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Archive for Monday, July 29, 2002

Big egos make easy targets

July 29, 2002

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Of all the wonderful privileges we enjoy as Americans, the right to criticize our own government officials is certainly one of the most precious, and one that we use a great deal. In fact, we may enjoy that one a little too much, because it seems we seldom have anything positive to say about our elected representatives.

Considering how much abuse the average politician has to endure, I sometimes wonder why anyone would want to run for office in the first place. After giving the matter some thought, I could come up with only three possible motivations why someone would be willing to brave the slings and arrows that go along with public service.

1. They believe they can benefit financially from the situation.

2. They want to feed their own ego by securing a position of authority over their friends and neighbors.

3. They are genuinely civic-minded and believe they can make the world a better place by serving in government.

Since government service generally doesn't pay very well, No. 1 may seem like an unlikely motivation. However, decisions that are made by the government directly affect the flow of a great deal of public funding, and it is not unusual for government officials to direct the flow of that money into their own pockets and those of their friends and family.

For example, I have learned firsthand just how bad an idea it is to elect people with ties to the real estate and commercial development industries to government positions that have the responsibility to rezone land and approve public works projects. The area I live in used to be a pleasant small-to-midsize town, but over the last decade or so it has gradually been turned into an overdeveloped nightmare of urban sprawl and certain city and county officials with ties to the aforementioned industries have done very well for themselves and their business associates in that time.

Still, many politicians make less money in office than they are able to in the private sector (just look at our current president and vice president) so the first item in the list certainly cannot account for all of the political ambition in this country. I believe quite a few politicians believe in their hearts that they are motivated solely by the third item, a concern for the public good, but deep down they are actually No. 2s.

It is very difficult for a politician to tell the difference between No. 2 and No. 3 because it would involve knowing a lot about their own inner motivations, something that very few of us are able (or willing) to do. But an outside observer can easily tell the difference between a politician who is motivated by his concern for the community from one who is motivated by self-importance by said politician's behavior once he is in office.

Someone who is motivated by a concern for the public good will seek out the opinion of his constituents, listen to their desires and concerns, and then act in a manner that reflects an attempt to represent the best interests of the majority of his constituents. Ego-driven public servants, by contrast, limit their contact with the public once they are in office, show up at public meetings with their minds already made up about what's "really best" for the community, and merely hand down opinions as a medieval noble would to the serfs that served in his domain. (For some reason, school boards often seem to be dominated by such personalities.)

In practice, it is very easy to tell the difference between a No. 2 and a No. 3 if you pay even a little bit of attention to what goes on in your government, and I think it is obvious that we are currently inundated with the ego-driven variety at the local, state, and federal level.

Maybe, just maybe, we will elect people with a little more humility when we vote later this year. But if not, at least we can still criticize them, and people with huge egos always make the best targets.

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