We all have a stake (11/18/2012)

Nathan Olsen’s column in the Nov. 14 Post Register ovelooks the value of criticizing public officials, writes David Adler.

Missing from Nathan Olsen’s broadside on my recent column in which I sought to explain “why” Idaho voters might have rejected Propositions 1, 2 and 3, widely-known as the “Luna Laws,” is an appreciation of the importance of civic criticism of public officials’ programs and policies. Mr. Olsen claims that my criticisms were at “the very least misdirected,” that in a period in which we are confronted “by incessant criticism from those who aren’t willing to enter the fray themselves,” there is “nothing to lose” for a “college professor to hurl attacks at those who actually enter the political arena.” Come to think of it, “there is nothing to gain, either.”

Mr. Olsen’s claim that criticisms of Superintendent Luna are an exercise in “misdirection” if they do not similarly target the governor and legislators who passed and implemented the measures ignores four factors.

First, legislators have been criticized, but not for lack of transparency, for the legislature conducted the requisite public hearings.

Second, it is noteworthy that Luna has been widely criticized for the gap between his campaign rhetoric in which he touted the excellence of Idaho’s teachers and schools, and his surprising post-election victory plan to overhaul the education system-without consulting teachers.

Third, it’s common in American politics to name policies and programs after their architects, as seen in the Marshall Plan and the Monroe Doctrine, for example. Authors of programs are known and held accountable for their work.

Fourth, limited space precludes lengthy, encyclopedic essays.

The remainder of Mr. Olsen’s complaints seem to revolve around the theme that those who don’t seek elective office have something of a lesser right of freedom of expression than those who hold office and, in any case, academics who critique governmental actions have nothing to lose and nothing to gain. These are disturbing claims, and they ignore the republican enterprise that the founding fathers created.

The founders carved out the First Amendment right of free speech as a corrective mechanism for the citizenry to counter government policies that were ill-conceived or otherwise flawed. This provision was critical to the entire constitutional enterprise since the founders rejected the idea that those holding office were infallible and had cornered the market on political wisdom. On the contrary, their work required oversight and commentary by citizens, whether they hold office or not.

Participation in civic dialogue, moreover has its own rewards. Conscientious citizens who expend time and energy in the exposure of weak or defective programs are gratified when errors are corrected and programs are improved. That’s because we all have a stake in the goal of a wiser, more effective government.

Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus Professor of Public Affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as Director of the Cecil Andrus Center for Public Policy. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and the Presidency, and his scholarly writings have been cited and embraced by both Republicans and Democrats in all three branches of the federal government.