Like a garden, democracy needs to be tended

Below are five paired statements. Read them and see if you agree with one or both of each pair:

1. The federal government spends too much money. The wealthy should pay much more in taxes.

2. Every American should have access to high-quality health care. We spend far too much on health care in the United States already.

3. We need to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels. We need to ensure our economy continues to grow.

4. Unions are a crucially important part of our economy and society. Unions have become overly protectionist and are in need of enormous amounts of reform.

5. We need strong government. We need strong citizens.

A little book (half-sized, 165 pages), “The Gardens of Democracy,” by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, suggests that if you agree with only one of the statements in each pair, you may be part of the reason our government is stuck in gridlock.

Even if you say you agree with both statements, but then add that you like one much more, you may be part of the problem.

We all recognize the problems, but talk past each other instead of with each other in our search for solutions.

For example, even though we know the world is becoming flatter because of technology, government continues to run in the United States on the bureaucratic top-down pyramid model.

With tons of information now at any workers’ fingertips, many businesses and organizations outside government are reorganizing themselves to be able to respond more quickly in the ever changing marketplace. But government seems unable to.

Meanwhile, the idea of laissez-faire economics and little regulation worked well when land was plentiful and almost free, and 90 percent of us were farmers. But it is naive to think that will work when Americans number 320 million, of which only 2 percent are still on the farm.

Liu and Hanauer say that government has been ruled by Machinebrain on both sides of the political aisle. Machinebrain sees the economy as perfectly efficient and self-correcting, sees a predictable world and only grudgingly admits the need for correction.

They write, “Machinebrain treats people as cogs: votes to be collected by political machines; consumers to be manipulated by marketing machines; employees to be plugged into industrial machines. … It is a static mindset of control; and is the basis of most of our inherited institutions, from schools to corporations to prisons.”

Gardenbrain, on the other hand, sees the economy and government as man-made things that are “effective only if well constructed and well cared-for.”

Like a farmer, Gardenbrain does not let nature take its course, but tends to these entities, nurturing the good parts and killing off the bad.

Gardenbrain doesn’t see people as cogs to be directed by the world’s nannies. It recognizes that our societal ills like poverty, environmental degradation and ignorance are the result of inefficiencies in our man-made arrangements.

One of the great things about our Founding Fathers was that they understood human nature so well. They understood that, depending on the circumstances, people can be greedy or generous, belligerent or peaceful, hateful or loving. They also understood that mankind could be endlessly resourceful and adaptive, as it schemed to achieve what it wanted.

Liu and Hanauer are fairly liberal in their outlook and concerns, although they do give lip service to conservative points of view.

They are outraged over the Citizens United decision that allows corporations to make campaign contributions.

Anyone who noticed that House Minority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., recently outspent his Tea Party opponent in the GOP primary by 40-to-1, and still got his head handed to him, should realize that the concerns are somewhat overblown.

However, it is still clear that money in politics is corrupting. The only reason that political action committees based outside the jurisdiction of the office up for election make contributions is to buy influence and access.

As long as many swing voters are willing to let their vote be swayed by a barrage of negative TV ads, without truly determining which candidate is operating in their best interest, the dollars needed to pay for the ads will continue to come from outside interests.

The only way to stop it is to require that campaign contributions can only be given by potential constituents of the officeholder. That is, individuals would be allowed to contribute only to candidates running for office only in those jurisdictions where the individual lived.

The my-way-or-the-highway approach isn’t working because nothing much grows on highways.. We need to do a better job of tending to our “Gardens of Democracy,” if we want it to flourish.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 616-1932 or by email at [email protected].