Pendulum Balance

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Righteous Dominion: What is Good Governance?

We give significant control over our lives to elected officials. We give them the authority to tell us what we can and can't do. Giving this control is essential to putting the pendulum of good government in balance. Without enough government control, we get anarchy, societal breakdown, and harm to our communities. However, giving that control of our freedom to people who are often our friends and neighbors is a sacred trust. Because too much government control can be even more harmful than not enough, we are trusting these people to exercise the highest level of judicious, thoughtful, fair, and wise restraint in wielding that control over us. Once a person has that authority, most quickly see the good they can do with it and seek that good with honest hearts. But, with those same good and honest hearts, it is easy to lose site of the harm they can also cause with the misuse of it.

There is a cautionary principle that I believe is the foundation in defining good, balanced, and proper government leadership. Of all principles that define good government for me, this is the most core and essential:

"...it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion." D&C 121:39

What is unrighteous dominion? It is using authority you have been entrusted with to exercise more control over others than you have the moral authority or ethical right to do. In other words, just because you have the legal authority to control someone, doesn't necessarily mean you have the moral authority to do so. This is basically the often referenced concept: "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Although I learned that from growing up in the LDS Church, I believe this principle is universal. That is the same principle that drove our Founding Fathers to declare to the King of England that we are "endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The King had exercised unrighteous dominion over those rights by abusing his authority. The Founders declared their liberty against that. They went on to author the Constitution designed entirely to shield against future leaders doing the same. The concept of checks and balances, so fundamental to our Constitutional government, is all about keeping leaders in "check" from this unrighteous dominion. When elected officials push the envelope of their authority, Constitutional checks and balances keep that authority in "balance" by restraining that authority to its proper scope and role.

Elections are a choice, and often a tough choice between many good, sincere people with noble intent. Sometimes those people are our friends and neighbors. I support those that seem most likely to hold that pendulum in balance. Key to that balance is understanding and avoiding the dangerous and harmful pitfall of unrighteous dominion.

Righteous Dominion Defined

So, if there is such a thing as "unrighteous dominion," there must also be "righteous dominion." Beyond all other criteria, left versus right, republican versus democrat, issue versus issue, this is the criteria I seek most in elected officials. What is righteous dominion? "Dominion" is to rule or control. It is governance. "Righteous" is to govern by integrity, fairness, decency, restraint, reason, study, wisdom, and a deep commitment to "doing the right thing." Here are some thoughts as to what I believe constitutes Righteous Dominion:

• Govern by Principle, Protect Rights

Government actions should be driven by principles of integrity, fairness, decency, impartiality, and above all, Constitutionality. In order to do that, you first have to be firmly grounded in those principles. Learn what our basic rights are and the role of a Constitutional government in protecting those rights. The fundamental role of government is to protect rights. In property rights cases, for example, you are protecting the rights of the property owner, the rights of his neighbor, and the rights and concerns of the city. You can't favor or advantage one over the other.

• Govern by Fact, Not Opinion or Preference

Leaders are not elected to exert their opinions, bias, or preferences. They are elected to judiciously assess the facts, fairness, and lawfulness of a situation and choose wisely. In every oath of office is an oath to be impartial. This is not America's Got Talent where you get to run one person off the stage and hit the golden buzzer for the next just because you happen to like one thing over another. By exercising your sacred trust of authority over other people's rights and freedoms, you are playing with their lives and livelihoods. Sometimes "doing the right thing" means going against your personal opinion or preference.

You have a solemn duty to protect the rights of neighbors and community. But you have the same duty to protect the rights of those you are regulating. In seeking balance, you have to fairly and wisely serve the rights of both. You may truly believe that a particular proposal causes real harm to neighbors or community. If that is truly true, you are doing your duty to oppose that proposal. However, you must be open minded to the possibility that you could be wrong in your belief that it causes harm. It is very easy to interpret your opinion of a thing to be the facts of a thing. You can't just say no because you don't like it or because you have the opinion it is harmful. You have to know and prove by fact that it causes harm. You have to consider other perspectives where a proposal could be at least unharmful or at best beneficial to neighbors and/or community. When you have that much power and control over another person, you must use the greatest care and caution not to misuse or abuse it. It doesn't take much to slip into the mistake of unrighteous dominion.

• Govern by the Constitution

The best measure is to always ask: "Is my action consistent with the basic principles of the Constitution I swore uphold and protect when I took office?"

When you ask that question, consider this. The Constitution was not written to increase the power of the government to take private property from individuals. Instead, it was written to protect individuals from the government unjustly taking their property or rights to use it:

"nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." 5th Amendment.

There are many ways the government can "take" private property from individuals. Money is property. Taking people's money through taxation and misusing it is theft and unrighteous dominion. Land is another form of property. The most obvious way is to take someone's land is to take actual ownership of the actual deed. This is what happens when government uses eminent domain to take property for a road, freeway, utility, or some other public need. But, another way government can "take" private property from individuals is to take away their right to use that property in a way that benefits the government or the public interest the government represents. This is sometimes called a "regulatory taking." Although the government did not formally "take" the deed of ownership, they have "taken" use of the property for public benefit. Taking the right to use property is just as much a "taking" of private property as taking the deed. Ironically, in most cases, the government is under great scrutiny to give "just compensation" when they take a deed. However, with rare exceptions (like Prop 207 in Arizona), property owners are not compensated anything when government uses their regulatory power to prevent property owners from using their property. (See footnote to this point.)

Here's another gut check. The opposite of the "Just Compensation" clause in the Constitution is this:

"...the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property." The Communist Manifesto

Abolition of private property means depriving individuals of the right to have their own stuff whether it be money, land, or any other fruit of their labor, risk, sweat, and blood.

If you are governing by Constitutional principles, you will take great care to know the limits to of your moral and Constitutional authority to tell someone what they can and can't do with their property. Over the past 100 years or so, the pendulum has swung to give government quite a bit of legal authority control other people's property. But, just because you have legal authority doesn't mean you moral authority. Use that authority justly, wisely, morally, and or course, righteously.

• Be a Referee, Not a King

Elected officials can fall into a "King or Queen Complex" where they believe they have more authority over people's live than they do. They can believe it is their job to dictate outcomes based on their taste or opinion. Kings and Queens are sovereign authoritarians that own and control the lives and decisions of their subjects. This nation was founded in revolt (revolution) against that. We are a nation of people who want to decide our own destiny. Now, as I describe in great detail elsewhere, government plays a key role in making sure one person exercising their liberty does not infringe on the liberty of another. That means government should act more like a referee, but certainly not like a king. As an elected official, it isn't your job to be the final authority on how things should be. Rather, let people exercise their free will to determine that. Kings govern by what they want. Those who govern by righteous dominion govern by what is right and fair. They let others govern themselves providing just enough governance to protect the rights of one person from another.

• Govern by Listening, Understanding

In order to act wisely you need to know the whole story. You do need to take the extra time to listen to all concerned and affected parties. Your decisions could have far reaching and potentially devastating consequences to one side, or the other, or both. Never be casual or flippant in your approach. In land use cases, for example, don't tell someone they can't use their property until you truly understand the complex situation they are facing and the reasons driving the request. Remember, freedom to use property to create and thrive is the essence of our American society and economy.

Likewise, truly parse through the neighbor concerns with a real desire to understand how something might effect them. The hard part comes with you have weigh both sides and act in away that is fair and balanced. You cannot act solely for the needs of the applicant (land owner, developer). But you also cannot act solely for the needs of the neighbors. Balance and fairness is essential to righteous dominion. It takes significant time and effort to get the whole story. But, that is why you have been elected, for the extremely difficult task of delivering that righteous dominion.

• Govern Not by Arbitrary Whim, Populism, or Influence - Oppose Mob Rule!

There are many inappropriate influences that can drive an elected official. Arbitrary whim. Goofy, unfounded leaps of logic. Opinion. Bias. Populism.

When you tell someone else what they can or can't do with their property, it isn't just a trivial inconsequential exercise, it is their life and livelihood you are being entrusted with. Elected officials who don't respect the weight of that or the potential harm they can cause are dangerous. Don't deny someone else the use of their property by arbitrary reasoning, bizarre leaps of logic, or flippant attitudes. They wouldn't have gone to the immense trouble and cost of asking your permission unless they truly believed this was a good and viable way for them to use and benefit from their property. It may seem like nothing to you to tell a property owner not to use his property for a year, three years, or twenty years. But, to the property owner, that delay or denial can be catastrophic. If you have an incredibly well founded, highly defensible reason to say "no," that is fine. But before you say "no," question your reasons then question them again. Make sure your reasons are not only bullet proof, but, also give truly sincere consideration to ideas, suggestions, or alternatives to find your way forward to an answer of "yes."

Some elected officials choose not to "do the right thing" because they would rather please the crowd and protect their political aspirations. That form of populism undermines the essence of our Constitutional Republic by advancing Mob Rule (more here). Unfortunately, there is a fast-growing movement toward minimizing the interest of the individual to the benefit of the masses to the point of no concern for the individual. Not only is that Mob Rule, it can also turn into socialism. When individual freedoms are lost, the freedom of all is lost with it.

Social Media is the new torches and pitch forks. Now, just a few people can whip up an online mob into a frenzy of unfounded, unfactual assault against other individuals. With this type of assault, people's reputations can be smeared or politicians can be swayed by the immoral scream of mob rule to deprive individuals of their rights in the effort to appease the mob.

Equally dangerous to populism is becoming bound to the influence of special interests or people in unique positions of power (i.e. croney capitalism). Does that mean you ignore the voice of the people? Does that mean you don't listen to what the special interests and influential people have to say? No. As I said above, you have to listen to the whole story to make a good decision. There will be valuable insight from all those sources. Just don't be swayed solely by one or the other. Let all those be a source of perspective, but let principle be your only master. Some politicians say: "I'm only here to serve the people." They say that to mean they will only heed the public voice. Well that is only half of their duty. The person they are regulating is also "one of the people." The elected official has just as much duty to protect his rights as he does anyone else.

• Government Without Principles Breaks Down, Loses Integrity

Government breaks down when elected officials don't govern by principle and a true desire to listen and learn. When elected officials set the expectation that their decision making is driven by arbitrary or biased opinions, unpredictable or irrational thinking, influence peddling, or pandering to the crowd regardless of how unfair the demands of the crowd may be, it becomes dysfunctional and puts people who rely on that government decision making and authority in a difficult position.

In land use cases, for example, because land use is so heavily regulated, property owners and developers are constantly subject to local government authority to build and create. It is far better to do business in an environment where you can rely on the merits, fairness, and lawfulness of your requests.

But, if elected officials (or the staff that work for them) are unpredictable, irrational, unfair, biased, or dismissive of importance of people having the ability to use their property to create prosperity, the developer or land owner is left with few choices.

1) They can throw up their hands in defeat and do nothing with their property. It is not uncommon for a politician to tell a land owner: "I don't care if your property stays vacant." How unethical and un-American is that?

2) They can attempt to "work" the broken system by trying to pander to the irrational and arbitrary drives of the politician, or find some other way to earn and peddle influence. That could range from being ridiculous to corrupt.

3) Or, they can work to inspire principle driven governance, or Righteous Dominion, in both existing and future elected leadership.

I choose the latter. That is ultimately why I spend the time documenting and sharing these principles like this.

• Humility

Arrogance and a false sense of expertise are the great enemies of good leadership, of righteous dominion.

Humility and a sincere desire to learn, and learn some more until you truly understand is a critical and essential characteristic for an elected official. Politicians can be very unknowledgeable and naïve about the complex areas they regulate. Whey wouldn’t they be? You couldn’t expect a normal person off the street to come in and all of a sudden understand the complexity and intricacy of a field they've never worked in. They would need to trust and rely on people who have a lifetime of experience, not just high level incidental exposure.

So, lack of knowledge for an elected official is normal and understandable. But, when you combine lack of knowledge with arrogance, or a false belief that you are an expert, it becomes dangerous. As an elected official, you get exposure to things like land use at a level that most people never see. Compared to average people with no experience in that field, you do gain a certain level of expertise. You go to planning conferences, you meet often with city planners, and you see and study many land uses cases. But, as valuable as that is, until you've been on the other side and actually taken the risk to buy some land or build a project you don't really know the full weight of the task. True expertise comes from being in the marketplace for many years, trying to get proformas to work, trying to get users and financing on projects, and getting told no on some things and yes on others.

There are so many things that it is easy to assume or expect when you aren't the one signing the personal guarantee on the construction loan. The more knowledgeable you become, the more effective you will be. So learn as much as you can. But, also have the humility and wisdom to know the limits of your knowledge. Know when to trust that someone else who really does have life-earned expertise is speaking from the reality of that life experience and expertise. Millions of dollars of other people's money is at stake.

Don't go for the cliche assumption that "it is just a bunch of greedy developers who only care about money so saying no doesn't really matter." That can be condescending arrogance speaking. It is certainly not righteous use of your authority. They are people wanting to make something, build something, to prosper in the American dream just like everybody else. Regulate them appropriately as needed to protect the community and neighbors, but respect that their pursuit is fundamental to our way of life as Americans in pursuit of prosperity.

Remember, the word "regulate" doesn't mean to stop something. It means to make sure it operates in a "regular" or "regulated" manner, meaning safe and stable, not disabled. You aren't there to stop people's freedom to prosper. It isn't your job to decide whether they should profit from their property or not. You are just there to make sure that in doing so, they don't do harm to the community or neighbors. You are especially not there to stop them because in your opinion, you aren't a particular fan of what they are doing.

• Courage With Decorum

It takes great courage to lead by principle, especially when that produces outcomes that are not popular, or are opposed by colleagues and professional staff whom you respect. But, you must never lose sight of your fundamental purpose. You are there to protect the people's rights as protected in the Constitution. Yes, you influence the quality of life, taxation, budgeting, infrastructure, design, and overall feel of a community. But, all that is done secondary to, not instead of protecting rights and freedom.

Just as difficult as having courage is to stand on principle with decorum. You can't advance the cause of liberty unless you do it in a way that builds trust and strengthens working relationships. At the very least, you need to work with people who disagree in a way that preserves the dignity of your office. At best you will inspire people through principled leadership to believe in these principles. If you are just seen as divisive, obstructionist, or just on a mission to prove someone is wrong or stupid, you will not be effective in advancing these principles and you certainly won't inspire others to join you.

If you believe in righteous dominion, Constitutional government, and the sacred duty to use those to protect the rights of all, then seek to win hearts and minds to that cause, not just to win to skirmishes.

The more you advance tyranny and bondage for some, the more you advance it for all. The more you advance liberty for some, the more you advance it for all.

• Rule by Righteousness

Above all lead righteously, committed to fairness, compassion, and decency. Human beings are deeply flawed and fallible. Seek to transcend that in you personally. Seek inspiration for that righteousness from many sources. With all of their human flaws and unrighteous mistakes, the Founding Fathers aspired to this and sought to give us a righteous government. I find great wisdom in scripture as to the meaning of righteous government (click here for more). We will only be as free as the righteousness of the leaders we choose.

Pendulum Jail for Morrison

Graphic: The Balanced Pendulum of
Government Control
(PDF Version)

"Still Mine" Movie: The Proper and
Balanced Role of Government

 

Jason Barney | jason@jasonbarney.com | 480-818-2000 | Back to Home Page