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Carl Ostrom: Questions – We the People

This is the final column of this monthly series.

This column is not so much about what we ask our politicians, but what we ask ourselves. In the end, the government is what we make it. If it is true that the government is “of the people, by the people, for the people,” the government is a reflection of who we are as a nation and what we believe. What we say at the ballot box is what we really value.

The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution states:



We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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

This statement of purpose defines that the government is for the common benefit of the society, not the individual.




It is most likely that the majority of voters want a government that supports what they believe and allows them to do what they want. Since the public is made up of human beings, most with differing ideologies, it is not likely that there will be a “one size fits all” government that will make everyone happy. It is easy to agree with the common good when it aligns with our beliefs. But it challenges our character when the society as a whole is going in a different direction.

Do we value character? Do we value civility? Do we value respect? How we treat others can be construed as a statement of how we are requesting ourselves to be treated. If any of this is true of our values and is what we teach our children, should we not value this same moral fiber of our political representatives? Even more so, should it not be true of us?

True character is exhibited when we show civility and respect towards people with whom we do not agree. It is also exhibited when we show civility and respect when others do not. “They did it first” is how 5 year olds justify immature behavior, not how adults show character.

Unfortunately, often times we value policy over all else. Then we reward bad behavior at the ballot box. This sends the message that moral fiber, good character, and common decency are not valued and can be dismissed in the political arena. This fosters divisiveness. Divisiveness is not a good long term strategy for stable government. It can divide the country in a crisis when cooperation is required for physical, social, and economic recovery and survival.

Whenever a politician or party resorts to obstruction and divisiveness, they are admitting that their policies are not able to stand the test of civil discourse and objective scrutiny.

This is not a problem with just one political party. It is true of both sides of the aisle.

Go back and read the Preamble again. None of the elements stated therein can be achieved in a divisive environment. Although economics is not included in the preamble, the concept is the same. The U.S. economy is based on confidence of investment and consumer spending. Divisiveness shakes the perception of confidence in the future, which reduces investment, hiring, and spending and, thus economic stability and growth.

We often hear that a candidate plans to shake things up. That is not necessarily a good thing. The two big questions are, just what do you plan to shake up and why, and how are you going to build respect and trust from your colleagues in the process.

It is clear that voting for someone who plans to establish policies with which we don’t agree, just because they are a nice person, is not necessarily wise. However, in the primary election process where candidates have similar policy views, it is much easier to make decisions based on character and behavior. Equally important is to communicate to the candidates how you perceive their behavior, both good and bad.

Also, this is not only a problem in campaigns, but how politicians act when performing their legislative or administrative duties.

Everything we like or dislike about government was established and ordained by the voters. So, if we don’t like the political discourse, it is only that way because we voted for representatives and parties that exhibited this behavior.

If, indeed, our government is of the people, by the people, for the people, it is up to us.

Carl Ostrom lives in Grass Valley.


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