Monday, May 3, 2010

Is Decency in Government Possible?

HARBESON: What’s the decent thing to do?

>>SOUTHERN INDIANA — The creation in Clark County of the so-called Citizens for Decency in Government political action committee might be the best thing that’s happened for Mike Moore’s political aspirations. As you’ve probably heard, this is the name for the organization that apparently sent out letters to local citizens containing documents about Moore’s past.

Many people who received this information were outraged. Some say they were shocked, but I’m not sure why. Anyone who has studied and observed the political process knows this is not new. This particular incident may have been more graphic, but the intent was exactly the same: To influence the outcome of a political election.

However, since this mailing was quite edgy, it quickly led to a front page newspaper article, which led to a newspaper editorial in a Sunday edition. In addition, this controversy, happening right before the primary, has surely had coffee shops jittering, taverns buzzing, online forums sparking and people in restaurants eating it all up.

The manner in which this was done makes it almost look as if those involved actually wanted to increase Moore’s chances of winning. People often sympathize with someone they believe is being treated unfairly, especially when the attackers are anonymous.

It’s hard to believe they couldn’t predict a backlash response and how it could attract, not negative, but positive attention for the candidate. So if name recognition and publicity is important, Moore has likely been helped.

I’m sure there have been discussions throughout the county about the irony in this group’s name. How is it decent to anonymously push out documents containing unproven accusations against someone?

But the deeper irony in their name is not whether or not this particular group exhibits any decency — it’s whether decency is even possible within a government system. Decency requires respect for each individual, something government simply cannot do.

Those who get involved must become enmeshed in a system that uses force to get things done. They may be “decent” people acting pragmatically because they feel they have no other choice, but we must still keep in mind that the most they can do is simply manage the force. And all citizens can do is support those who manage the force in the way they would like for it to be managed. But it’s still force.

Another issue is that at the local level, the cliché “politics makes strange bedfellows” is rarely true. As a matter of fact, local politics is all about the not-strange bedfellows.

For example, maybe candidate so-and-so’s brother is on a local council, and perhaps his wife works in the courthouse for Judge X, whose brother-in-law and daughter are running for office, while a cousin is so-and-so’s secretary and their dog Fido serves as precinct chair. (The cat however, refuses to participate.)

I suppose that’s naturally going to happen at the local level, but it sure doesn’t make average citizens feel better when they consider the hundreds of possible conflict of interest permutations and combinations that can happen.

This incident is an unfortunate reminder that many livelihoods are dependent on what happens inside governments and there can be a lot at stake during even local elections. This creates strong incentives for people to do whatever they can to manipulate elections so they can have power and control.

So we see it play out once again. There are people out there who thought this action was a good, even decent, thing to do. We know they’re involved in local politics, somehow. They’re out there, right now. So shouldn’t we be very careful of what we ask the government to do?

Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson is often asked whether or not she’s decent, but that’s because people have discovered she works at her keyboard naked. Write her at

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