Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Authority, Democracy and the Individual

I think it has been the growth of mass media and later the worldwide web that has distorted our views of authority. The rise of talk shows that feature ordinary people, while entertaining, have serious downsides. I'll save the discussion of their voyeuristic nature for another time because the most corrosive effect of the mass media and the web is that it reinforces the mistaken idea that everyone's opinion is of equal value.

Saying that my opinion is more valuable than yours on the face of it sounds heretical. However, if I am an oncologist and you're a cancer sufferer, who are you going to listen to – me, or the guy who flips your burgers – or even your lawyer, for that matter?

Professional opinions can be too often not regarded with the respect they deserve. The corollary to this is that it's often wise to get a second professional opinion.

This is an issue that is at the heart of representative democracy.

The stewardship principle is one in which we, the voters, empower those we elect to make decisions on our behalf. To make decisions. Not be a mere channel for our opinions. Stewardship is based on the assumption that our representatives have a greater understand of the whole picture, are privy to more – and more accurate – information than we are, and will act for the greater good. Of course we want our views heard and possibly represented, but part of our responsibility as citizens is to understand that we are delegating responsibilities.

Ideally, a person is IN a position of authority because he is AN authority in a certain area like law, medicine, education, science, and so on. When those who are not authorities try to over-ride the decisions of those who are, the ice begins to get very thin. This is not to say that authorities should not be accountable, or even challenged about their world pictures and decisions; what is does mean is that they probably have better reasons for believing what they do than we do.

Theory and practice

Acknowledging the above gets very sticky on issues like home education. The presumption that a parent knows better than a school system what is best for a child is a very thorny one. There are rights and responsibilities on both sides, but the presumption of competence should be with the school systems (as the result – direct or indirect – of duly elected procedures).

The use of prisons and terms of sentence are another area where authoritative opinion and public acceptance are at loggerheads. Repeated studies, both here and around the world, show that by and large, prisons do not reform offenders. However, the public's sense of safety is so great that the need to simply remove offending individuals from circulation is enough to support the practice of locking up offenders for long periods.

Please don't misunderstand me: I am NOT saying we shouldn't send offenders to prison. I am saying that given the evidence that it seldom has a beneficial affect on the prisoner is reason to look at other methods that may.

Another example: Why, when in the face of the evidence and cost advantage, are so few births carried out by midwives?

“In the United States, physicians oversee 95 percent of all births. In Europe, where infant mortality rates are superior to ours, midwives attend 75 percent of births. In fact, in every single one of the nations where infant mortality rates are lower than ours, midwives are the principal birth attendants.” [ ]

I'll look at healthcare in another blog, but as a nation, are we becoming less rational?

These observations are far from perfect, but I'm looking for foundations here. One thing is clear: a stable nation has to be build on sound principles. Without a philosophical underpinning, institutions cannot be justified or sustained.

We had the amazing good fortune to have had men who understood this as our Founding Fathers. Compared to them, those found in Congress today are but a distant echo.

Too often now our institutions are run by those who know how to run organisations, be politicians, or manage people. Very few of the men who were at the head of the major banks were actually bankers: they were lawyers, marketing people, and other “bungee managers” who were dropped in to look at the bottom line, not to run a good company.

They were IN authority, but they were not authorities, and we are paying the price.

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