Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Why Elected Officials Suck, According to Hitchens and Adams

Lovable scamp Christopher Hitchens (not pictured) wrote a column for Slate this week about how odd it is that very few of the intelligent and informed people he’s known in his long career as a public intellectual and drunk have ever though about running for political office. Many of them might do a pretty decent job running the country, but they’re put off by the insane slaughterhouse that is contemporary electoral politics. Quoth Hitch:

What normal person would consider risking their career and their family life in order to undergo the incessant barrage of intrusive questioning about every aspect of their lives since well before college? To face the constant pettifogging and chatter of Facebook and Twitter and have to boast of how many false friends they had made in a weird cyberland? And if only that was the least of it. Then comes the treadmill of fundraising and the unending tyranny of the opinion polls, which many media systems now use as a substitute for news and as a means of creating stories rather than reporting them. And, even if it "works," most of your time in Washington would be spent raising the dough to hang on to your job. No wonder that the best lack all conviction.

That reminds me of a line from another famous atheist, the late Douglas Adams, who penned this line about the paradox of government: “Those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.”

With all the media scrutiny and waves of negative publicity, in order to want to run for office you’d have to be an emotionally damaged narcissist, a delusional reformer who believes it’s possible to change the system in a meaningful way, or an out-and-out power hungry sociopath. Come election time, we’ll all be voting for candidates who are corrupt at worst, relentlessly bland at best, and most likely have something dark and twisted rattling about in their skulls.

Thankfully for us, the United States has a system that, though designed to elect people uniquely unsuited to have power, is also designed to make sure that those elected officials can’t do anything once they sit down in Washington. With massive majorities in both houses of Congress and one of their own in the White House, the Democrats managed to accomplish some reforms that—despite all the Beckian screaming about Nazis—aren’t exactly earth-shattering. Some companies were prevented from going bankrupt, some more people will have health insurance, and these modest shifts in policy will cost a lot of Democrats their jobs. The struggle for the rights of homosexuals to marry one another and join the army to get shot at (why would one want to do either? some straights ask) is proceeding in the courts, where elected officials can’t get in the way.

Considering the quality of politicians we have on hand, deciding things in the courts, where intelligent people debate with one another using a lot of big words, is probably for the best. And it’s probably for the best, too, that however many Republicans get into office this November, no one will be able to pass or repeal any legislation at all, thanks to the labyrinthine rules of the non-robot Senate.

In Douglas Adams’s universe, the problem of government is solved by turning the president into a democratically elected figurehead, someone who is “always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention from it.” The people who run the universe are a sextet of shadowy figures who in turn (spoiler!) make their decisions based on the advice of an insane autistic old man who lives alone with his cat. The system described by Adams seems sinister and despotic on its face, but it’s probably not a bad way to make policy decisions. Not worse than ours, anyway.

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