Emmer column: The pot law fight
The pot law battle between the feds’ prohibition of the stuff and Colorado’s self-determination is a fight well worth having.
Hidden in that fight is a bigger fight. Where should this power lie; in the feds’ original law, in the feds’ casual override of that original law, or in “the people.”
If the feds cannot obey their own laws, people might wonder why citizens should.
Political history is nothing if not a never-ending struggle between the concentrated power of governments and the disbursed initiatives of we, the krill. Centralized power, of course, usually engulfs all else.
The story of the young United States is one of nonconforming outcasts, adventurers and entrepreneurs defying an imperial king. They conjured up a new nation out of a wildly radical idea. People could govern themselves.
It was not perfect. Nonetheless, it was an ambitious but uncertain upgrade over previous versions of government. We have “a republic,” Ben Franklin famously celebrated, “if you can keep it.”
U.S. version 2.0 emerged from the gory upheaval of the Civil War. Lincoln freed the slaves. To do so he corralled immense power at the national level.
America 3.0 was released in the 1930s. FDR rolled great snowballs of power from the hinterlands and pushed them in to Washington.
Whether the New Deal and the densely entangled bureaucracies it spawned have helped or hurt the common good is still hotly debated, largely along tribal lines. Probably both.
Growing paralysis is infecting the country, indeed much of the rich world. Bill Clinton’s outspoken former Secretary of the Treasury, Larry Summers, notes that it took eight years to build a new on-ramp to the Golden Gate bridge. It took only 15 months to build the whole Golden Gate bridge the first time.”
It is the jockeying of too many agencies with too much authority and too little responsibility. It’s a legal boom and a efficiency bust.
Unified power means more force can be applied to leadership goals, whether it is fighting Nazis or Communists, or exploring space and spreading literacy, or shaping minds for better or ill.
Power seems to crave ever greater reach and ever harder defenses. It becomes entrenched and brittle and self-serving.
That tug-of-war between the center and the periphery is a timeless struggle. Brexit, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and planning and zoning hearings have similar fundamentals.
Centralized power suffers from serious democratic deficits.
First, decisions people make themselves are more democratic than decisions others make for them. Colorado’s legalization of pot by popular referendum is far more democratic than the feds’ outlawing of the weed by decree, then ignoring that decree by presidential whim.
Elected representatives, bureaucrats and judges are all deeply flawed servants of the public will. They compete and conflict. They might seek the common good. They might seek the tribal good. They might seek their own good. Most often, they confuse them as the same.
Second, decisions people can revise are more democratic than those they cannot.
Knowledge changes as new knowledge is discovered and as old knowledge is confirmed or discarded. Collective knowledge shifts as information seeps into new nooks and craniums.
Third, decisions people make with full information have more democratic legitimacy than those made without it. Local elections suffer from attempts to manipulate opinion, often by local officials. National elections consist of little else.
According to Gallup, less than one-third of people trust big media to report the news “accurately and fairly.” If the information people have is meaningfully incomplete, just how legitimate are elections? How large is the scam component? Too large, I’ll venture.
We are a people committed to democracy. The ideal may be unachievable, but the present is unacceptable.
In pursuit of pot, Colorado’s people are pulling power from the feds down to themselves. It may not be our goal, but we are advancing democracy.
Reasonable people can differ about marijuana. Inside the pot debate is battle to shut the feds out of the decision. That is a battle for democracy. That’s a battle for America version 4.0.
Vince Emmer is a financial analyst in Gypsum. He runs Citizens Due Diligence after hours. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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