Privilege, Power, and the Public Good

Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking Column • For Sunday, March 15, 2015 

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 Privilege, Power, and the Public Good

David W. Hegg


Fundamental to the ethics of democratic governing is the proposition that privilege and power are to be used for the public good. Unfortunately, the consistent outworking of this ideal is more and more lacking in our day. Rather than use their privilege and power to serve the public interest it too often seems our elected officials end up using their power to preserve their own privilege at public expense.


At the national level this is most apparent. Am I the only one consistently dumbfounded at the political drama being played out by those whose only commitment is to stay in power? Have you noticed that most of the political action today is aimed at undermining political opponents rather than helping the people they supposedly represent?


I say "supposedly" because this gets to the root of the problem. The great question is this: whose interests are primary in the hearts of our elected officials today?


Admittedly this is a very complex question. The way things are today none of those we send to Washington DC can be singular in their devotion. It is impossible to survive there without loyalty to the political party that helped fund their campaign. This loyalty is also a prerequisite to attaining positions of power when it comes to committee assignments and chairmanships. They must play the game, and do as their told. They must go along to get ahead, for getting ahead will mean greater levels of both power and the privilege that comes with it.


In addition to the shackles of party affiliation, our elected representatives also face the personally intoxicating effects of power. Lord Acton's oft-quoted maxim continues to be accurate: Power corrupts, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. His point was that those invested with power can become so addicted to it that gaining more and retaining it become their only commitments, even if it means jettisoning both their personal integrity and consideration of the public good.


It is apparent that privilege is also an addictive property that can corrode the soul. This is often seen when those who are waited on hand and foot react strongly to even the smallest perceived slight to their importance.


I am constantly amazed and angered at the way some of our elected officials pout and posture when they don't like something. If some imaginary protocol is not followed, they boycott. If they aren't informed of something, they take their ball and go home. If their opponents offer up a good idea, they scoff lest it garner public acceptance and a bit of their power slips away.


Just who do they think they are? When did we lose sight of the fact that these men and women are our representatives and not independent contractors? More importantly, how did we get here and how do we get back to governance that puts its highest priority on serving the public interest?


Here's the deal. Public service should never become a career. The best idea should always win. Hindering the best idea from being put to work should be called a strike, and after 3 strikes, you're out of a job. Congressmen and Senators should have to drive themselves to work, do their own research, and write their own bills just to stay connected to the rest of us. And most of all, those running for office should have to take and pass a polygraph that proves their intention to work hard for the people back home and not for themselves or anyone else.


Okay, so I got a little carried away. Of course we could never do these things. If we did, only those whose focus was on getting things done to help people would run for office and then where would we be?