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 What the ‘people’ want



Live  from Saipan By Zaldy Dandan

Saipan — The people, according to a Northern Mariana Islands official, need it. “It” was a press release that the official wanted published. But how did he know what the people needed? Did they tell him? Did he consult with every single individual in the CNMI?


After 30 years of writing and thinking and observing politics up close, I’ve learned that 1) many politicians and government officials actually believe they know what the “people” want; and 2) many politicians and/or government officials truly want to help the “people,” and want to do good things or make them better.


But if they’re truly honest to themselves, politicians and government officials will quickly realize that many individuals (i.e., voters) say the darndest things, and can’t agree on a lot of issues, including those many of us consider “urgent” or “critical.”


Change! we say. But change how? Change what? Change when? Different people will have different views on change. Different people, moreover, think about different things differently.


In the CNMI’s case, who are the “people”? Government employees, government retirees, business owners (big, small or medium), private sector employees, residents in each of the villages, and on each of the three main islands, the unemployed.


For sure, each of them will have a different take on the “pressing issues” that need to be “addressed.” As they say, tell me where you sit and I’ll tell you where you stand.

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How can we possibly claim that we know what “the people” want when we know that if we ask them, their answers will vary? Good politicians know that there are no “people,” only individuals whose votes will usually go to the highest bidder, figuratively and sometimes literally speaking.


(Here’s one of the questions asked by one of “the people” to the candidates during a U.S. presidential debate 12 years ago: “As a 20-year-old college student, all I hear from professors, neighbors and others is that when I graduate, I will have little chance to get employment. Can — what can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?”)


The main allure of politics and governance is that it gives us the illusion of control — especially if we are unacquainted with history or basic economics. Everything is simple and easy if we are not aware that our favored remedies have already been tried before, and have failed, repeatedly.


As the English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) once noted, the “mischiefs wrought by uninstructed law-making, enormous in their amount as compared with those caused by uninstructed medical treatment, are conspicuous to all who do but glance over its history.”


But who among us has time to “glance” over history if it’s not a 30-second TikTok video?


In Spencer’s time, concerned citizens — like their counterparts today — vowed to “guard” against bad government. “Everybody will be educated; and all, with their eyes constantly open to the abuse of power, will be quick to prevent it.” But in human affairs then and now “the most promising schemes go wrong in ways which no one anticipated.”


Why?


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“A fundamental error pervading the thinking of nearly all parties, political and social, is that evils admit of immediate and radical remedies,” Spencer said. “‘If you will but do this, the mischief will be prevented.’ ‘Adopt my plan, and the suffering will disappear.’ ‘The corruption will unquestionably be cured by enforcing this measure.’ Everywhere one meets with beliefs, expressed or implied, of these kinds. They are all ill-founded. It is possible to remove causes that intensify the evils; it is possible to change the evils from one form into another; and it is possible, and very common, to exacerbate the evils by the efforts made to prevent them; but anything like the immediate cure is impossible.”


And this is the story of many, if not almost all, “reform” measures that are supposed to get rid, once and for all, of certain socio-economic problems, or that aim to improve our behaviors if not our characters.


“It needs but to ask what laws have been doing for a long time past, to see that the terrible evils complained of are mostly law-made,” Spencer said.


Our “solution”?

   More laws.

   “Unquestionably,” Spencer said, “among monstrous beliefs one of the most monstrous is that, while for a simple handicraft, such as shoemaking, a long apprenticeship is needful, the sole thing which needs no apprenticeship is making a nation’s laws!”


According to Spencer, “facts forced on his attention hour by hour should make everyone skeptical as to the success of this or that proposed way of changing a people’s actions. Alike to the citizen and to the legislator, home experiences daily supply proofs that the conduct of human beings balk at calculation. Yet, as difficult as he finds it to deal with humanity in detail, he is confident of his ability to deal with embodied humanity. Citizens, not one-thousandth of whom he knows, not one-hundredth of whom he ever saw, and the great mass of whom belong to classes having habits and modes of thought of which he has but dim notions, he feels sure will act in ways he foresees, and fulfill ends he wishes.”


Not a lot of politicians or government officials would want to ask themselves the following question: “If in…personal affairs, where all the conditions of the case were known to me, I have so often miscalculated, how much oftener shall I miscalculate in political affairs, where the conditions are too numerous, too widespread, too complex, too obscure to be understood”?

Such self-awareness requires a level of honesty that is more of a liability than a virtue in politics.


Zaldy Dandan is editor of the CNMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety. His fourth book, “If He Isn’t Insane Then He Should Be: Stories & Poems from Saipan,” is available on amazon.com/.

 



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