Volume 5, Number 118
8 April 2005

Note: With Loren taking over, I have been more relaxed about writing TQEs. But I had this one all ready when I heard that Loren would travel to Latin America, so his trip was fortuitous. I do not want readers to think I am only filling in because Loren is away. I am still alive and kicking. — Jack Powelson

Democracy or Sense of the Meeting?

by Jack Powelson

Dear Friends,

What does "democracy" (rule by the people") really mean? I believe that when decisions are delegated to our representative body, Congress does not try to find a "sense of the people." Rather, they do whatever it takes to win an issue for their side. In 2000, should Bush and Gore have waited until the people of Florida had adequately counted their ballots, or should they have taken whatever action would help them win? In the Terri Schiavo case, should the Congress have intervened to "win," or should they have tried to athom the "will of the people?"

Quakers make decisions by the "Sense of the Meeting," but we are not agreed on what that means. Many think it is the same as "Consensus." But I believe they are quite different. "Consensus" means we are all of the same mind. But "Sense of the Meeting" means that — taking heartfelt consideration of what all Friends feel — we make the decision that we believe to be right for the Meeting. If "I" do not approve of that decision, I may "step aside" and let the Meeting proceed. I don't try hold up the Meeting until I "win" my point.

Terri is now dead, but the debate continues. If the Schindlers (Terri's parents) and Michael Schiavo had worshiped together to find a "sense of the Meeting," what might that have been? One possibility would be to grant a divorce to Michael, quit of all debts contracted for Terri's hospitalization, and Terri be turned over to her parents to keep alive in their own home as long as they could afford to do so. I believe she was not suffering, and I would not sanction an indefinite vegetative state for myself. But if her parents wanted it, what harm would that be? If I were part of that "sense of the Meeting," I would have added that the taxpayers should spend no more on Terri (her pharmaceuticals were covered by Medicaid).

Probably I would have had to stand aside. Surely the Schindlers and Michael both wanted to "win" their case, and so did all protesters (one way or the other) as well as most of the American people. And Catholics are not fond of divorce!

In advocating any "sense of the people," I am aware that medical resources were keeping Terri's body alive. Those doctors and hospitals might alternatively have been treating other patients. However, I am also aware that resources are continuously being spent on "frivolous" ends (e.g., Robin and I are signed on for a cruise around the tip of South America next January). I am not in favor of ALL resources being spent on keeping people alive. Nor do I say we should all be Quakers. What I do say is that in our diversity of opinions, we have not yet arrived at a "democracy" higher than the "win lose" condition.

Many other countries are (I believe) less far advanced in decision-making than the West and Japan. Some who disagree with decisions in Iraq set off bombs to make their wills known. In other countries they may assassinate the victor. But in Ukraine, where the polls were rigged, the people protested in the streets, until the declared victor resigned. In Kyrgyzstan, when an attempt was made on the life of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, and the people protested in the streets, another step was made toward democracy. But only a small step. Democracy comes about step by step over centuries. It cannot be imposed by an outside power upon people who do not demand it themselves.

In the United States we are moving gradually toward true democracy — I'll define it later — toward it in some moves and away from it in others, but in the long run the balance moves toward it. Delegating our private decisions to government is a move away, while the Constitution and civil rights are moves toward it. This back-and-forth has been happening since the earliest years of Western history. The election of 2000, the Schiavo case, and other events have taken power from the people and placed it with the government.

Often power is passed to the government with all good intentions: surely social security and health care for the elderly (if not for everyone) are transferred to the government to "help the poor." In fact, they pay for rich and poor alike, and they take decisions away from the poor. Why not just give the money to the poor to bring them up to a minimum acceptable income, whatever we choose it to be, and let them decide how to spend it? The answer I most frequently hear is: "because they would not save enough or would spend the money on drink and drugs." But permitting the rich to decide on drink and drugs for themselves, and how much to save for their own retirement, while depriving the poor of the same rights, shows privileged respect for the rich.

Many would say: "because the poor are not competent: if they were, they would not be poor." But if they are not competent, we should be working toward making them competent. Making their decisions for them encourages incompetence.

The less developed countries will not afford American standards yet, but with our help they will reach them in (say) a thousand years. However, we are not politically willing to grant enough even to our own poor in the present century. If trends continue as they have, we will reach that point in (say) two hundred years. Attempts to move the poor forward by government direction (forcing all to behave by the standards of the rich) will eventually prove negative, just as building codes in New York, if enforced, would drive thousands from crowded apartments into the streets.

In my heart, I am not totally consistent. I am delighted to ride my electric scooter to the bus and have a platform lowered to take me on. Our government has ruled for more care for the disabled. While that pleases me because I am one, nevertheless I would prefer that the bus supply the same service because others felt beneficent enough to pay for it, or else wanted to be sure it would be available when they themselves were ready.

Here is my idea of "true democracy." If you want to see it in detail, look at my book, The Moral Economy (University of Michigan Press, 1998):

A negative income tax will grant a minimum income from the federal government for the poor so they will afford shelter, food, health care, retirement savings, education, and those things our American society already believes are socially necessary. I do not know how much it would be, but it would surely equal (at least) what governments now spend on social services. With a monetary income, the poor would pay for their own education — all schools would be private and everyone would choose — select their own housing, retirement saving plans, health care, food, and others. Since the government would not provide these, our taxes would drop precipitously.

Life-and-death decisions (like the Schiavo case) should be made privately. Government keep out.

What about the "drink and drugs" argument? It should be taken seriously. But I believe American society is sufficiently advanced that if the government did not control "drink" and make "drugs" illegal, private organizations like churches (Quakers?) would supply counseling and education to cause people not to want these things. If you think differently, put yourself back into the fifteenth century, when our ancestors were titillated by public hangings and would throw stones at people in stocks. How did we overcome these ethics? And if we did, why not drugs, drink and the others?

Only in the nineteenth century did free public education become widespread in the West. Today we allow school boards to select our teachers and our books. This education is an advance over the thirteenth century because it is extended to the poor . But only in that sense. In the thirteenth century in Europe, students hired their own teachers and chose their own books.

In the twentieth century, many children of the rich could choose their private schools. Some of the poor receive scholarships or jobs. For example, I went to the same prep school as the Presidents Bush, father and son But to afford it I had to earn a scholarship and wait on tables.

A sense of responsibility has been fostered in some students by their parents, because of their wealth and upbringing. In other students it has been so greatly diminished that our federal government is trying to increase the quality of education by law instead of choice by parents ("no child left behind"). Now the State of Connecticut is suing the federal government for commanding a school system without providing funds for it.

I believe a sense of responsibility will be induced in the people at large if they keep their heads above water by monetary help but choose their own necessary services.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

P.S. My own classes at the University of Colorado are conducted by discussion. No reading is assigned; but students choose their own with my suggestions. There are no written examinations. I wish I didn't have to grade, but that is required. Each student has to present an oral report. I grade by my own feeling of how much and how well each student has prepared and participated. (I am not an easy taskmaster.) I will explain to students why they got the grades they did, but I do not allow them to argue with me.

Readers' Comments:

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Jack wrote, "Life-and-death decisions (like the Schiavo case) should be made privately. Government keep out." I share this general view. But as I understand it, the family members involved were unable to agree, and only this impasse reached an irreconcilable stalemate did the parties end up in court.

The subsequent circus aside, this seems to me a largely non-oppressive and "democratic" course. Certainly a key function of courts, in the better society, would be to deal with disputes that the parties could not (or would not) resolve themselves; does not the buck have to stop somewhere? Moreover, the courts did not intrude themselves upon the parties in this case on their own external initiative. (Congress, governors, and state legislatures are another story!)

Whether all the two dozen or so judges who were ultimately obliged to rule in this case made the "correct" decisions I will leave to readers' judgments. I only note that there seemed to be a remarkable, uncoerced "consensus," even a kind of tortured, slow-motion "sense of the meeting" among them. I find a useful lesson in that, among so much else that seems embarrassing, even shameful to believers in "democracy," never mind "justice," or "compassion."

May poor Terri rest in peace.

— Chuck Fager, Director, Friends House, Fayetteville (NC).

Well put, Chuck.

— Signe Wilkinson, Chestnut Hill (PA) Meeting.

This Friend [Chuck Fager] speaks my mind and heart.

— Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).

Chuck, Signe, Janet: Could your opinions be influenced by the fact that the final decision was the one you favored? When I wrote "Government keep out," I was expressing my idea of "true democracy," not the "democracy" we currently have. This context was clearly stated two paragraphs before the item quoted. That said, we currently have laws made by Congress and courts to interpret them. Terri's case might have been resolved through the courts without any legislative interference. — Jack

I'm in concert with your analysis of the situation.  As one who has been in politics, I still find it appalling when politicians happily contradict their own ideology for their own perceived short-term political interest --  in this instance the purported support for rights of the individual and of the states by the Republicans.   As one who travels a bit these days, it's a humbling experience to try to explain Tom Delay to people from other countries.

I am also appreciative of the general thrust of your prescription for US society and government found in your creative, historic work, The Moral Economy.  I think we need some  minimum health and education thresholds for everyone, but these should indeed be minimal and people (at every level of society) should be given the tools (cash?) and freedom to forge the right paths for themselves. And, as a Friend, I am also aware that sometimes my/our Quakerly short term best intentions get in the way of better long term solutions.  But, then, "tough love" has never been easy for Friends.

— Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.

The negative income tax is a nice sounding idea. I wonder if anyone has ever put pencil to paper and tried to work out the details of a negative income tax scheme? What would it really cost? Is it all really affordable? Who would pay for it? If work were not required of the recipients of negative income tax checks, I think there would be a huge increase in the number of people who would not work. Right now, there is a sort of modest negative income tax for the working poor in the form of an earned income tax credit. About 40% of all income tax returns are filed by tax payers who pay no income tax on their incomes and receive a negative income tax payment — a check — from the government in the form of the earned income tax credit.

An economist at Boston University, Lawrence Kotlikoff, has estimated that the amount of money that would be needed to be invested today to pay for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid liabilities that will not be funded in the future by future collections of existing payroll taxes at the current payroll tax rates is about $73 trillion (the present value of unfunded liabilities for the three big entitlement programs.) Current Federal income tax revenues are only about $1 trillion and payroll taxes, corporate income taxes and all the miscellaneous other Federal taxes are only another $1 trillion: The Federal government collects a total of about $2 trillion a year in taxes. Thus the unfunded liability for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is 18 times the current Federal debt. Our government, our politicians, have made some huge promises. Even if the political will in society was there to do the things that Quakers would like to see done, are the resources really there?

— John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.

[July, 2005] I just got around to reading TQE#118. I believe that the poor use alcohol as an anesthetic. With better income, they will have less to endure and alcohol consumption will drop. The excuse that: "They will only spend it on drugs and alcohol," is not valid for most people.

— Doug Stevenson, Boulder (CO) Monthly Meeting. Currently in attendance at the Stillwater (Oklahoma) Monthly Meeting.

[Sept, 2005] Jack, your points are very well taken. I had heard a layman's interpretation of Democracy as "the majority rules." That means if 49% of the people feel one way about an issue, but 51% felt another, then the 51% prevail. That does not make the 49% group wrong, just out-voted...

If our Government would work in areas where it is needed more, such as public preparedness and safety, and stop trying to control companies that are trying to help this country grow, they would be working in the free spirit of America. From what I can see at this point a great deal of what they do is based on a take charge and control approach instead of assisting the public with what they need. The United States is moving from a entrepreneurial republic into the military-industrial control grid that General Ike Eisenhower warned us to be very wary of.

Teach the people to become self-dependent, moral and responsible. They will reach out to their neighbors and communities, and they will need this control grid less and less. That is exactly what Big Government is afraid of.

— Alan Rampe.


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting, Editor.
  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright (c) 2005 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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