In the NY Times opinion page last week was a piece by Nicolas Kristoff about restraint in politics. He said that one of the things that has held our country together is the understanding that our leaders will use the powers given to them in The Constitution in a restrained way. The reasons for this are obvious. We do not want people gaining power and making a hatchet job of our political institutions. The nuclear option that allowed a mere majority to pass legislation that had required a two-thirds super majority, was the beginning of a change in how the game is being played. And this sets a precedent for the next party in power.
The Constitution gives the president broad powers. He/she can load the supreme court, raising the number of justices to any number they like. Anyone can be pardoned. The president can rule by decree. Of course the creators of that fine document thought of all of this and put mechanisms in place to challenge any of those moves, but those mechanisms can be perverted. The self-regulating system of checks and balances can be bought if enough checks are brought to bare. Money can become the reason for all actions and if this becomes true it means that outside agencies, foreign governments or private corporations can promote a person in the position to do their bidding. This is why we need rigorous investigation of foreign interference, because a candidate who gets elected by the designs of a foreign will have the means to deter an investigation.
In economics, when Adam Smith talked of the guiding hand, it was a hand of restraint. He believed that humans were intelligent enough o accept the fact that blind self-interest would lead to blind relationships where the needs of vast numbers of people would be ignored by a favored few. In economics we know of a principle called personal costs versus social costs, where invariably people will ignore personal costs if they can be pushed onto social costs. Examples of this are illegal dumping, all littering of non-perishable items, an infected person knowingly infecting others with a disease because they have things they want to do.
It was a credit to the people of California that after initially not taking the drought very seriously they came around and started conserving so a water crisis was averted in much of the state, and then the rains came, the snow pack improved, and people could return to their old habits, but many won't. They have learned that this cycle of drought isn't going away and they will change they ways to include restraint. For the most part these are educated people ho understand the complexity of the problem. In almost all cases self-restraint goes hand in hand with understanding the complexity of a problem. In all other cases restraint is enforced by criminalization or economic cost. If you raise the price enough, people use less. There are also improvements in technology, such as low-flow showers, and toilets. Improvements in the kinds of plants people have in their yards, meaning more adaptable to the climate of the region. Water will always be the basis of agriculture and if it comes down to a us or them contest, agriculture will lose out to people with enormous long-term consequences.
In South Africa, when the water crisis became evident, the first step was voluntary restraint. It had almost no effect on usage. The second step was to raise prices, but it was too late. Now in an attempt to keep the entire system afloat, barely, costs of water are skyrocketing, and some areas are being shut down from having water service. If the rains fail to materialize this year, there is fear of widespread panic. The farms in the region are beginning lose their crops.
We should all see this as a harbinger of the direction we're headed, to a time of panic and conflict because we were not able to make clear the value of restraint.
And I should say right here that I too should learn how to restrain myself. I will make the claim that I've gotten better on the path to enlightened novel writing.