By Charlie Johnston
When I wrote the second installment of the “Rules of Regency,” I seriously pondered softening my description of what government work is. In the end, I only softened it by noting that some parasites are beneficial, even necessary, in symbiotic biological systems, but that a profusion of parasites, even of the beneficent kind, ultimately kills the host. I left it pretty stark because a little shock can be useful to provoke new lines of thinking; to get out of ruts we unconsciously get stuck in. It was entirely true and reflects my thinking on the matter, but I wanted to see what type of response I would get from readers to gauge how well I am getting across the concept of a dramatically different framework of thinking. The results gave me more optimism than I actually expected, but there are three areas where I encourage you to contemplate a little more:
1) The difference between administrative and systemic change. Some commenters decried the bureaucratic regulatory regime, then turned around and suggested which regulations they would prefer to impose. My point is that if you have a large regulatory regime at all, you have a constant contest over who will hold the whip hand. I do not propose a reversal of who imposes their will on the unwilling: rather, I propose everybody minding their own business and leaving each other alone except in those areas where it is absolutely necessary for the public safety. The ability to impose regulations is a source of power. Any source of power is like the body of a dead animal on the side of the road – it draws the intense interest of scavengers, those whose miserable lives have no meaning unless they can boss others around to feel better about themselves. I am not interested in refining the existing system, but in dismantling it. This is important for you to internalize. As Ronald Reagan once said, “A government big enough to give you all you want is also big enough to take everything you have.” I do not think in terms of how to domesticate the beast, but how to defang and declaw it, then put it on a chain.
2) The efficient organization of society, with concern for the good of all. I was a little shocked at how many people cannot imagine a society that does not have federal bureaucracies micro-managing every aspect of everyday life. Some in fearful tones asked how I would keep tainted milk and food products from being sold to the unwary. Really!? Do you not know for the great majority of its history, America did NOT have a large regulatory regime? Yet even so, people were not dropping like flies from tainted milk and such. In a true market economy, it is in the interest of a merchant to maintain quality, lest he lose his business and investment entirely. It takes a lot of work to build a reputation – and only a few slips to destroy it. People are generally decent in small, every day transactions – both because it is in their interest to be so and because they are basically decent. Even so, for those who cannot imagine life without authorities from on high policing everything, I left substantial regulatory authority to the states, though with the proviso that it must be reasonably related to a genuine and compelling public interest, not just raising a governmental revenue stream. Abuses of the latter can give rise to a citizen lawsuit against local authorities for denying individuals’ rights in property. I read a few years ago that in New York City you must get 32 permits to open a hot dog stand. I’ll guarantee that at least 29 of those have little – or no – connection to public safety, but are just bureaucratic ATMs. Under my system, citizens may sue the governments both for damages and to rid themselves of such a proliferation of legalized extortion. I do not suggest some new-fangled dangerous theory, but a practical system that worked for most of American history and kept the scavengers at bay.
3) The phrase that drew the most ire was my description of public workers as parasites. Actually, that was not new for me. I first used it when speaking at a political dinner in Southern Illinois 10 or 15 years ago. I was representing some candidate and was one of a host of speakers. Those before me seemed to all wax eloquent on the subject of public service and the sacrifice they make. It grated on my last nerve. So when I got up to speak I said:
4) “I am a parasite. Like all government workers and political operatives, I depend on the active productive capacity of all of you who work in the private sector to survive. I, too, want to congratulate and thank all the public servants here tonight – the public servants who are builders, contractors, carpenters, restaurateurs, shop owners – the people who produce things that make our economy grow and create real jobs that do the same. You take risks in order to create something useful. If you succeed, it is right that you should enjoy the fruits of your labor. If you fail, the failure is yours. You take the risks and should reap the rewards when you succeed, for you surely suffer the consequences when you fail. People like me are dependent on you, not you on us. Now a parasite can be – and often is – a useful thing, but it always must feed on the active productive capacity of its host. I would not for a minute rid ourselves of the parasites who wear the uniform of this country and keep us all safe, nor the first responders who rush into danger when the rest of us rush out. But let us be clear, without the public service you provide of producing the goods and services that make this society work, we could not even afford those vital parasites. As for sacrifice, certainly our military and our first responders live sacrifice every day. But most of us who work in government get a job, can’t be fired, get a gold-plated pension you can only dream of, and are set for life regardless of whether we do a good or bad job. Some sacrifice! I work in the political end of things, so I don’t have that sort of security – but it has been offered me many times. I live off of your political donations. I endeavor to be a useful parasite – to work full time to give you an effective voice in public affairs that is useful to you. But I never forget that, at bottom, I am a parasite, not a master of the universe. So I thank all you public servants out there who live sacrifice and risk every day. I seek not to overburden you and to continue to be a valued parasite to you. But I know my place in the scheme of things. Thank you.”
5) I got a standing ovation for that impromptu little speech. Even better, during a campaign season, I would speak to an average of about 100 events per cycle. After that, every politician who was at an event at which I was scheduled to speak took great care to go easy on patting themselves on the back about their public service and sacrifice – at least until I had already spoken and was safely seated.
In the work I have done the last nine years in developing these principles, I have endeavored to avoid chopping away at the branches of the problems facing us, instead getting right to the roots. To get the full implications of them, try to avoid overlaying what you expect from the existing system and see it from a completely different perspective. I have great sympathy for those who objected that they work very hard. But if you actually work very hard and keep the needs of those you serve at the forefront, you will thrive in almost any system – and a system designed to reward merit and initiative rather than treat everyone the same will be a godsend, not a curse, to you – but it will be different than what, in part, you are already comfortable with..
Susan Skinner’s marvelous piece on “Purity and the Domestic Church” drew an interesting response. Much of it was profoundly insightful. Some, though, while not quite crossing over into the offensive, was notably prickly. I asked Susan to write this piece because I know her to be completely faithful to the Church, but well and passionately informed on this issue. I think some people have come to assume that any new initiative that comes out must automatically be offensive or a plot to undermine the faith. In fact, some people, like the Queen of Hearts in ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass,’ decide first and reason later…and some are on a hair trigger to discredit the Vatican or the Pope. On the other hand, some treat any criticism of Vatican initiatives, no matter how reasoned or steady, as an attack on the Pope, himself. If any criticism of Vatican initiatives and personnel is an attack on the Pope, you are also going to have to indict at least the last three Popes, who often complained of Vatican politics and initiatives.
I call on all of you to judge righteous judgment and call things by their proper names. Indeed, it is true that in the rising tide of confusion, more than a few things coming out of the Vatican have been puzzling and troubling. But do not let that make you a reactionary ready to condemn anything coming out of the Vatican even before it has come out. Similarly, the toxic, disrespectful treatment of the Pope and hierarchy has become a cottage industry, most shockingly from much of the Catholic Press. But don’t let that put you on a hair trigger to condemn everyone who raises legitimate questions or offers respectful criticism. When so much confusion rises around us, we are called to be an island of measured, honorable, respectful discourse. Steady on.
I have always liked the Socratic Method. Get people of genuine good will and genuine expertise, but varying perspectives, to question and debate an issue. The dynamic tension that arises from that helps to clear the path to greater insight for all of us. Shoot, when I was a newspaper editor, one of my favorite features was to take a subject of local interest and controversy and get two substantial people from opposing sides to write separate articles that appeared across from each other on the op-ed page. I ran that nearly every week. I wanted our readers to get solid information from each side and become well informed, in order to make good decisions. In almost every campaign I ran, I had a serious contrarian in my councils. I hate tunnel vision and echo chambers. It causes you to stumble into bad mistakes.
But for the Socratic Method to work, you must presume the goodwill of everyone involved and stay away from cheap “gotcha” moments.
I have great sympathy for those who try to come up with innovative ways to deal with the dysfunction of modern culture, particularly involving family life and sexuality. We are in battlefield mode, and many of the old ways are not sufficient to the disorder we face. But I also have great sympathy for those who hearken back to the fundamental goal of purity – and want to guard against coarsening the culture as we deal with these issues. I don’t have the answers, though I ponder it – and I value the people of goodwill who put emphasis on varying elements in the discussion. From the dynamic tension that arises from that discussion I think we will come up with workable answers.
So let us presume each other’s good will…and not decide that because someone has a different emphasis – or even a different opinion – than we do, that it must be because of bad intentions.
Next Saturday, August 20, I will give a public presentation in the Denver area. I am delighted that some of my coordinators from around the country are coming in for this talk. There are a couple from California, one from Texas, another from Louisiana, and one from Nevada that I know of. It will be so cool to have these wonderful folks here in my hometown. I started these visits in hopes of having people in cities across the country see that they are not alone in their faith, their trust in God. My original primary purpose was to have people gather and see that they have serious fellow believers right in their own neighborhood, even as the culture tries to isolate and marginalize them. Now, having made well over a hundred presentations (both public and private) across the country, it is helpful that the some of the primary organizers of these events meet their counterparts – and know that they, too, are not alone. Any of you who happen to be in the Denver area next Saturday, come on up. We’ll leave the light on for you. The details are:
Saturday, August 20, 2016
4:00 pm: Public talk
6:00 pm: Potluck (see below) and Q & A session with Charlie
Apex Community Recreation Center, McCormack Hall, 6842 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada, CO 80003
Contact Mary at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please bring one dish that will serve 10 to 15 people. If your last name begins with:
A-G: Please bring an appetizer, salad or side.
H-S: Please bring a main dish
T-Z: Please bring a dessert
Hotels in the area: