Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why We Must Tie Government's Hands

Robert A. Heinlein

Excerpted from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Wolf had a good committee; Prof should have kept closer eye on it. Wolf had caused his boss, Moshai Baum, to be elected vice-chairman and had in all seriousness outlined for his committee problem of determining what permanent government should be. Then Wolf had turned [his] back on it.Those busy laddies split up and did it — studied forms of government in Carnegie Library, held subcommittee meetings, three or four people at a time (few enough to worry Prof had he known) — and when Congress met early in September to ratify some appointments and elect more congressmen-at-large, instead of adjourning, Comrade Baum had gavel and they recessed — and met again and turned selves into committee-of-the-whole and passed a resolution and next thing we knew entire Congress was a Constitutional Convention divided into working groups headed by those subcommittees.

I think Prof was shocked. But he couldn’t undo it, had all been proper under rules he himself had written. But he rolled with punch, went to Novylen (where Congress now met — more central) and spoke to them with usual good nature and simply cast doubts on what they were doing rather than telling them flatly they were wrong.After gracefully thanking them he started picking early drafts to pieces:“Comrade Members, like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master. You now have freedom — if you can keep it. But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant. Move slowly, be hesitant, puzzle out the consequences of every word. I would not be unhappy if this convention sat for ten years before reporting — but I would be frightened if you took less than a year.

“Distrust the obvious, suspect the traditional...for in the past mankind has not done well when saddling itself with governments. For example, I note in one draft report a proposal for setting up a commission to divide Luna into congressional districts and to reapportion them from time to time according to population.“This is the traditional way; therefore it should be suspect, considered guilty until proved innocent. Perhaps you feel that this is the only way. May I suggest others? Surely where a man lives is the least important thing about him. Constituencies might be formed by dividing people by occupation...or by age...or even alphabetically. Or they might not be divided, every member elected at large — and do not object that this would make it impossible for any man not widely known throughout Luna to be elected; that might be the best possible thing for Luna.“You might even consider installing the candidates who receive the least number of votes; unpopular men may be just the sort to save you from a new tyranny. Don’t reject the idea merely because it seems preposterous — think about it!

In past history popularly elected governments have been no better and sometimes far worse than overt tyrannies.“But if representative government turns out to be your intention there still may be ways to achieve it better than the territorial district.

For example you each represent about ten thousand human beings, perhaps seven thousand of voting age — and some of you were elected by slim majorities. Suppose instead of election a man were qualified for office by petition signed by four thousand citizens. He would then represent those four thousand affirmatively, with no disgruntled minority, for what would have been a minority in a territorial constituency would all be free to start other petitions or join in them. All would then be represented by men of their choice.

Or a man with eight thousand supporters might have two votes in this body. Difficulties, objections, practical points to be worked out — many of them! But you could work them out...and thereby avoid the chronic sickness of representative government, the disgruntled minority which feels — correctl y! — that it has been disenfranchised.“But, whatever you do, do not let the past be a straightjacket!

“I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent — the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws. Let the legislators pass laws only with a two-thirds majority...while the repealers are able to cancel any law through a mere one-third minority. Preposterous? Think about it. If a bill is so poor that it cannot command two-thirds of your consents, is it not likely that it would make a poor law? And if a law is disliked by as many as one-third, is it not likely that you would be better off without it?“But in writing your constitution let me invite attention to the wonderful virtue of the negative! Accentuate the negative! Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do. No conscript armies...no interference however slight with freedom of press, or speech, or travel, or assembly, or of religion, or of instruction, or communication, or occupation...no involuntary taxation. Comrades, if you were to spend five years in a study of history while thinking of more and more things that your government should promise never to do and then let your constitution be nothing but those negatives, I would not fear the outcome.“What I fear most are affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting to government powers to do something that appears to need doing. Please remember always that the Lunar Authority was created for the noblest of purposes by just such sober and well-intentioned men, all popularly elected. And with that thought I leave you to your labors. Thank you.”“Gospodin President! Question of information! You said ‘no involuntary taxation’ — Then how do you expect us to pay for things? Tanstaafl!” [There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch! — Ed.]“Goodness me, sir, that’s your problem.

I can think of several ways. Voluntary contributions just as churches support themselves…government-sponsored lotteries to which no one need subscribe…or perhaps you Congressmen should dig down into your own pouches and pay for whatever is needed; that would be one way to keep government down in size to its indispensable functions whatever they may be. If indeed there are any. I would be satisfied to have the Golden Rule be the only law; I see no need for any other, nor for any method of enforcing it. But if you really believe that your neighbors must have laws for their own good, why shouldn’t you pay for it? Comrades, I beg you — do not resort to compulsory taxation. There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.”Prof bowed and left, Stu and I followed him. Once in an otherwise empty capsule I tackled him. “Prof, I liked much that you said…but about taxation aren’t you talking one thing and doing another? Who do you think is going to pay for all this spending we’re doing?”He was silent long moments, then said, “Manuel, my only ambition is to reach the day when I can stop pretending to be a chief executive.”

“Is no answer!”

“You have put your finger on the dilemma of all government — and the reason I am an anarchist. The power to tax, once conceded, has no limits; it contains until it destroys. I was not joking when I told them to dig into their own pouches. It may not be possible to do away with government — sometimes I think that government is an inescapable disease of human beings. But it may be possible to keep it small and starved and inoffensive — and can you think of a better way than by requiring the governors themselves to pay the cost of their antisocial hobby?”“Still doesn’t say how to pay for what we are doing now.”“‘How,’ Manuel? You know how we are doing it. We’re stealing it. I’m neither proud of it nor ashamed; it’s the means we have. If they ever catch on, they may eliminate us — and that I am prepared to face. At least, in stealing, we have not created the villainous precedent of taxation.”“Prof, I hate to say this —”“Then why say it?”“Because, damn it, I’m in it as deeply as you are…and want to see that money paid back! Hate to say it but what you just said sounds like hypocrisy.”He chuckled. “Dear Manuel! Has it taken you all these years to decide that I am a hypocrite?”“Then you admit it?”“No. But if it makes you feel better to think that I am one, you are welcome to use me as your scapegoat. But I am not a hypocrite to myself because I was aware the day we declared the Revolution that we would need much money and would have to steal it. It did not trouble me because I considered it better than food riots six years hence, cannibalism in eight. I made my choice and have no regrets.”I shut up, silenced but not satisfied. Stu said, “Professor, I’m glad to hear that you are anxious to stop being President.”“So? You share our comrade’s misgivings?”“Only in part. Having been born to wealth, stealing doesn’t fret me as much as it does him. No, but now that Congress has taken up the matter of a constitution I intend to find time to attend sessions. I plan to nominate you for King.”Prof looked shocked. “Sir, if nominated, I shall repudiate it.

If elected, I shall abdicate.”“Don’t be in a hurry. It might be the only way to get the sort of constitution you want. And that I want, too, with about your own mild lack of enthusiasm. You could be proclaimed King and the people would take you; we Loonies aren’t wedded to a republic. They’d love the idea — ritual and robes and a court and all that.”“No!”“Ja da! When the time comes, you won’t be able to refuse. Because we need a king and there isn’t another candidate who would be accepted. Bernardo the First, King of Luna and Emperor of the Surrounding Spaces.”“Stuart, I must ask you to stop. I’m becoming quite ill.”“You’ll get used to it. I’m a royalist because I’m a democrat. I shan’t let your reluctance thwart the idea any more than you let stealing stop you.”I said, “Hold it, Stu. You say you’re a royalist because you’re a democrat?”“Of course. A king is the people’s only protection against tyranny…especially against the worst of all tyrants: themselves.”

Excerpted from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein.

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