The Three Pillars of a Moral, Ethical and Effective Government (and life)

Written By:  Arnie J. Olsen  10/29/19

I have an “admission”…I voted Republican a number of times in my life, beginning with the first election I ever participated in…a mock vote in the 4th grade (1980) where I voted for Reagan over Carter. Everyone I knew voted for Reagan too.  Following that, my interest in politics continued to grow and my views began to take shape, including when I decided to actually major in political science in college rather than stick with architecture as I had originally planned.  Instead of looking at things through the lens of my own views though, most of my focus was just on learning everything I could about the system itself, its history and I think most importantly, the philosophy behind it.  In fact, looking at the philosophy behind the actual elements of our system is still, to this day, something that guides my thoughts and beliefs more than anything.

As for actual current events, truthfully, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the day to day political activities going on around me…there wasn’t much need.  As a college student, coming on the heels of the Reagan era and through the Clinton years, things seemed pretty good to me and I had little to complain about.  Of course, I had no clue at the time about details of the modern economy, what was going on with international relations, or any of the other issues that “adults” were facing.

In college, we also had like 4 channels to watch on TV, and one of them carried a nightly Rush Limbaugh show.  I had no clue how much of a deceiving, right wing broadcast it was.  I just saw it as him being critical of Bill Clinton and the purported scandals, but beyond that, I had no awareness at all of how Reagan scrapping the Fairness Doctrine made guys like Rush possible in the first place.  I saw him as more entertainment than anything, and didn’t take any of it all that seriously (at least no more seriously than the Jerry Springer Show, which we also got on those four channels).

Needless to say, I stayed the course, voting Republican through those years and beyond for a while.  Basically, I believed the narrative…in many ways…fell for it hook, line and sinker in fact.  I believed that as a smart kid, who worked hard, I could go from a blue collar, middle class upbringing, and pretty much achieve anything I wanted to, and the only thing that could slow me down would be things like being “over taxed to support those people that weren’t willing to work as hard as me”.  That was the Republican mantra…and I bought in.  At the time, I even looked back at things like when Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers for going on strike and replaced them with non-union people as a good thing.  In the simple world of a teenager, it seemed logical…you don’t show up to work, you get fired.  What the hell is “collective bargaining” anyway?

So, I graduated, and took my degree out into the world for the first time.  I should add that I also had the good fortune of hard working, generous parents who paid for my education, so thinks like student loan debt were the furthest thing from my mind, and this was long enough ago that the cost of education was still reasonable enough that a middle class family could pay for it without the help of loans and grants.  If that wasn’t the case, I’m not sure I would have been in school, and certainly not the school I attended.  Upon graduation though, free from student loan debt, I chose my path and followed it.

In no time, I was well on my way…I started out in sales, and was damn good at it, so I moved up the food chain quickly. I went from working for smallish companies to working up to a middle management position in a $2 billion a year Fortune 100 company and had internal promotion offers on a regular basis.  By the time I was 28, I was already looking for an even faster path to the top, and I decided to walk away from that, to start my first business.  Ownership was what I saw as the fast track to ultimate success.

The first reality check was simply that I was in over my head, entrepreneurship was tough, but as a fast learner, I kept building on that early success in spite of a few hiccups along the way.  Before I hit 35, I was bringing home a mid-6 figure income, taking vacations all over the place, sending people that worked for me on all-inclusive trips, and just rolling.  At the same time, I was the guy complaining loudly about having $100,000 a year “stolen” from me in the form of taxes, withholdings, etc., not really thinking about what that actually went to pay for, but rather just fixated that it was being taken from me…typical “Republican” basically. Eventually, I got bored with what I was doing, and shifted gears just before my 40th birthday, and to make a long story a little shorter, I have never touched that level of income again.

Tough it would take me years to realize that income was gone and never to return, nor really necessary in the first place, I also learned during this time that there was always someone with more money, more influence, more power, or whatever, and simply put, they can crush you just because it might be beneficial to them, or even just to show they can.  The whole “you can be as successful as you want to be just by working hard” was total bullshit.  I mean, to a point you can, of course, but in reality, there is a point you will not reach, and it’s not because you lack the ability or the skill or the work ethic, it is because the system is rigged against you once you reach a certain point.  That point is different for everyone, but it certainly does exist, whether you are hindered by growing up in a poor neighborhood with ineffective schools and crime, or maybe it is college is just too expensive to attend, or later on when it’s everything from “it takes money to make money” or having a fair number of people who have the means to literally take what you have earned, and I don’t mean by taxation.

The two major things that proved this point to me were:

  • When I changed industries and accepted a position as the VP of Sales for a manufacturing company, shortly after the 2008 economic train wreck. They were in trouble and nearly out of business when I started, but I came through and within a year, brought them back to levels they weren’t even at before the economy crashed. Then, the owner found every reason in the book to not pay me.  Withheld $138,000 from me in commissions and bonuses, AND cut my salary at the same time because he said he couldn’t afford it.  I tried to fight it, eventually quit, hired an attorney, and lost.  It turned out that the burden of proof was on me, not the owner, and he was the only one with the records to support his case (as well as the guy who could re-write the rules to suit his own interests any time he wanted).  So, lesson #1 was that someone in a more powerful position than you can simply say they don’t feel like paying you, and that’s pretty much the way it will be. There’s little to nothing you can do.

 

  • The second lesson was harsher. I left that company for obvious reasons, and started my own to compete with them. Again, I hit the ground running and landed more work than I knew what to do with.  Within the first 6 months, in addition to many smaller projects, I landed what would eventually become a $1.4 million dollar contract to manufacture all of the custom woodwork and counters required for a new hotel being built in downtown Milwaukee.  We ramped up to 31 employees, and we delivered.  When it came time to settle the bill, the owner of the hotel refused to pay for the last $500,000 of what we delivered.  That was the end of the company, but the final lesson was when the owner sat in a meeting with me telling me that is just how things go because his philosophy is that “if he doesn’t put at least one subcontractor out of business during the course of a project, he paid too much.”  And THAT was all she wrote.  Lawyers couldn’t help.  Existing contract law couldn’t help.  We couldn’t even afford the lawyers required to try to fight it.  To this day, 6 years later, I am still dealing with issues related to the financial mess that caused.  Someday, I could write a book to tell that whole story, but I need to at least get to the end of this story first.

So, the point of sharing all of this is that during this time and through all of these experiences, my views on things changed…dramatically.  This was not simply because of these experiences, but rather, because of how they altered my thinking.  I began to reflect more on what I really stood for, and at the same time, what I stood against.  I did not start out as a “snowflake”, nor am I one now, but I thought long and hard about who I wanted to be, not as a businessman or sales guy, but as a person, and I thought about how that needed to be reflected in my political views.

Finally, that brings me to where we find ourselves today.  During this thought process, I considered a lot of different things, and had a lot of debates with people close to me and it all worked to shape where I finally settled.  What my personal philosophy boiled down to was three key elements that I think of as the pillars of a moral, ethical AND effective government, and they apply equally to life.

The first Pillar comes from the Declaration of Independence: 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. — that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

When it comes to this first pillar, my belief is simple.  I believe it was the intent of the founders was that our government was both necessary, and created in the form it was to preserve those unalienable rights they spelled out so succinctly.  The argument frequently heard from Conservatives, and specifically Conservatives of the more Libertarian kind, talk about limiting government, cutting spending and all that, but I counter that argument with the idea that the government needs to be as big and as intrusive as it needs to be to insure these rights are guaranteed for everyone.

In a perfect world, we could all govern ourselves to provide for these freedoms, as they should not in reality cost anything, but in as diverse a country as the United States, that will not happen.  People will not respect these rights of others, no matter how much they believe in them for themselves, and when it comes to corporations and the wealthy, these rights are nothing more than a punchline that will always be sold in the name of profit.  “Government” is the only entity with sufficient clout to prevent these very powerful people and entities from chewing them up and spitting them out, so however you feel about the government, and about regulations, they are absolutely necessary to our success and even survival as a nation.

Additionally, while I am a proponent of a strong government, and not one subservient to the powerful, we have seen many instances where the government itself must be checked because there are plenty of examples of elected leaders that will use the mechanisms of government to squash these rights.  That is why the second part of that opening phrase is so important.  It must operate with the consent of the governed.  That is where these powers originate, and those powers must be used appropriately, as neither other individuals, nor the government can be allowed to trounce on these rights.

I think a perfect example of this can be when discussing the issue of same sex marriage.  The ultimate right to “Pursuit of Happiness” in this situation rests with the individuals involved in the marriage…those two people.  It does NOT extend to the next door neighbors who may not approve of that union.  In a broader sense, neither the individual, nor the government should be afforded the ability to take that right away from the individuals directly involved.  That could come in the form of the government passing laws that would prevent that marriage from happening or carrying the same legal standing as more traditional unions, and for the individual, it can come in the form of refusing service to that couple or outwardly expressing the kind of hate that impacts that couple.

At the same time, you always need to keep the reverse in mind.  By that, I mean that in situations where someone’s “Pursuit of Happiness” involves taking away any of these rights from others.  In that exact same example, it is possible that due to one person’s religious convictions, they are strongly opposed, offended or whatever by the same sex couple.  Regardless of how offended or upset they are by such a relationship, not a single one of their core rights are ultimately being violated by the mere existence of the relationship, and therefore, they do not get to have a say in whether it exists or not.

The Second Pillar comes from the Constitution itself, specifically the Preamble:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Now, with the Constitution, there are a lot of different ways people will view this, but the bottom line is there is a reason why every single person from the President on down takes an oath to preserve and protect this document, and not an oath to preserve and protect the President, the flag or anything else, and it is because without the Constitution, literally nothing else matters.  These varying perspectives are a challenge at times, because as well thought out as this document is, including all of the subsequent amendments since it was ratified, the mere existence of amendments serves as sufficient proof that it is not a perfect document, but what makes it very close is that it does leave open to possibility change.  This is what makes it durable and lasting, and hence, the United States has managed to become one of the longest, continually running democracies in history.

Most frequently, you will hear terms like “Originalist” and “Textualist” when it comes to Supreme Court Justices, but these are philosophies adhered to by a wide range of people.  Usually, the position taken by these people is based on limiting the powers of the government to strictly the rights and authorities spelled out in the Constitution, and to an extent, the Tenth Amendment:  “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” can be a powerful argument in that regard, however, I choose to counter that with an equally powerful, and I think stronger argument, and this brings me to both the Preamble, as well as my earlier statement of focusing much of my attention on the intentions of the Founders and the philosophy behind the creating of our government in the form it has taken.

In the Preamble, the founders laid out their philosophy and intent in one succinct phrase…and more specifically, I point to “promote the general Welfare” as possibly the single most important phrase in the Constitution.  To me, I feel like the Preamble as a whole is a statement of the guiding principles and purpose of the Constitution, and literally, everything else that follows is simply the best attempt possible in the 18th century to achieve these lofty goals.  In other words, while anything in the text of the Constitution is potentially subject to change, as clearly outlined in Article V, the one thing that is not, is the general purpose and philosophy behind its creation.

What my interpretation ultimately means is that the only rigid elements of the Constitution are represented within the Preamble, those guiding principles must at all times be adhered to, and if that means changing the Constitution, then we must change the Constitution.  If that means interpreting a portion of the existing text one way or another, we must interpret the text in the way most aligned with these guiding principles.  With that in mind, I call attention specifically to the phrase “promote the general Welfare” once again.  What represents the “general Welfare” may change over time because the world is a constantly changing, evolving place, and that is where it is up to our elected representatives at any given time to continuously work toward the “more perfect union” that was truly the only stated goal.

What does “general Welfare” actually mean?  In my mind, there is no single, correct answer to that question.  It changes, with time, with circumstance, with the influence of outside factors, ad with an infinite number of other variables we may encounter over the course of history and into the future, but what I believe it also means is that our Constitution is also sufficiently equipped to allow for any and all changes that circumstances may dictate necessary or even preferred, provided they are specifically geared toward maintaining at a minimum, or ideally, improving upon the condition of the People of this nation.

In real world, versus philosophical terms, there are two very controversial subjects we face today that create an intense debate.  These are the 2nd Amendment and Healthcare.  Conservatives will general argue in favor of no change to the 2nd Amendment, citing a wide range of reason, but predominantly, that it is in the Constitution, it was intended to be there, and therefore it may not be changed.  When it comes to healthcare, those same Conservatives will argue that there is no provision within the Constitution that affords the Federal government the right to implement a national healthcare system, or really any healthcare system at all in which the government is directly involved in the delivery of these services.

While I disagree with both of these positions, I will acknowledge that they are legitimate interpretations of the Constitution, however, when we reach a point in our history where either of these positions no longer represents what is in the best interest of the “general Welfare” of the people of this country…ALL the people of this country, we have a moral and legal obligation to revisit them, debate them, and strive to achieve a better situation than the status quo.  In fact, to do anything short of throw the issues in question to a wide open space where any outcome may be possible would be in direct violation of the intent and purpose of the Constitution, so at this point, it is up to the people living today in this country to determine what we collectively feel is in the best interests of ourselves, our contemporaries and every future generation.  It is our duty, and it is a right that shall not be taken away because a judge or an interest group prefers the status quo.  It’s also called progress…”in order to form a more perfect union.”

The Third Pillar is “the Golden Rule”:

This is the simplest and most straight forward, and if followed, in an intellectually honest manner, it will resolve many issues we face.  Simply put, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  This philosophy has roots in nearly every religion and every secular philosophy in the known history of the world.  You can certainly find it in Christianity, but you will find the same thing in Islam, and all of the ancient eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

While I am not an overtly religious person, and in fact, give religion very little thought in my daily life, this is transcendent of religion, or maybe put another way, it is sitting at the crossroads of where religion, common sense and logic meet.

Conclusion:

So, there you have it.  When you see me writing, posting, arguing with people, even in the most heated, childish arguments complete with name calling, understand that there is a guiding philosophy behind all of it.  To me, the advantage of determining a philosophy you choose to adhere to when it comes to political debate is that your arguments are grounded on a strong foundation, and in my mind what I have arrived at for myself, is not an outlier…it is absolutely consistent with the most important principles of our nation, as intended, by the founders.

The other reason for figuring out what your philosophy is, and tying it to these major principles is that it elevates any debate from “just my opinion” or “agree to disagree”.  While everyone certainly has an equal right to their opinion, and sometimes agreeing to disagree is the best path forward just to keep the peace and minimize frustration, sticking within the confines of these three principles puts you in a very strong position within that debate because, ultimately, I do not buy into the notion that we all can have different “opinions” on what our government should be or what actions it should take because when it comes to actual policy, at least not that have equal standing.  In fact, I believe that these principles help sort out the right and the wrong sides of pretty much all policy debates.  And that is why when you see me debating, you will rarely see a lot of compromise.  There’s nearly always a clear answer as to what the end game or outcome should be, so the only debate is what is the best path to get there, and THAT is a worthy debate.  I think if more people gave their own principles some thought, we would realize our goals are most often the same, but we have to get past this partisan Trumpism crap to get there, whether you support him or not.  What matters is identifying what the best possible outcome is for the people of this nation as a whole, and then working to figure out the best path of getting there, even when there may be different paths that will work.

Finally, since I like to always try to put things in context, I think a good analogy for this scenario is the following:

Two people get into a car with the goal of driving to California.  The trip is 2,100 miles from where they are, and the car’s gas tank is nearly empty.  The first stretch of road is barren…300 miles to the next gas station.  The two people begin arguing about what the first thing they should do is.  One person says we should stop at the gas station around the corner and fill up before we leave.  The other person says we should just get going to California because stopping at THAT gas station is going to take 20 minutes and take us 2 miles in the wrong direction.  Now, if the goal is to get to California, I think we would all agree that in spite of the “inconvenience” of spending an extra 20 minutes and driving two miles in the wrong direction, filling up the tank before you leave is the right answer.  Policy debates can often be that simple if you look at them with even the slightest amount of logic and critical thinking, and while everyone has the right to their opinion, sometimes, opinions can if fact be wrong, clearly so.

The second analogy I like to give on this issue is more specific to those same two current issues I presented in the previous section regarding “general Welfare”.  Goals, like opinions are also generally easy to identify as right or wrong, when debating any of the issues we face.

First, take healthcare.  Simply put, is there any reason to disagree that the GOAL of the healthcare system in its most basic terms is that if you are living in this country, every single person, you should have access to whatever healthcare services you require to remain healthy and/or alive?  If you are being intellectually honest, is there another goal that could be more appropriate than that when it comes to the health of every person?  No, there is not.  The debate can be about how we get there, and facts and data, combined with the often lacking element of critical thinking will dictate the correct path, but that is the only place where there is any room for debate, not within the overarching goal itself.

On the second issue, the 2nd Amendment, or more appropriately, guns in general, the appropriate goal is again easy to identify, and there should be no debate about it.  The ultimate goal, regardless of how we get there, is that we need to find ourselves with fewer people being killed by guns.  Simple.  Less death from being on the downwind side of a gun barrel.  How do we get there?  Just like with healthcare, if you have an honest debate, remove emotions on the issue, and stick to facts and data, along with history, knowledge of human psychology, and apply some logic and critical thinking to all of that, and you will likely find that while there are many opinions as to how to achieve the ultimate goal of less death from guns, one path will likely rise to the surface above all the rest, and then the only thing left to do is implement the elements of that path.

So, anyway, I hope you are still awake if you have taken time to read all of this, but I thought it was important to explain where I am coming from when you see my past and future posts, writings and even childish, name calling kind of arguments, and maybe, if you take a second to think about what you really believe in, we can all arrive at our common goals in short order and get on with the work of fixing the things we need to in our country…starting with electing people to represent us that represent our larger goals and have the willingness and ability to do what is necessary to achieve them.

 

2 thoughts on “The Three Pillars of a Moral, Ethical and Effective Government (and life)”

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