By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
As Benjamin Franklin was leaving Independence Hall at the end of the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked him if the delegates had created a republic or a monarchy. According to notes written by Dr. James McHenry, a Maryland delegate, Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
He did not say “democracy,” which the Founding Fathers saw as “mob rule.” Instead, they created a republic, where the people have ultimate authority by electing their officials but don’t stand in town squares and raise their hands to decide national issues.
Given that history, should elected officials vote their consciences, or should they follow popular opinion? Both, if they are doing their jobs. They should listen to their constituents and give great weight to their wishes, but if all they do is stick their fingers in the air and then follow the political winds, why should they exist? Why not just post every question currently facing Congress on the internet and let us all vote by clicking? How much funding should the Central Intelligence Agency receive this year? Click.
The character quality that’s needed, and the one that’s been missing far too long, is leadership. Elected officials must be willing to make tough calls, explain their decisions, and then accept the consequences. In some countries, if you lose power, you die. Egypt, for example, recently sentenced its previous president, Mohammed Morsi, to execution. In the United States, former Sen. Mark Pryor became a well-paid lobbyist after being “deposed,” as did Blanche Lincoln, Tim Hutchinson and many others.
And that brings us to the national debt. I think I first wrote about the subject in 1992, and frankly, I’m getting tired of trying to convince you people to be concerned about it. But I’ll try again. The debt has reached $18.2 trillion – roughly $57,000 for every American man, woman and child. It’s partly financed by foreign creditors, which is a really stupid idea. The government has many trillions of dollars in assets and is not bankrupt. But this is a growing problem because the government has made many trillions of dollars’ worth of promises that it cannot keep.
A number of groups – the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the Concord Coalition, the Committee for a Responsible Budget – are trying to educate the American people about the debt, and, just as with my columns, it’s not getting through. Americans know no entity can indefinitely spend more than it collects and are concerned about the debt in the abstract, but they oppose specific cuts and don’t want to raise (their own) taxes. It’s hard to balance a budget if you don’t decrease outgo and/or raise income.
Anyway, democracy often doesn’t reflect the will of the majority on a particular issue, but the will of the loudest and most committed less-than-majorities. Any spending cut or tax increase will attract fierce opposition by the groups most affected. What matters is not what 51 percent want. What matters is what 15 percent want that the other 85 percent won’t fight for.
The debt is not the kind of issue that leads Americans to march on the Capitol. It’s a terrible injustice that affects mostly people who are too young to do anything about it. There will never be a groundswell of support for paying it down, even though the alternative is leaving it to our kids and grandkids, which surely few of us want to do.
Because there’s never going to be a groundswell, elected officials must lead. They must make tough decisions that they explain to the public, and then they either will be re-elected, or they will lose and become lobbyists. No one will lop off their head if they raise the gas tax or cut a program somewhere.
It takes a special person to do this, because apparently it’s very tempting in Washington to do whatever it takes to be re-elected. These types of republic-leaders can’t get elected without support. They need campaign donations – in larger increments from those who can, and in smaller increments from the concerned common man. I really wish those groups I mentioned, or at least their allies, would start playing a little more hardball.
There’s been enough talk about this subject. A few of us must lead, and a few more of us must have their backs. And if the American people won’t accept that this republic can’t keep going into debt, then I guess we won’t be able to keep it.