Monday, August 7, 2000

Week of 08/07/2000

Holding Government Responsible
- by David Matthews 2

"...when we renounce the self and become part of a compact whole, we not only renounce personal advantage but are also rid of personal responsibility. There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgement. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom- freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse. Herein undoubtedly lies part of the attractiveness of a mass movement." - Eric Hoffer

Once upon a time, a certain president coined the phrase "The buck stops here." He said it to show that all responsibility for federal activity eventually stops with him, the highest federal official.

If only that were the case.

In his book "Give Me Liberty: Freeing Ourselves In The Twenty-First Century", famed attorney Gerry Spence showed us just how often the "buck" is passed when it comes to corporate responsibility. He starts off with the case of a girl who dies because the brakes on her brand new car fail. The father then tries to find the person responsible for such a defect.

He first starts with the dealer who sold the vehicle to his daughter. The dealer says that he only sells the cars, he doesn’t make them. So he goes to the auto manufacturer, and nails down the person in charge of the division that makes that particular car, and he says he doesn’t make the brakes for that car, but he’ll point the father to the division that does. The father goes to the person in charge of the brake manufacturing, and he passes it off to engineering. The engineer who designs brakes says that the particular model was actually borrowed from some other brake design and that they pass all standard safety tests. So he get pointed to the division that does the testing. That person says all testing is in accordance with all government standards, but he won’t give any specifics, because that’s company policy.

So the father goes to the CEO of that corporation, and the CEO tells him that he’s just a hired tool of the board of directors. He goes to the board of directors and they comprise of business executives from banks and retired civil servants, all of which have never seen a brake in their lives, never mind how one works. So he goes back to the CEO, who once again denies any accountability for the bad brakes, but when asked if he ever heard of any problems, the man gets on the intercom, gets a complete file on the brakes delivered to him in minutes, and then says that those particular brakes weren’t even manufactured by them, but rather by some other company!

Layers upon layers of denied accountability. At no point is there someone who has to say "Yes, I did it. I screwed up. My bad."

In many ways, government is just like a huge corporation when it comes to accountability. Those in power are quick to pass the blame at every opportunity; although they are readily eager to accept all gratitude, even for stuff they had absolutely nothing to do with. (Case in point, of course, Al Gore’s repeated claims of creating the Internet, saving the people of Love Canal, and so on.)

Here’s a case in point based on one of my previous articles: Let’s say you run a newsstand that has, amongst all other mainstream publications, some magazine that is a little bit racy. Say, Playboy, or Gear. Some soccer mom moralist comes walking in with her six year-old Prozac child in tow, cross on her neck and ten foot stick up her ass. She looks for the latest issue of "Moralist Review", but can’t seem to find it anywhere on the shelves. She does, however, spot the Playboy magazines in the highest corner of the farthest shelf.

Irate, both in the fact that her favorite publication is not on your shelves, and that a publication she abhors is, she stomps over to the counter, heavily medicated child in tow, and DEMANDS that you remove Playboy from your shelves. You, of course, calmly and evenly explain to her that you have every right to sell Playboy, that your customer’s right to purchase Playboy is protected by the First Amendment. Besides, you point out that the publication is on the highest shelf, wrapped in plastic so nobody can read it without opening it up, and that you and your staff always make sure that only adults purchase magazines like Playboy.

Frustrated that she cannot sway your mind through her wrath, she storms out, dragging her child behind her, and swearing that there would be "hell to pay."

The next day, you notice some buzzcut steroid freak eyeing the racks who looks like he should be wearing a trooper’s uniform instead of casual wear. He immediately goes to the upper rack, pull out an issue of Playboy, and take it to the counter. He’s clearly in his upper thirties, so you don’t ask for an ID. He pays for the magazine and walks out.

Soon afterwards, you’re visited by that same buzzcut steroid freak, who now is wearing a police uniform, and - along with the local prosecutor and members of the media - arrest you, confiscate your magazines, and shut down your business. All of which is done under the charge of violating local obscenity laws and "providing pornography to a minor."

Your name is dragged through the mud as the most vile of criminals. Your children get harassed by their peers for having "porno-freaks" for parents. The local ministers use your name as an example for what’s wrong in the world.

The local prosecutor quietly drops the charge of providing porn to a minor since nobody in their right mind would mistake a 35-year old police officer for a 15-year old. He simply wanted the charge put in there so he could look good for the press. He then offers what he thinks is a "sweetheart deal" for you; plead guilty to the obscenity charge and you would get a "pittance" of a fine and no jail time. You would have to register yourself as a sex offender, of course, and have that stigma sit on your family’s name for as long as you live, BUT at least you wouldn’t spend any time in jail. You tell him what to do with that deal and you fight the charge in the courts.

Now let’s say that you do take it to trial, and the judge rules in your favor. The charge is dismissed, the case closed. The local prosecutor appeals the decision, and it goes all the way to the Supreme Court, which once again rules in your favor. Game over?

Well, no, not really. You see, the police still have all of your publications. Your store is most likely out of business because you couldn’t make any sales until the charges were dismissed, and even then the publicity surrounding your case has more or less poisoned any good name you have in society. And even if you’re able to reopen the store with new publications, what is to stop the police and the prosecutor from doing the exact same thing? Having you arrested, seizing your publications, shutting down your store, and having you go through the whole legal procedure again?

As a matter of fact, who can you go after for the damages the first trial caused? Your life was ruined by these people. Who do you go after for justice?

The police? Well, no, because all they can claim is that they were just "doing their job." Even Officer "buzzcut steroid freak" would say that he was only doing what he was told to do.

The prosecutor? Well, not really, because you see he’s "just doing his job" too. Someone filed a complaint, and he had to act on it. Besides, their office DID drop that bogus charge of providing porn to a minor, so they consider that a favor for you.

The self-righteous soccer mom with the stick up her ass? No, she’s beyond any measure of responsibility because the only thing she did was to file a complaint. She wasn’t the one that arrested you, or had your publications seized, or shut down your business.. although she would be the first to take credit for it at the next church meeting.

So let’s say you just go after the local government in general. Sue the prosecutor’s office and the police for violating your rights and seizing your property. At best, you’ll get some money and the seized magazines returned (minus maybe a few publications here and there). The money would go towards the legal fees, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to sell the now outdated publications back to the publishers at a loss.

Meanwhile, the police officers who arrested you still have their jobs and their pensions. The prosecutor who filed the charges against you still has his job and his pension, and he can even use the case to help his career as a "get tough on crime" kind of guy. And the soccer mom with the stick up her ass can stand proud - even without that stick - knowing that the system works for her!

Let’s get brutally honest here. Much like Gerry Spence’s fictional father and his futile efforts in getting justice from the corporation, our fictional newsstand owner would not get any justice from government, much for the very same reasons. Neither the corporations nor government want to have any kind of accountability for their actions.

And don’t think that the case I just gave you is pure fiction. In Texas, a comic book dealer is currently in court on a "providing porn to a minor" charge because he sold an adult-only comic book to an adult. The case itself was sparked because some soccer mom got upset at the price of a certain Pokemon card and vowed revenge. These charges, and the subsequent abuse of power, are for real!

Look, nobody ever said that fighting for freedom does not come without a price. Our founding fathers risked everything when they signed the Declaration of Independence, and quite a few of them lost their homes and their family members, and some of them even their lives. But when will there be accountability for the mistakes of government?

Sadly, right now there isn’t much accountability. Government risks nothing when they act. That’s why moralists love to use government as their instrument of wrath. The people involved in government cannot be held personally responsible for their actions because they are protected by the notion of "sovereign immunity". The judicial system believes that the only way those people individually can be responsible is when voters vote them out of office. That is.. if they were voted into office in the first place.

When you sue the government for their abuse of power, you don’t put someone out of a job if you win. They still keep their jobs and their pensions. And that money you get for damages doesn’t even come from their paychecks or their pensions. Instead, it comes from our tax dollars. The gall of our government to have us pay for their sins!

And this notion that those in government cannot be held responsible for their actions goes straight up to the highest office in the land, where the buck used to stop. Bill Clinton has recently dodged two major bullets in the Whitewater case, not to mention his impeachment trial. His regime has had to handle more scandals than the National Enquirer, and even with less than six months to go on his reign of terror, the fun hasn’t even begun to let up. And don’t think for a moment that he was the first president since Richard Nixon to put the White House is disrepute! Remember all of Ronald Reagan’s men involved in scandal? James Watt? Edwin Meese? Bernard Casey? How about Oliver North? Any of those names ring a bell?

And it is not just major political scandals that demean our elected officials. Every time one of our representatives vote for a law that they know violates the US Constitution, they violate an oath they took to protect and defend that document. People complain of the instances where Clinton lied under oath, but how about the untold scores of times our politicians knowing and willingly violate their very oaths of office?

You know, if our elected officials want to supposedly restore accountability and respect to government, they have to start with their own jobs and their own careers. Unfortunately, our politicians live under the hypocritical code of "Do as I say, not as I do". We have a better chance of seeing these blowhards become members of the Communist Party than we do of seeing them clean up their own political house.

If we want to start holding those in government accountable for their actions, we need to first start by putting risk back into the process. We need to eliminate the notion of sovereign immunity so we can hold these politicians to their promises and to their actions. If they are in the right, they have nothing to fear, but if they screw up.. if they abuse the power they hold, there must be some mechanism in place so that those who are victimized by government can not only recoup some monetary damages, but also make sure that those who caused the damage can never do so again.

America’s founding fathers didn’t wage a bloody revolution and risked everything they hold dear just for the heck of it. They did so because of the blatant abuse of power by the British Empire-- a fact that the elected officials of today would have us forget. Instead of it being something we would rather forget, we should instead hold it above them like the proverbial Sword of Damocles.

Or as the Baltimore sage H. L. Mencken put it so bluntly: "The only good bureaucrat is one with a pistol at his head. Put it in his hand and it's good-bye to the Bill of Rights."

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