Sunday, June 5, 2016

In Defense of Politicians

The definition of a politician according to Merriam-Webster:

Politician, noun
1. a person experienced in the art or science of government; especially :  one actively engaged in conducting the business of a government
2a. a person engaged in party politics as a profession 
2b. a person primarily interested in political office for selfish or other narrow usually short-sighted reasons

It's rare to hear the word "politician" spoken without an accompanying sneer and obvious disgust at the concept. However, today I'm going to defend their existence and explain why I wouldn't mind having more of them.

First, though, I should clarify that what I'm talking about is persons described in parts 1 and 2a of the Merriam-Webster definition. I can't defend persons accurately described by the 2b definition, of course, but I would argue that there are not nearly as many politicians that fit that description as pop culture likes to suggest there are.

The crux of my argument in favor of politicians is rooted in our mortality. I've written often about the value of our time. We only have so much time before we die, and what we choose to do with that time defines the meaning of our lives.

Everyone has their own plan for how they would like to spend their life. Some want to create artwork, play music, or write novels. Others want to spend their lives influencing children and investing in the future, either raising their own children as parents, or educating other people's children as teachers. Some people want to build and create buildings and technology. Some want to spend their lives searching for the meaning of existence. Some just want to play video games.

Any time you spend on one pursuit is time taken away from another. The finality of mortality means that the decisions you make for how to spend your time really is a zero-sum game.

Given that, how much time do you really want to spend trying to understand public policy? How much of your finite existence do you want to spend studying the details of legislation and stressing over the uncertainty of how administrative decisions will impact the country or the world?

I don't think anyone can be truly, completely informed about the implications and effects of every political issue. The news, advocacy groups, our own friends and family all try to simplify issues in their own terms, but if it were truly simple it wouldn't be a point of contention. Politics are complex, and while we can and should attach ourselves to concepts and causes that make sense to us, there is necessarily only so much time we can and should devote to it. The only way to devote sufficient time to grasp political issues in all their complexity is, basically, to get paid to do it.

And, simply put, that is a politician's job: to get paid to study the complexities of political issues and to talk to each other about these things and keep the conversation going until there is consensus, or something like it.

Of course, it doesn't really work that way. Congressmen don't spend all of their time studying policy; they spend their time campaigning for reelection and fundraising so that they can afford to campaign for reelection. It's unfortunate, but it's the reality we've created. I'm not sure what the solution to this is. If they don't campaign and raise funds, they lose their job, but in fighting to keep their job they have less time to actually do their job.

Still, campaigning and fundraising serve an important purpose beyond helping politicians keep their jobs: it connects politicians with the people they represent. It allows them to hear from those people and gather information about how public policy has affected them in real life, which is incredibly valuable information, since it's all too easy to become disconnected from the reality of the place you represent if you're always working from, say, an office in Washington, D.C.

This is why I'm generally forgiving of politicians. Their job is difficult: balancing their time between doing their job and keeping their job, balancing their decisions between what needs to be done and when their constituents want them to do, bearing the weight of the responsibility of governance, and having to deal with sometimes hundreds of other people facing similar problems in order to get anything done.

That's by no means a defense of all politicians, mind you. That's my defense for them as a profession, but there are definitely good ones and bad ones; not necessarily just politicians I disagree with, but ones that are just simply bad at their job. Choosing a politician to represent you is rough, and I think I'll go into my approach to that process next time.

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