Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It's Not That Simple...

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss how the Tea Party is bringing much-needed common sense back into politics. But before I do that, I want to dispel this idea that governing should be simple if we only used common sense. What I'm talking about is best illustrated in a recent commercial which asked, “what would the world be like if firemen ran it.” As the firemen sit in the legislature, the chief asks, “who wants clean water?” Everyone raises their hands, and the chief says, “easiest job in the world.” Sadly, many people believe this utopian view is how government should be and they see any suggestion that governing is more complex than that as an attempt to keep "real" people out of government. This is utter nonsense.

To explain why, let’s start with the most basic principle ensconced in law. This is one we can all agree upon and which most people view as so entirely obvious and unambiguous that they think it could be put into law “as is,” and they complain that only a lawyer could see ambiguity in it: thou shalt not kill. Unambiguous, right?

Well, let me ask: what if I kill in self-defense? Suddenly, we've found an exception and the statement is no longer as inviolate as it seemed. But this is only one exception and everyone understands what self-defense is, right? Ok, is it self-defense if I kill someone who wasn’t actually trying to kill me? Does his intent matter or how I perceived it? What if I acted preemptively, before he made the threat? What if I started the fight or if I could flee with no danger? What if I killed an innocent bystander in the process? Does it matter if the danger passed before I finished the killing? Does it matter if I was defending someone else instead of myself? What if they didn’t want my help? What if I was drunk? What if someone else made me drunk or a medication made me lose touch with reality? What if the medication was illegal? Ok, forget self-defense, what if my killing took place on a battlefield where the government instructed me to kill? Can I kill in the government's name? Anyone at any time? What if I’m violating orders? What if I kill an enemy soldier who has surrendered? What if I kill a friendly soldier by mistake? What if I kill purely by accident? What if the accident resulted from my carelessness or recklessness or indifference? What if I built a dangerous product that I knew would kill someone? What if I only suspected it might? What if they misused it, but I knew they probably would? What if the person I killed was about to die anyway? What if they were being eaten by a shark, and they asked me to shoot them to stop the suffering? Does any of this apply to animals? Should it apply to a fetus? What if the woman was on her way to get an abortion when I killed the fetus? I could go on for pages.

Do you see the problem? It sounds easy to say “this is an obvious principle and there’s no reason it should be complicated” until you stop to realize that it is complicated. This is the clearest, most agreed upon principle across the planet, but it lends itself to hundreds of pages of discussion because there are thousands of scenarios to consider. And as you get further and further along, you’ll find that opinions begin to diverge until you find scenarios where there is no clear consensus. Now imagine how much more complex this becomes with less clear issues like “respect another’s property” or with dividing up the use of river water.

You can often see that people don’t grasp that these issues are inherently complex when they start talking about the Constitution. Too many people who adopt the simplistic view will spit out a single phrase they’ve picked from the Constitution and they will assume that settles the issue. For example, gun people often say, “shall not be infringed,” to argue that the Constitution clearly forbids any regulation. But that’s an irrationally simplistic view of the Constitution, as even the “no infringers” will simultaneously agree that police should have the power to disarm you in a confrontation and that wardens can keep prisoners from buying guns. Both of these are infringements. And if you accept that the phrase “shall not be infringed” cannot be taken literally, i.e. it does allow for infringements, then you’ve interjected ambiguity, the same ambiguity the simplistic view finds so offensive.

Moreover, despite popular opinion, the Constitution is not a complete guide for government nor is it a detailed list of dos and don’t. . . it is ambiguous. For example, while the Constitution provides a list of rights and powers, that list is crawling with vague terms, such as allowing the government to impose regulations for the “health, safety and welfare” of the people. Taken literally, that would seem to grant unlimited power. It took the Supreme Court to decide that the Bill of Rights limited state governments as well as the Feds -- the Constitution is silent on that point. So should we undo that? It's the rare literalist who says we should. Even more interestingly, the Constitution doesn’t actually tell us who decides what's constitutional, the Supreme Court grabbed that power in Marbury v. Madison, yet everyone seems to accept that now.

There is also often a utopian flavor in the simplistic line of thinking. You often hear: why don’t the politicians just do what the people want? But which people? And what if the majority want to enslave the minority? We’ve asked before, should the role of representatives be to do the will of the majority in their district or should they use their judgment? None of our readers was willing to say entirely one or the other, in other words you all accepted an ambiguity in the system.

The point to all of this is that the simplistic view that governing is all about just reading the Constitution and doing the common sense thing is flawed. Simplicity is not a sign of purity of thought or wisdom, it is a sign of ignorance of reality. (The same holds true in science as well, where answers usually only seem simple when you’re missing critical details.)

Now, that said, let me state that we need a return to common sense principles in government. Too many politicians live in a world of semantics and false logic where verbal games and procedure trump substance. They see a critical difference between a fee and a tax, even though both are the same. They see a reduction in a projected rate of growth as a cut. They think they can balance a budget by taking spending “off budget” or by adding in fake future cuts that will never happen. This is where common sense is badly needed.

What we need are people who understand the complexities of making laws, but who also grasp the common sense principles about how a government should be run. We need to avoid the snake oil sellers who tell us “it’s simple, I’m just gonna lift the hood and fix it,” but we also need to avoid the snakes who think they can dance on the head of a pin.

This isn't that hard, but it's just not simple.


Joel Farnham said...


Interesting post.

In my government class in high school we played a game. It was write a law game. We had only one class hour which is only 50 minutes long. During that time, only one group completed the game in time and that group had so many caveats in it, I would never have had voted for it. The purpose for the game was to show us by experience how difficult it is make a law.

I wish that every would-be law-maker play that game prior to being selected as a candidate for office.

One thing I would like to see as an amendment. Lawyers be barred from becoming law-makers. That way, laws would have to be written so that non-lawyers could read it. It beats the Shakespeare alternative.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Thanks! That's an interesting assignment and I think it's something they should be doing in modern civics classes. It might open a few eyes.

This is actually an issue that I run into a lot these days. I think a lot of people are very angry and anger doesn't often lend itself to a reality check. So I hear people say things all the time like "they don't need X number of pages to tell us ___" or the ever popular "if real people made the law, it would be short and simple." But the truth is that when you start looking at the issues, there's almost nothing that is that simple -- as the killing example shows.

Now that said, I think they've made the law too complex and too technical. I agree entirely that it should be written in a more clear way. But I also think the real problem is that the government is doing too much and digging too deeply into our every day lives. The more you try to do, the more complex the law gets.

Moreover, there is a real loss of common sense in the law these days. In other words, rather than making the law to account for age-old wisdom that is derived from shared human experience, they are making the law according to theories created by experts. Thus, you start to see hairs split into a thousand threads, and most of them are there purely to test some theory or promote some political ideology.

If we could undo that, then I think you would see a much more user-friendly law/government.

Ed said...

Interesting article! In all truth, I've often felt this way: why do they make it so complex. I guess I never thought about it enough because I did think "thou shalt not kill" was pretty clear.

Let me ask, what are the political implications of this?

Notawonk said...

i have likened running a government to raising kids and running a household, and it holds here for your argument. our household refrain was: do the right thing and suffer the consequences. kinda counter-intuitive, but it's speaks to the complexity of right and wrong. while it may not be easy, once you know the right thing, it's not hard.

nothing is as it seems on the surface. we also had another saying in our house after a fight about the cheese on a hamburger: it's never about the burger.

yep, we were *that* household ;)

great post.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Simplicity is an illusion. I first realized this in engineering school. Whenever something seemed simple, it turned out that I just didn't know enough. The same seems true in all facets of life, the more simple something seems, the greater the likelihood that you're just overlooking something.

In this case, it's easy to say -- "this should all be easy," but it really isn't once you start looking at it. And since you're also talking about something that involves getting people to agree, it gets all that much more complex.

The political implications are this. I think our government has gotten far too complex. BUT, that doesn't mean we should accept the simplistic argument that many are making right now. In other words, we should be very wary of people/candidates who say "all you gotta do is ____," and people who say things like "just follow the Constitution" -- they're a dead end. But at the same time, we should also be wary of people who revel in the complexity they've created. They're a dead end in the different direction.

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, Thanks! And excellent connection with "common sense wisdom." I think your analogy is perfect!

Right and wrong is not as simple as black or white or yes or no, it is much more nuanced than that, but it's not hopelessly complex or confused either.

I would put it this way, it is simple, it's just not simplistic.

Unknown said...

Andrew: And to add to your thought, there is a difference between a simple man and a simpleton. As they say in AA, "the program is simple, but it's not easy."

AndrewPrice said...

Very true Lawhawk.

Ed said...

Good points!

The stuff you say about the constitution is pretty interesting too. I do hear that all the time, with people saying just read it literally. I guess you can't do that?

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, No, you really can't. It's not that kind of document. What it is, is a basic framework for governing that includes a lot of wiggle room to let it meet contingencies.

That keeps it from being too restrictive, which is a good thing because it makes it useful and means it can be adapted to meet changing needs.

BUT, sadly, it also opens the door to this awful idea that you can read it expansively to cover almost anything.

StanH said...

“If you can’t dazzle them with brains, baffle’em with bullshit!”

When the framers put the Constitution together, they knew that it would be open to interpretation, and set up one of the three branches of government as the judicial, with it’s final arbiter The Supreme Court to settle the disputes. The Constitution is the starting point.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, The Constitution is always the starting point, and then some. It's a limitation on government and the exercise of government power. But it can't be read literally because it isn't that type of document. It's a guide, a set of principles with some specific limitations. Those principles need to be read with common sense, and that's where the problem arises -- when people leave that realm and start delving into semantics.

When you leave the real world and start into the semantic world, then nothing has any meaning and anything can mean anything else so long as you can justify the logic to yourself. But that's not logic, it's delusion.

By the way, as I mention above, the Constitution actually doesn't assign the job of Constitutional arbiter to the Supreme Court, that was assumed by the Court in Marbury v. Madison. But I doubt anyone would seriously consider undoing that decision.

Tennessee Jed said...

You are right, Andrew. I like my legislaters (crafters of law) to be lawyers, although not necessarily the president. Your post reminded me in some ways of Mark Levin's "On the Constitution" from Liberty and Tyranny in terms of points you make.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I haven't read that one, though I think some people I know were recommending it.

I have found that a legal training is extremely useful because it helps you spot ambiguities that most people gloss right over. And that helps a lot in drafting laws. But it can be a hindrance in creating laws if the lawyer doesn't keep one firm firmly grounded in the real world -- which many don't. Many think that just because they can find a way to argue something means that the argument has merit, but that's not true.

Ponderosa said...

"They say we offer simple answers to complex problems. Well, perhaps there is a simple answer—not an easy answer—but simple: If you and I have the courage to tell our elected officials that we want our national policy based on what we know in our hearts is morally right." -- Reagan 10/27/64

A simpleton said...

BTW - I prefer: thou shalt not murder

- Ponderosa

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