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Federalism
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I've spent the morning with the Denver Post, thinking particularly about the referenda for the November election, especially Referendum C, and I'm pleased to see the level of discourse rising in the letters to the editor. I'm especially happy to read this (from Craig Eley of Denver), in response to a previous week's letter:

In her letter, Cheryl Redmond Doyle of Littleton asks, "Why are the government's needs and budget more important than my family's? I am voting 'no' on Referendums C and D."

I am sure that our families are the most important single thing to almost all of us. Does that mean we should keep all our money for ourselves, giving none to charities, churches or kids selling wrapping paper to help their schools? Even the most selfish among us realize, as Doyle apparently does not, that C and D are not addressing "the government's needs." They are addressing our own needs.

Yes, they are our own needs.

I will admit that I have some self-interest in seeing Referendum C pass because higher education will be affected most by the result of the vote: if my job is secure (and I'm not sure it is) then my working conditions are not.

But my self-interest does not exist individually. As a teacher I exist and work inside a web of personal and ethical relations. When I do well, my students can do well. When my students do well, I can do even better. So what my interests — in funding that will support decent facilities, namely classrooms that will seat the students comfortably, and a library that will support their learning, and perhaps a little money for curricular and cultural initiatives that improve the general tone of the learning environment — are also in the interests of my students.

But they are also, in some measure, in the interests of all.

As I say, I work as a teacher in a web of personal and ethical relations. That web encompasses me and my students, primarily, but it also extends outward: as my students graduate, as our students graduate, and enter the general populace, their capacity for rational thought and dialogue and investigation has a direct impact on the general (averaged) capacity for citizenly intellection. What I want, more largely, is an intelligent citizenry, an increasingly intelligent citizenry. Right now, I am interested in the means to secure the project of preparing that increase.

Mr. Eley's letter is particularly heartening to me in its recognition of the contingency of our lives:

For example, decent roads allow goods to be delivered to us, permit us to view the beautiful scenery around the state and perhaps even help us avoid some expensive repairs to our vehicles.

Of course, my family is the most important thing to me. But I also care about safe school buildings for students in rural counties where I will probably never set foot. Of course, I think I can spend my money better than the government can. But when is the last time I built a road, a school or a sewer system?

It is ironic that in television ads, the anti-C and D crowd calls the rest of us "pigs." If all you care about is yourself and the immediate needs of your family, then you will probably vote against C and D. I have confidence that most of the citizens of Colorado will take a broader view of the state's best interests and, yes, even their own.

I've been saying for a few months now, to whomever will listen, that the question beneath Referendum C that few people want to confront is a question about self-sufficiency, about independence.

For so many people it seems that personal or political independence must be expressed in economic of fiscal terms. The opponents of Referendum C say again and again that you know better than the government what to do with your money. You can determine its use and effect better. You can control it.

You can control it. Maybe the decisions you'd make would be different from those the government makes. But you can't embrace this totally, or you'd lead yourself into unliftable burden.

If you believe this, this is what you have to do: sell your car and home today and all your clothes and divest yourself of all your goods and move onto a nice parcel of land with a stand of trees. Cut down and plane those trees into planks and raise your own house. Once you are done here, you must begin to till the ground to plant your own crops (you must be getting hungry now) and cotton for fiber for cloth (it's cold too without those clothes). And once you're fed and clothed, begin drilling for oil and smelt some metal and work it into a small refinery and also get to work on a car of some kind. And then work a bit on flattening out the land so you can drive your car. You're going to be late for work, but maybe you should quit that, too. You're self-sufficient.

The fact of our lives that we all live inside a web of personal and ethical and economic relations, and we do depend on the work of others and, more importantly, at the intersection of our needs (personal and corporate) and our capacities to fill those needs. Someone can refine some fuel, but too much for personal consumption, so the neighbors get it. And so forth.

To pretend otherwise is to participate in delusion.

...

I hope our collective horror at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina would push us even further toward such realization.

Here is a situation in which the abilities of the individual, even of the local body, were not sufficient to withstand this storm, a situation in which the corporate (the body I mean is the body politic) capacity was required to weather, and so much of what has gone wrong lies in a failure of the body to respond to this rupture. If ours was a body, we'd be dangerously ill.

I am happy to see the discourse of federalism returning, if in isolated pockets, in the discussion of Katrina's effects.

I just hope we can continue to have this conversation about our interdependence before gas reaches $4 or $5 a gallon and more of us are meeting as pedestrians on the street.

Posted by Jake Adam York at September 25, 2005 10:17 AM



COMMENTS

An Increasingly Intelligent Citizenry (IIC), by which I think you mean a citizenry that chooses more and more to apply its intellect to politics rather than allowing it to vegetate in entertainment, (not that entertainment is in itself a bad thing) would first require that citizens believe their participation (and resistance) makes a difference, that the democratic process is more than casting a ballot.

Your description of the "unliftable burden" is persuasive.

Posted by: Dee at September 26, 2005 7:12 AM