Common good gets short shrift
When it comes to politics, there is no shortage of criticism of how the folks we elect to office continue to mess things up.
Whether it's Congress, the state Legislature or our county councils, it is common sport to point out how poorly they perform, or how little attention they pay to what the people want.
That sentiment is one of the driving forces behind the ongoing push for citizen initiative, referendum and recall. This is a basic grass-roots movement focused on the idea that citizens have a right to propose laws, pass judgment on laws already on the books and send home elected officials who are not doing their job.
There's nothing wrong with this, and surely our elected officials have failed our expectations more times than we can count.
But putting the political process in the hands of the electorate — directly — has its own set of dangers. The old saying about politics being the art of compromise falls apart when issues are left to black-and-white decisions by the voters.
A good case in point is the just-completed referendum on fixed rail for Honolulu. Voters on O'ahu approved a steel-wheel-on-steel-rail system, but not by much. But the real interest is in how the vote divided across O'ahu on the issue.
Districts that will be, or might be, served by the rail system tended to approve the idea. Those who live in East Honolulu and Windward O'ahu, areas that would not see a transit system coursing through their neighborhood, said no.
Now, maybe those Hawai'i Kai and Windward folks were motivated by the aesthetics of the rail system, or its cost. But it is a good bet many — if not most — were simply saying they don't want a project that won't do them any immediate good and will surely cost them plenty.
And that's why popular referendum votes, no matter how "democratic," pose a danger. They reduce the general to the specific; the common good for the interests of a particular group or neighborhood.
It's a good bet that if the traffic-easing widening of Kalaniana'ole Highway had been put to a popular vote, East Honolulu might have said "yes" while others likely would have objected.
The point is that such projects, while they might help some while doing nothing for others, are judged to be in the larger common good.
Ideally, there could be an Athenian democracy in which every citizen is involved in great public decisions. But we're beyond that. Our representative system allows for the gritty political wheeling and dealing that makes political progress possible.
And guess what? If you don't like the decisions made, you can always vote the rascals out.