Until my late teens I took democratic government for granted But after I spent much time learning how many people have endured poorer, often repressive forms of government, I learned to value our version. So to begin with I clearly state my appreciation of representative democracy, as framed in our Constitution, including its checks and balances, its federal, state and local levels, its subsistence by the participatory taxes and will of the people.
    Because government is such an important, multifaceted topic, I risk superficiality by trying to embody my thoughts about it in an essay. Since, however, I won't write an entire book about it, the present limited extent of my effort is better than nothing.
    Liberty is precious. Its price is worth paying. Silence, or bitching without voting or writing officials, is a poor thing. People have a duty to be informed, to express their opinions, and in extreme cases to engage in actions such as those constituting civil disobedience. We don't have a pure majority-rules democracy; instead we have a representative one. That means those of us who express our opinions, such as by voting, affect those representatives who do the law-making.
    I have voted since I was eligible. Sometimes I don't know enough about candidates or issues, so I withhold my vote. My knowledge of who is running is largely limited to newspaper coverage, since I watch almost no TV, nor listen to the radio. The official voter's guide is always a good read. It often happens that where a certain candidate is expected to win by a large margin, I vote for the opponent -- even if I actually favor the projected winner. I do this in hope of helping keep the opposition's spirits alive, and in keeping the pride of the powerful in bounds.
    Regarding our three-part governing system of executive, legislative and judicial, I think it is well-grounded, better so than most governments. A history professor once stated that he saw the president of the United States gradually getting more and more powerful, over the decades, even while the original actual duties and role were not nearly so directive. People do often hold a view that the president can or cannot do this or that. They act as if the job was godlike; all powerful. Oddly, they don't usually give the judicial branch the time of day.
    The legislative is the governmental branch most familiar and accessible to everyday people. Indeed, many ordinary folks get elected, whereas to be a judge is, I believe, largely if not wholly limited to lawyers. In the legislature is a vast array of voices, sometimes working in concert, often debating, giving and taking. It is the very embodiment of diplomacy. The executive and the judges (except for the supreme court) act as individuals. What I find wonderful to imagine is if somehow the various members of the legislature could sort through their work and prioritize it to focus together on the greatest public interest. For all too much time is spent by one faction fighting another. I wonder if the sheer size of the federal government makes such a scenario untenable. With 50 states the Union is awkwardly large, no doubt. Yet who can unequivocally state the ideal size of a government, or a city, or a farm?
    The tendency is towards centralism, or panglobalism and multinationalism. Yet this trend is not necessarily leading to the ideal future. Bigger is not necessarily better. Perhaps the role of humanity, now, is to use our collective wit, power and will, to guide ourselves into a sustainable, controlled-growth future. The ever burgeoning increase of our population and environmental impact must either be reined, or likely will destroy us. And governments, likely as not, are the ones who will, through their work, hasten or postpone our day of reckoning.
    The importance, then, of understanding government, and of participating in it, is paramount. There is a duty here. If Jane and John Doe want to limit their governmental contact to paying taxes and bellyaching about government shortcomings, then they are remiss. We must learn, voice our opinions clearly, and maintain vigilance. I said this already. It fills my mind when I think of government. Now I will touch upon 9 topics within the broad umbrella of "government," and indicate for each my general observations. This will create, I hope, a clearer view of how I see government.
    Trial by peers. It is likely that the jury system used today will be modified, because of the dawning realization that in our enormously diverse society, it is becoming impractical to expect "peers" to be able to reach consensus, let alone unanimous verdicts. Too many poorly suited jurors exist in our population. I had a real eye-opening experience the time I was called for jury duty. I wish that jury duty was not by mere chance, since that way some folks never participate, and others do repeatedly. I favor the idea of a selected jury, whereby after appropriate training and testing, each locale comes up with a number of certified jurists. Sort of like law-enforcement deputies. Such jurors would not be full-time employees like judges, but would do service regularly. They'd know the process thoroughly, would be interpreting only admissible evidence, and would be carefully scrutinized for competence and fairness. There is danger in this idea. The world of academe uses "jury-referee" systems to effectively keep out dissent and radical or unconventional approaches. Similarly, a class of jurors could get airs, and neglect its calling. But, to just admit practically anyone from off the street as a juror means we get too many dimwits or corrupt members of society. I am sounding elitist, I know. But I had much rather my fate rested in experienced, trained minds, than in a random sampling of people. I base this argument not on an abstract ideals, but on the reality of today's population. Our culture tends towards specialization; general, well-rounded members are in short supply. We tend to, as a whole, value sports heroes and media celebrities higher than school teachers. Our jurors would be better if they were all school teachers rather than Hollywood stars.
    Censorship. Intelligence and good education are our best means of dealing with filth, be it words or graphic. I dream of magic screens which would filter out all clumsy grammar, crude language, pornography, and such. But I had rather put my resources into elevating consciousness, than in a police state where a select few decides what is proper or improper reading or viewing materials. Nonetheless, I fully favor community votes as to public standards, regulating such things as billboard content, and certain magazines being off-limits to minors, etc. In brief, our current prevailing system of regulation appears satisfactory to me. I appreciate rating movies, and think TV shows could be rated more also. But let it be non-governmental. Let peer industries or citizen volunteer groups do it. We are a diverse, large society. There is room for community norms, as well as a section of what most of us label "garbage." Informed citizens will choose wisely. If a man chooses to subscribe to Hustler magazine instead of New Yorker, that is his business. It is society's business to try educating his children in such a way that they are likely to choose New Yorker.
    Public office. Public servants should be treated with respect, paid fairly, and no more. I hate how we spend so much money on public-sector salaries because we're basing our payscale upon private jobs of comparable complexity. Private businesses can pay whatever it takes or they can afford to pay -- but public jobs should pay no more than necessary. This is my main feeling when I think of public employees. I would prefer that those people who want money in abundance go to private jobs, leaving the public jobs for people who want to serve, for a living income. In fact, I would not rule out that government pay be based partly on need. This suggestion scares people. But consider the extreme cases of a millionaire such as needs no salary, and a man whose wife hurt her back and so cannot work, but requires special care. To me it seems like common sense that we could waive the salary partly or wholly for the man who doesn't need it, and augment that of the needy. I think one reason government jobs are so popular is because the wages and benefits tend to be generous. But there must be realization that personnel cost more than we need to pay, and we are operating at a deficit. Let us pay, therefore, such money as is needed for customary expenses, including buying a house, but stop the high-end salaries which are making many government workers rich.
    Defense. Defense is commonly thought of in terms of military preparedness. Sure, but what about firefighters? They defend us from fire. The police, in their law-enforcement, defend us from rampant thievery and chaos. In the best of all possible worlds, people would work together harmoniously, without viciousness, violence, or other negativity. Meanwhile, our collective resentment, nationalism, economic competition, the unequal distribution of wealth, and deep habits all make for a world of strife, including war. Defense in a military sense is practically necessary. To argue for unilateral disarming and the cessation of a military, is to argue for being conquered. I think nearly everyone agrees we have way too many weapons, and we spend much more money than is ideal on defense. The reduction of defense spending should be gradual, the better to let our economy adjust. We must also, I believe, work beyond our borders to slow the militarization and proliferation of the rest of the world. If we can forge an international community, where equity, debate and cooperation replace sheer might, we can create a paradise. I wonder if science fiction accounts may come true, wherein technological advances will mean we have super weapons that will alter our old-fashioned version of gunpowder and steel.
    Capitol punishment. Life, like liberty, is precious, and we should avoid killing. However, I also, even more strongly, believe that the good of the whole community must come before the rights of any individual. When, then, one person goes so far beyond our community norms as to outrage everyone else, and is incurable, we must either secure that person (as in jail), or end his life. First we should try helping deviant behavior get back to normal. Hence we have counselors, therapists, etc. But if a man is so far deviant that all our efforts to reform him fail, then I favor execution rather than life behind bars. It is pragmatic, not a matter of morals or revenge or setting an example. Simply stated, I favor people in society who behave; as for those who repeatedly violate our accepted code of ethics, and who cannot be reformed, then kill them as quickly and humanely as we can. I am fully aware of how many people disagree with me. But I could write a whole essay about how many of our everyday actions are slowly killing ourselves, and how taking life, however gruesome, is not necessarily the worst thing we do. Preserving the life of our community against warring intruders makes people take up arms and kill in self defense. Well, the premeditated killing of convicted murderers, rapists and other such outlaws is also self-defense of another kind. I don't have the space here to try to convince anyone else to share my opinion. But it is not one I am pleased to trumpet; it is simply my feeling that the good of the whole, demands deletion of our bad few. Lifetime incarceration, what with jails, guards, food, medical care and the like, is very expensive. Execution needn't be. Both ways achieve the same end of separating society from the worst criminals.
    Civil disobedience. Tension between the letter of the law and its intent is frequent, resulting in numerous daily law-breakings which are not morally repugnant. For example, if I cut some leafy twigs off trees in the park so that I can use them in teaching, I am committing a misdemeanor by (take your pick) stealing or destroying public property -- at the very least I am "vandalizing" it. Yet of course I am not doing harm worthy of speaking about. So my activity defying the law is not civil disobedience worth noting. Civil disobedience is, as commonly asserted, a serious matter of deeply held convictions. It might be defying draft orders, or refusing to pay taxes. In this sense, I may not engage in any civil disobedience. Sometimes I am forced, as a bicyclist in a world dominated by automobiles, to break traffic laws. This is best exemplified by those road intersections whose traffic lights won't switch unless a car or truck activates them. When I am alone at such an intersection, and the coast is clear, I will run the red light in order to get on with my business. This, again, is not morally wrong. If I was informed that a new law required all able-bodied citizens of adult age to drive cars, then I'd engage in civil disobedience, and have a firm, moral rationale.
    Whenever I think of this topic my mind recalls Sophocles' Antigone and Thoreau's famous essay on civil disobedience. I cannot add anything to the Greek heroine "nor did I think your orders were so strong that you, a mere mortal man, could overturn the Gods' unwritten and unfailing laws."
    Foreign policy. Isolationists complain that our people ought to be tended first, then help foreigners. I figure otherwise. If I gave no money away until I had everything I desired, and if I volunteered no time until my own house and affairs were in perfect order -- I'd end up giving nothing. It is charity, but also prudence, to help foreigners. We share the same planet, we're all the same species; let's help each other every way we can. The United States of America is the wealthiest and most powerful entity ever. We must actively help improve the future of other cultures, of other governments. To bury our head in the sand and pretend that the rest of Earth doesn't exist is utterly simplistic.
    We need in our State Department personnel who not only possess civility, diplomatic skills, and breadth of vision -- but who are aware of the values peculiar to other cultures with whom we must interact. An ambassador to Japan should have a distinctly different outlook and responsibility than an ambassador to England.
    One of the most troubling issues in foreign affairs is the enormous disparity between the developed economies and those of the Third World. The jobs, the pay, the environmental and worker safety laws are all skewed, so that multinational corporations can exploit people and natural resources in developing countries, to profit the already-wealthy First World elite. It is capitalism at work, sans an ethical system. How can the U.S. government tell other countries or multinational corporations how to operate? That's the troubling question. The role of government should be to safeguard the long-term interests of us all, and those interests are, ultimately, health, freedom, an unspoiled environment. Alas, short-term economic gain is the prevailing goal or motive of too many of our present decisions and actions, be they commercial or governmental.
    Leadership. In today's newspaper an editorial columnist bemoans an almost unprecedented exodus from the U.S. senate -- 13 senior members are all retiring at once. Why? They're tired of the acrimony, the fundraising emphasis, the lobby and power-broker interests. "Government isn't what is used to be." I find it difficult to separate those actions of politicians which are leadership per se, from those which are borne of need to market an image, sell the platform or raise money. Where do we find untainted wholehearted service with the public good altogether overshadowing the personal gain? The way our society drools over celebrity, and we dream of riches as the ultimate goal, makes it doubly hard for selfless service to become powerful, i.e. effective. A person may, in the beginning, be of one mind, but when swept into office, and treated with deference and flattery, perhaps come to soften, to grow first complacent, then jaded, finally corrupted more or less.
    As I recall, Jerry Brown tried to be an honest, wholehearted public servant; incorruptible. I think when he decided to run for president he adopted just so much conventionality as was required in order to be taken seriously.
    Is leadership in the truest sense transcendent above such things as shallow societal stereotypes and obsessions? Let's hope so. Only too often, fame or the spotlight gets mistaken as ability, merit or vision. Real leaders are probably loathe to dabble in today's public arena, but will step forward if a crisis demands them. That, anyway, is a fond dream of mine. Some "real" leaders no doubt thrive in today's frenzy. I just don't follow news accounts sufficiently to be able to single-out any men or women who strike me as especially noble role models.
    In business, sports, families, etc., there is frequently an obvious hierarchy and leadership, or an obvious lack of as much. But government, being so very big and multilayered, with so much of horizontal structure, is not so easy to "read." Educators say that children desire strong models and discipline. Well, do adults desire strong leadership also? What makes some of us step out of rank, raise our voice, rally our peers, and bear the weight of leading? Leadership is not necessarily a function of intelligence. For we have both smart and stupid leaders and followers. Emotional impulses and ethical bearings seem to be paramount. Of course, there are some of us who purport to teach "leadership qualities" in such roles as government, business, the military, and Toastmasters. Are such instructors instilling confidence and massaging egos the right way -- as well as discussing techniques and procedures? It's a safe guess that the most visible leaders, in most urgent cases, are forceful by nature and experience, not by having been trained in a seminar. We can teach much, but in any given group there will be a dominant person who will rise to the top if the circumstances demand it. Ordinary times may be "led" adequately by everyday managers.
    Politics. Policy-making, networking, campaigning, dueling opposition -- such is politics. It is frequently grueling and a highly stressful affair, in or out of government. On a small scale, as in a group of local citizens or some other non-governmental occasion, politics may be a stimulating pleasure. In the U.S. right now, party fighting between Democrats and Republicans is the dominant force in political life. Within each party there are other skirmishes, as in deciding what platform planks to espouse, or what candidate to nominate. Largely because of the negativity and cruelty of modern party politics, public opinion of governmental activity is low, and sinking. Moreover, it seems that our media focuses on scandals, on lying, on excesses -- while neglecting such cooperative efforts and good things as get accomplished.
    I believe a politician can be an effective jobholder and government servant even if he is a womanizer, or personally repellant. Richard Nixon was ambitious to a fault, and allowed illegal party things to be done. For all that, he ran a better Federal administration than the presidents who succeeded him. It may be more valuable, in the big picture, to have a president with moral weaknesses in some degree, yet with a stellar grasp of government -- than an upright leader who is ill-suited to the job. That is sort of like saying the end justifies the means. I believe most people who criticize government, art, food, or most things, are not themselves capable of doing any better. People who don't have a clue as to what it is like to bear the yoke of leadership and its attendant responsibilities -- should use restraint in their bad-mouthing. Politics are unclean, but necessary, and it is work people do knowing they are held in contempt (or at best low esteem) by many people. I've talked with certain government people, who have come across as genuinely concerned listeners, trying to do the greatest good they can. They know about compromise, patience, necessary evils, and they win my respect partly because they put up with far more injustice and negative forces than I'd be able to endure. Some of the most vicious attackers of government are media professionals whose conduct is, in its own way, just as contentious and petty as common government politics. This apology for politics is not to be seen as a blessing, but as an understanding that we may be impure -- but our system is still fundamentally sound. And many problems of politics are actually of our Age, not inherent in any one sphere of our lives.