Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pericles Principles

As disgusting and infuriating as the alleged misconduct of the governor of Illinois is, it is not the least bit surprising, nor should it be considered an isolated aberration.

Illinois governments, Chicago's prominent among them, as notoriously corrupt as they may be, are not, unfortunately, the most corrupt nor in the minority of governmental entities with regard to illegal and unethical behavior. Governments are human organizations endowed with enormous relative power. In representative democratic republics such as ours, and their subordinate political divisions, that power provides incredible temptations to those who, in positions of responsibility and decision, allow their better natures to be suborned by their greed and avarice. The only protection we the people, of and from whom our governments are derived, have is our discernment in the voting booth.

Ancient Athenian democracy, the earliest recorded experiment in government of the people, had a curious way of ensuring against any politician becoming too powerful--banishment by ballot. Even the most popular leaders were subject to electoral eviction from the city if a majority of the people feared that they were becoming too influential. Called ostracism, from the Greek word for the pieces of broken pottery upon which citizens wrote the name of the man they wished to be banished from the city for ten years, the practice carried no particular stigma and the man so removed from the temptation of dictatorial power could return to his place and possessions at the end of his penalty.

That particular quirk of Athenian government 2500 years ago was not, in my not-so humble opinion, the most important means of preventing political perversion. While ostracism gets the most attention in simplistic historical reviews of Athenian democracy, a more responsible study of the Athenian constitution reveals that it provided for an elaborate, yet simple, system of governing committees, the members of which were chosen, not by ballot, but by lottery. Every Athenian citizen's duty was to serve on one of a multitude of administrative boards, regardless of his pertinent expertise, if so chosen by lot. Most importantly (again, in my not-so humble opinion) Athenian citizenship was reserved only to free Athenian-born males with Athenian military training. Such citizens understood the meaning of duty, discipline, and honor; as well as the danger of dictatorial decisions regarding matters of war and peace.

The challenges facing our nation require principled, disciplined, honorable leadership at every governmental level from president to puppy-catcher. We would do well to look outside the tenure track of draft-dodging and duty-shirking baby-boomer politicians for our future leaders. They ain't up to the task. Most are up to their necks in greed and ambition--at our expense.
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