Monthly Archives: October 2012

Direct Democracy and the Safety Net

 I must admit I enjoy reading nineteenth century novels. Behind their dusty covers dwell men and women still deeply concerned about the dictates of morality, though like us they live within an increasingly modern, dehumanizing world.

Honest and good people there endure grim straits the likes of which our own poor and disadvantaged, protected by various welfare programs and not much limited by class distinctions, will never really know. Yet these fictional characters often strive to maintain their dignity, their values, and their independence.

I don’t enjoy such reading because I harbor any sadistic inclinations toward my fellow human beings: I simply recognize and appreciate the profound truth that even marginally good people, when individually burdened by the full weight of their own moral decisions, will often nobly rise to the occasion — and so receive the aid of those around them who judge their actions worthy of it. Yet I realize as well that these same marginally good people, if forever afforded the chance to shift a part of that moral burden onto others, may do so without much concern for the people who now must share the consequences of those same important decisions.

This dramatic human dynamic, of course, could be dismissed as just another element of good, effective fiction; and so it is. But the best fiction also rings true.  And the truth is that when our moral duty to one another is preempted by a government and its safety net provisions, the concept of morality itself becomes for many a vague, lazily appreciated abstraction.

It might be asserted — quite convincingly as well — that it would be better to eliminate opportunities for moral distinctions among us altogether than to subject the poor and disadvantaged to what might prove to be our moral failings. But if our beneficent government then fails to make the proper distinctions between those who merit aid and those who do not, thus exacting sacrifices from honest and moral people for the sake of supporting dishonest and immoral ones, not only have we forsaken our own sounder moral judgments and our strongest virtues to an increasingly immoral, collectivized state; but we may well be imperiling the state itself by so burdening the best among us in order to support the worst among us.

Properly designed,  a system of direct democracy provides the responsive, dynamic flexibility necessary to set and reset the aid given in each community to the poor and disadvantaged to the right balance between the private sector and the public sector — a balance that may well shift over time and between locales — hopefully always in the direction of replacing public sector aid with private sector aid and in the direction both of encouraging individual responsibility and of restoring financial solvency and civic good faith.