In electing Rob Ford as mayor, voters in the city of Toronto have voted for change. Our mayor-elect has been most forthright in his plan of action, with a focus on the need to cut city spending. Yet despite the wide margin of victory and solid mandate from the voters, it is far from clear how much of his agenda he will manage to implement. Unlike our federal and provincial parliamentary systems, where leaders are able (for better or worse) to enforce party discipline, our elected representatives at Toronto’s city hall consist of 44 independent councilors who have no one to answer to save for the voters themselves—what a novel concept! The gap between the promises of the election campaign and the realities of office will, of necessity, be wide indeed.
Major initiatives will go through a good deal of negotiation, with the likely result being greatly watered-down legislation. A similar fate potentially awaits million of Americans who, as of this writing, are just one day away from a likely change in the makeup of the U.S. Congress, setting the stage for political gridlock. The stakes are high and economists are concerned that, with the world economy still teetering on the brink, a high degree of partisanship and subsequent inaction could lead to a double-dip recession.
I leave it for the political scientists to debate the merits of our democratic process while I attempt to focus on the ethical underpinnings of the choices we make. The Torah has very little to say regarding the type of economic (or political, for that matter) system that should be in place. Rather, whatever system is chosen must be implemented in a way that is fair, transparent and meets high ethical criteria. These are admittedly very broad and vague goals, and well-meaning people will argue as to how best to attain them. Many will argue about what, exactly, is the best communal policy that we must aim to promote.
The level of taxation and the proper allocation of funding to health care, defence, education, welfare, foreign aid and a host of other worthy causes is something that has no definitive guidelines in our tradition. The rabbinic authorities who have addressed these issues try to balance the many competing needs of the individual and community.
Thus, the most important factor is electing people who can be trusted to act with the best interests of the electorate at heart. In the end, specific policy initiatives are, more often than not, a reflection of the people who initiate them.
I have previously noted that provision of Jewish law that states that a voter must vote for the sake of heaven. Whatever the exact meaning of this law, it would preclude voting for initiatives that are against the public good, despite the possibility that you might personally benefit from them. While citizens seldom cast a ballot, our elected officials are constantly called on to vote, and the level of integrity and selflessness required of them is much higher.
It is not for naught that synagogues across the world publicly proclaim—each and every Shabbat—that G-d should bless those who toil in the public sector b’emunah, with faith and integrity. Sadly, many a public servant cannot actually be included in these blessings. And tellingly, we do not bless those who “succeed” in communal life; rather, it is those who faithfully toil in such “holy” work who are worthy of blessings. Our tradition recognizes that “success” is often out of our hands. With so many factors (economic surprises, the realities of politics, a new perspective gained when actually in power) at work in the political sphere, we should try and ensure that those who attain office are those who will faithfully deal with the myriad of unexpected issues that come their way.