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The laws of dead men

| Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Happy Election Day! I have the honor and privilege of writing on this much-hyped and important day in American politics. When I realized what day this column would run, I struggled with what exactly I should say. Do I have a unique enough opinion to sway you about which political candidate you may support? Probably not. Will my analysis of today’s political climate make some type of breakthrough in political theory? Definitely not. So, with an obligation to discuss politics on this day of days, I think what might be nice is a reminder that your vote does matter — just not always the way you think.

First things first, statistically speaking, the vast majority of students on campus aren’t voting in this election cycle. Some may have voted early at home over fall break, a few others probably took the opportunity to send in an absentee ballot. A handful of lucky students are voting right here in South Bend. Despite being small in number, these votes — and the ones you will make throughout your life — matter. Not necessarily because they will steer the course of the country in the way you want it to be, but because the people we put in office will write laws that live far longer than we do.

About a month ago, I heard Philip K. Howard speak on campus as a guest of the Constitutional Studies Department. The room was fairly crowded, partially due to a little extra credit for attendance in some classes (always a winner — that and Chipotle). If you weren’t able to make it, and didn’t see the excellent Observer story about it, Howard is an accomplished author and speaker on the topic of government gridlock. The focus of his talk on that day was the way in which the American federal government is failing the American people. I didn’t agree in every respect with what he had to say (including his call for a vast overhaul of the American governing experience), but there was one thing in particular that caught my attention. As many of us learned in high school civics, the U.S. Constitution makes it difficult to pass laws, with the hope that the ones that are passed are good ones. The opposite side of this, of course, is that it is nearly impossible to remove or even amend laws once they have passed. Howard takes this a step further, and concludes that we are a country run by the laws of dead men: people who had no connection to modern society or the strides technology has taken.

His theory of dead men running government adds an interesting twist to today’s elections. If we are governed by the laws of people whom our ancestors elected, then the men and women we put in office today will create the government that rules our children and grandchildren, not just ourselves. It is difficult enough to implement the laws passed now — just look at the process the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank have been through. Between implementation and the immortality of passed laws, perhaps it would be more prudent of us to look at the decisions the people we send to Washington will make in the context of their affect on the country in 50 years, not just five.

Of course, thinking this way is nearly impossible. Who, in 1964, considered the privacy implications of personal information being on Facebook? Consider this, however. Politicians today argue over healthcare, immigration and foreign policy. Whatever language is used in legislation to address those issues will be set in stone for decades to come. That language could very well prevent the best solution to a new healthcare crisis in 2045. What, then, should we consider when we step in that polling booth on Election Day?

Perhaps Howard was onto something when he spoke about a broken system in America, or perhaps not. But the decisions you make in the polling booth over the course of your life have implications on arguments and problems we cannot possibly begin to foresee. If, and hopefully when, you decide to vote for the officials who will be making your laws, keep in mind that they will be a much bigger problem for the next generation than they are for you.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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