Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few

If you’re a trekkie, you know that Spock quoted this phrase (I don’t think he invented it) in Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. Yes, I’m a trekkie. However, while this perspective might be true in Star Trek, it’s not the case when it comes to effective advocacy. Sometimes, the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.

In Washington, DC the difference between a good cause and a special interest is simple: you agree with the policy perspective of a good cause and the other side is always represented by one of those horrible special interests. In truth, everyone has a special interest and hence everyone IS a special interest. It’s just that your special interest may be diametrically opposed to another’s. Or, more likely, others may not be convinced that your interest is in the best interest of everyone else. It’s not. That’s why it’s a special interest. If it were good for everyone it would be a common interest.

The appropriations process best reflects this phenomenon. Many, many groups compete for funds for their favorite programs, whether it’s research dollars for a certain disease over others, infrastructure capital for roads versus public transportation or housing assistance for low income individuals versus overall urban development funds. Now, sure, many items that receive funding seem pretty far-fetched in terms of the use of taxpayer dollars. We’ve all heard of the infamous bridge to nowhere. But remember, one man’s pork is another man’s bacon.

I recognize that citizens are frustrated because members of Congress sometimes vote in the interests of their district or state as opposed to the overall public good. But, frankly, that’s their job. Opposing a program that is clearly in the best interests of the area they represent on the grounds that it’s not good for the country is not only politically risky – it’s also not in keeping with their job description. And, believe me, people get pretty cranky about that.

In my opinion, we must all give up the idea that every special interest is bad or unworthy because it doesn’t coincide with everyone else. Perhaps more important, you must recognize that other people may have good intentions, even when they disagree with you. As advocates, your job is to promote your special interest, without vilifying the interests of others, in adherence to the principles of honesty, integrity and ethics by which we all should live (or at least that’s what my mom says).

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