you insist that your government officials do something to fix a problem, not only might the government solution create more problems. The "solution" might be - and frequently is - motivated less by what is right than by what is popular at the moment, less by compassion than by the enjoyment and extension of power, and less by the hope for the well-being of constituents than by that of the politician.


Charles said...

Amen to all of that. If I may quote a former government official, "the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"

Whitney said...

Glad to see Russ sending you links from the Agitator. I highly recommend the site every day as a tool to get your blood going - and to stay on top of exactly how un-isolated these "isolated" incidents are when cops treat people like shit.