Thursday, June 19, 2014

Government: For the People or For the Person?

Musical Chairs
There is a huge debate going on in our country that’s described in many ways; red v. blue, left v. right, liberal v. conservative, tax v. spend, big v. small government.  

Thankfully, a city like ours avoids most of the  insane partisan silliness.  However, every community needs rules so that people can live together better. How do we choose the rules?

The City Council makes Laurel's rules by writing ordinances.  How should this property be zoned?  Who should get a tax break?  Which pothole gets fixed?  Which business gets approved?  Do we buy a new snowplow or another police cruiser?  

Councilmembers make hundreds of votes every year.  Most council members have a basic philosophy that they use to decide.   For me, the toughest votes often came down to a choice between what seems to be best for a person or a small group and what was best for the city at large.   

Robert Fulghum, author of “Everything I know I learned In Kindergarten”, tells a story that perfectly illustrates how decisions about rules can shape our world.  Fulghum once taught a high school philosophy class in Seattle and on the first day of classes he had his class play musical chairs. 

You know the game.  You arrange the chairs and then play Souza music.  Everyone marches until the music stops.  Then everyone finds a chair and sits down.  Then you bring some reality into the game.  Resources are never infinite you know.  Chairs are removed.  

The music plays again.  Marching commences.  When the music stops, everyone struggles to find a chair.  The clever kids hover near a chair or kick a chair and scramble after it when the music stops.   The stronger kids just muscle others out of their way.  Anything for an advantage.  Those without chairs when the music stops are sent to the wall to watch the rest of the game.  They are called the losers. 

More chairs are removed and we keep playing, round after round.  A growing line of losers are on the wall.  Finally, one kid wins and conquers the last chair.  He throws up his arms in victory.  Don’t think for a minute that the losers on the wall feel any happiness for him.

For the next game, Fulghum passes an ordinance - players may now sit on each other's laps. Pretty soon, the kids figure out that even when resources are the scarce, they can always find a lap or a knee to sit on.

The players quickly adjust their tactics.  The rules focus them on a cooperative strategy. When only one last chair remains a kid sits down.  Then two kids sit on his knees.  Then four kids sit on those two pairs of knees, and so on.  Everyone gets a seat.  There are no kids on the wall.  Each kid provides a seat for two more.  The music stops and everyone has a seat.

They all win.  No one loses.  They all throw their arms in the air!  It’s a perfect lesson in how rules and laws shape the game. 

Cities can make laws like that.  Even a small city with lots of people and only a few resources to spare.  Even if all we have are a few loaves and fishes and our only miracle is human cooperation. 

It doesn't need to be left or right, small or big, tax or spend, blue or red.  We get to decide.  Do we want our laws - our government - to be for the person or for the people?


JMA said...

Nice Rick! I have missed your opinion pieces. New career for The Washington Post??

Rick Wilson said...

Glad you liked it. No Washpost for me. The pay is better here...