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Democracy vs. Autocracy


One man's democracy is another man's... I'll let you finish that comment; you know how it goes.

But, it is true. First, let's all admit that in any significantly large operation or organization, be it a business, the military, or the local police, there has to be a "command structure". Certain tasks need to be managed at the upper levels to ensure a continuity of how you conduct business. In business, you can't have every department running their own payroll and check printing and issuing operation; it would be chaotic and it would be nearly impossible to get an overall view of the company's financial health; hell, everyone would be designing their own special checks. Generally speaking, HR functions, decisions about purchasing capital equipment, and corporate policy is developed and maintained at the corporate level, often with input from the levels below, to ensure some continuity and to aid in good decision making.

Running a country is very similar. There are certain functions that, for the good of the entire nation, need to be developed and maintained at the top level. Things like the military command and structure, the Federal Aviation Administration, Center for Disease Control - the list is long - are best managed at the top. Imagine the madness of having each state, or each county making the rules about aircraft flying in their airspace. Pilots flying across the country would go crazy as they had to follow different rules in each locally controlled airspace.

Other operations, like taxes, occur at both the federal and local levels. The feds have to levy taxes to fund the operations at that level, many sums of money of which are then returned to the state and local level to ensure that everyone gets a fair shake. For instance, LA County likely brings in tens of millions in taxes that it could use for road maintenance, giving them golden paved roads, while some small county out in Wyoming hasn't got enough population to pay for a lemonade stand, let alone maintain state and country highways. Some of the money that came in from LA County goes up to the feds and back to that little county in Wyoming to subsidize some of their roads which, it turns out, everyone in the nation uses and benefits from as they drive across the country or have products delivered to them where they live.

Okay, I'm not trying to teach a civics lesson here, but I wanted to be sure readers could understand this next chart and the ensuing discussion about democracies and autocracies. This next chart is one of my notional charts that is not meant to be all-inclusive or the ultimate picture, but rather to give a view that supports this discussion.

This is a busy-looking chart, but it's pretty simple. The top part of the pyramid, the red and blue clouds, is the federal government where decisions made will affect everyone in the tiers below, and where the intent is to provide some uniformity of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness across the country.

In the center are the state and local areas of control, some of which are linked to what the feds are doing, but also provide states with the flexibility to arrange processes to fit their unique requirements and the desires of the local populace. And, of course, the lower or golden colored icons are the personal rights and liberties section that is often argued but which flow down from the structure above.

Where those red horizontal lines are drawn is where our debates start between those who want more control and those who want more freedom of choice. I probably should set aside the extreme views on both sides. There are those who, often based on religious beliefs it seems, want the federal government to outlaw everything they and their religion object to. That typically makes gay marriage, a woman's right to choose, and in some cases maybe even interracial marriages illegal. The possibility for draconian law based on religious texts is frightening.

At the other extreme are the way-left-wingers who favor an almost communist approach to federal control of everything they find disturbing, except, of course, the stuff they like. The funny thing about that is that, as we've seen, communism is all about control of commerce, profiteering, etc. which the hard-left likes. They see a world devoid of large corporations and the Koch Brothers. But, history has shown that hard-core central governments, made up of people who don't believe in consensus, also don't like the populace mouthing off and telling them where they are wrong, so the strong central government starts throwing dissidents in prison, or in mass graves.

This governmental dissonance is not too unusual when it comes to people trying to come together and agree on almost anything. There will be extremist views on each side of nearly any issue, but the majority in the middle can typically come to a compromise that, while not perfect, offers a solution so everyone can get on with their lives.

Back to the pyramid. If you push that top red line too far down into the state/local and personal areas, you are taking away the rights of local governments and individuals to make decisions and creating an autocracy where everything is decided at the federal level, ala Putin's Russia and where the opposition is often brutally crushed.

The opposite approach, the hard-lefty model, is to take away much of the federal management and let everyone decide for themselves what is good or bad for society. Take that to an extreme and you typically have anarchy; every person for themselves and screw the majority. You can end up like Mogadishu where gangs roam the streets and the best-armed gangs rule the day until someone kicks their ass tomorrow and takes over.

To further oversimplify this debate, you can have one all-powerful dictator sitting on a throne and deciding who lives and dies. On the other hand, in the case of the U.S., you put an end to the federal government and let 330 million people do whatever the fuck they want. Now, as we all must know, we can never agree on much of anything and nothing gets done. Our country ends up like a big fucking commune with no leadership, no decision-makers. We may all be happy sitting around smoking weed and singing kumbaya, but nothing is moving or getting done.

I don't believe anyone is arguing for either of those extremes, but finding that sweet spot in the middle with just the right amount of central control and the right amount of local and personal discretion that encourages innovation and growth is damned hard to find. And the United States is not the first to wrestle with this problem; it's been around since the first nomads decided to settle in one place with their small band and began trying to make rules that worked for society. They had to decide about property ownership, public services that should be provided, who was the Chief and how did that person ascend to the throne, etc. How would we resolve a dispute between neighbors, and once we had rules, how would a punishment decision get made if someone broke the new rules? This was heady stuff for people who up until then only had to keep up with the group and find time to take a dump behind a tree.

I do believe that in a society, we have to think more about "we" and a little less about "me". This is not easy to do. We are all greedy, selfish, and want to be the center of the universe, at least our little part of the universe. We want what we want, when we want it, often without having to share with others. Decisions about equality, fairness, and justice can put our self-centered desires squarely in the crosshairs of democracy, and that is painful. We have to continually keep pushing for the ideal for "us", not necessarily for "me". And, most importantly, no one religion, be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Athiest or one that thinks we came from outer space should be deciding what is best for all the rest of us. Religion must never become our government.

Here's a great little lesson on democracy for those who want to learn more: https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-greece/ancient-greece-democracy