Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | January 19, 2010

A guiding principle: The ends don’t justify the means

The ends don’t justify the means. That principle states that it’s unacceptable to do bad things even if they’re intended to achieve what you regard as good goals. This principle was emphasized at the fundamentalist Christian schools and churches I attended in my youth, and it’s an important guideline, no matter your religious persuasion.

If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal to amend California’s constitution to require the state to spend more on higher education than prisons ever makes it to a ballot, I hope Californians remember this principle.

I support Schwarzenegger’s goal of spending more on the state’s once-envied UC and CSU systems than prisons. As the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “The state spent $9.3 billion on prisons last year and only $6.5 billion on higher education. It’s hard to look at numbers like those and imagine California as a state with a bright future.”

But Schwarzenegger’s method has a fatal flaw: Using ballot-box budgeting to achieve any end, even a laudable one, is wrong. It’s also bad for the state.

Budgeting is the legislature’s job, not the electorate’s job. In our representative democracy, legislators should review the state’s needs and resources as a whole and set spending priorities with a budget. When voters create piecemeal budgets instead, we sharply limit the state’s budgeting flexibility, our legislature becomes dysfunctional, and we undermine our representational democracy.

Ballot-box budgeting advocates claim that legislators are too concerned about re-election. These legislators pander to gut-reaction voters who like any “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” bill, no matter the fiscal or human cost. They kowtow to deep-pocketed supporters like the state prison guard union, which has managed to bully legislators into approving budgets that pay California prison guards nearly twice the national average for correctional officers.

I counter that the blame for bad legislators belongs with voters, who also own the solution. We elect and re-elect legislators who prioritize re-election over their fiduciary duty to their constituents. In a democracy, we get the government we deserve.

Californians consistently elect state legislators with out-of-whack priorities, get frustrated with the results, and try to fix it with ballot-box budgeting measures that currently give the legislature control of roughly 15 percent of the state budget. That practice and the state’s two-thirds majority rule for passing budgets and taxes (another idea that fails the ends-don’t-justify-the-means test) are largely responsible for California’s chronic state budget mess.

To realign higher education and prison spending, voters must elect legislators who will oppose to bills that inappropriately incarcerate people and who will reduce prison guards’ outrageous pay and benefits — regardless of what those decisions do to their chances of re-election.

This important “the ends don’t justify the means” principle is also applicable to the Proposition 8 challenge that’s currently being heard in the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. The plaintiffs argue that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause. Defendants argue that prohibiting same-sex marriage somehow protects traditional family values.

Here’s how plaintiffs’ co-counsel Ted Olson summarized the case in his opening remarks: “Proposition 8 … advances no legitimate state interest. All it does is label gay and lesbian persons as different, inferior, unequal, and disfavored.”

No goal — not even “protecting traditional family values” — can justify denying to some the equal protection of the law promised to all citizens by the Constitution; not, as was argued by misguided folks in years past, by banning interracial marriage, continuing segregation, prohibiting women from voting,  and not, as is supported by similarly misguided folks today, by outlawing same-sex marriage.

That marriage equality opponents think those means are justifiable is evidence of a shocking lack of patriotism. Every citizen’s highest patriotic duty is to protect the Constitution. It’s what the president takes an oath to do when sworn into office.

Marriage inequality advocates who point to religious texts to try to justify their positions take their diminishment of the Constitution even further with their willingness to damage the Constitution’s important separation of church and state that, as Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “has served us so well.”

If you oppose same-sex marriage, don’t ever marry someone of the same gender. But don’t subvert our precious Constitution to keep others from enjoying the right to marry that heterosexuals take for granted.

The ends don’t justify the means. I’m hoping that voters and judges keep that wise principle in mind as they weigh important issues in coming months.

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