Righteous Dominion

RIGHTEOUS VERSUS UNRIGHTEOUS DOMINION

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Righteous Dominion: What is Good Governance?

We give significant control over our lives to elected officials. We give them the authority to tell us what we can and can't do. Giving this control is essential to putting the pendulum of good government in balance. Without enough government control, we get anarchy, societal breakdown, and harm to our communities. However, giving that control of our freedom to people who are often our friends and neighbors is a sacred trust. Because too much government control can be even more harmful than not enough, we are trusting these people to exercise the highest level of judicious, thoughtful, fair, and wise restraint in wielding that control over us. Once a person has that authority, many learn the proper role and bounds of that authority and seek with honest hearts to do good within those proper bounds. But, with those same good and honest hearts, it is easy to lose site of the harm they can also cause with the misuse of it.

There is a cautionary principle that I believe is foundational in defining good, balanced, and proper government:

"...it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion." D&C 121:39

What is unrighteous dominion? It is using a legal position of authority you have been entrusted with to exercise more control over others than you have the moral authority or ethical right to do. In other words, just because you have the legal authority to control another person, doesn't necessarily mean you have the moral authority to do so. Worse, some take it a step further and exceed even the legal authority of their position in exerting control over others. Either way, RESTRAINT is the essential element to avoid the inevitable trap of unrighteous dominion.

Although I learned this principle from growing up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (see more here), I believe this principle is universal. This drive to control (i.e. dominate, subjugate, own, enslave) other people has been at the core of human suffering, strife, and destruction for all history. Most people see extreme atrocities such as the holocaust, slavery, and an endless list of barbarism from the beginning of time as unequivocally repulsive. Yet, there is no end to lesser degrees of one person seeking to rob liberty, dignity, prosperity, happiness, or humanity from another. While extreme and barbaric despotism is tragically alive and well in other parts of the world today, we are relatively safe and insulated from those extremes here in America. But, that doesn't mean we are safe an insulated from that basic human urge toward unrighteous control and dominion either from ourselves or others. No matter how small or extreme, all of it is unrighteous dominion, all of it should appall our human sensibility, and all of it should be stopped. As explained in the quote above, it is in the very "nature and disposition" of almost all to hunger for this control. Unchecked, it grows like a cancer. Therefore, even the smallest degree of unrighteous control and dominion over others cannot be tolerated.

This is the same principle that drove our Founding Fathers to declare to the King of England that we are "endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The King had exercised unrighteous dominion over those rights by abusing his authority. The Founders declared their liberty against that. They went on to author the Constitution designed entirely to shield against future leaders doing the same. The concept of checks and balances, so fundamental to our Constitutional government, is all about keeping leaders in "check" from this unrighteous dominion. When elected officials push the envelope of their authority, Constitutional checks and balances are supposed to keep that authority in "balance" by restraining that authority to its proper scope and role.

Elections are a choice, and often a tough choice between many good, sincere people with noble intent. Sometimes those people are our friends and neighbors. I support those that seem most likely to hold that pendulum in balance. Key to that balance is understanding and avoiding the dangerous and harmful pitfall of unrighteous dominion.

Righteous Dominion Defined

So, if there is such a thing as "unrighteous dominion," there must also be "righteous dominion." Beyond all other criteria, left versus right, republican versus democrat, issue versus issue, this is the criteria I seek most in elected officials. What is righteous dominion? "Dominion" is to rule or control. It is governance. "Righteous" is to govern by integrity, fairness, decency, restraint, reason, study, wisdom, and a deep commitment to "doing the right thing." Righteous Dominion is absolute restraint from abuse of power.

Here are some thoughts as to what I believe constitutes Righteous Dominion. This is spoken from my personal life experience as a land developer seeking local government permission to build things. These principles can be applied to any other situation where government puts one person in control and authority over another person's life. From my own experience, I have seen first hand a full spectrum of governance from righteous to unrighteous. I have seen abuse of power by good people who did not understand the proper bounds of their authority. I have seen public service at its best done by those who understood the power and purpose of good government held to its proper bounds.

Govern by the Constitution

The best measure is to always ask: "Is my action consistent with the basic principles of the Constitution I swore uphold and protect when I took office?"

That question applies to every type of Constitutional right you are sworn to protect. Here is how it applies to the protection of property rights. Use this example to measure your Constitutional fortitude in protecting all rights. The Constitution was not written to increase the power of the government to take private property from individuals. Instead, it was written to protect individuals from the government unjustly taking their property or rights to use it:

"nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." 5th Amendment.

There are many ways the government can "take" private property from individuals. Money is property. Taking people's money through taxation and misusing it is theft and unrighteous dominion. Land is another form of property. The most obvious way is to take someone's land is to take actual ownership of the actual deed. This is what happens when government uses eminent domain to take property for a road, freeway, utility, or some other public need. In balancing the needs of the public against the rights of the individual, the Constitution allows for taking property in that very same clause. But, without "just compensation" a taking is not Constitutional. Another way government can "take" private property from individuals is to limit or take away their right to use that property for the purpose of benefitting the government or the public interest the government represents. This is sometimes called a "regulatory taking." Although the government did not formally "take" the deed of ownership, they have "taken" use of the property for public benefit and therefore taken away some or all of its value. Taking the right to use property is just as much a "taking" of private property as taking the deed. Ironically, in most cases, the government is under great scrutiny to give "just compensation" when they take a deed. However, with rare exceptions (like Prop 207 in Arizona), property owners are not compensated anything when government uses their regulatory power to prevent property owners from using their property. (See footnote clarification to this point as related to pre-existing zoning status.)

Here's another gut check. The opposite of the "Just Compensation" clause in the Constitution is this:

"...the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property." The Communist Manifesto

Abolition of private property means depriving individuals of the right to have their own stuff whether it be money, land, or any other fruit of their labor, risk, sweat, and blood. Land use regulation is only one of many ways government can use regulation to unjustly take rights from individuals. Righteous dominion is knowing when and where to restrain the power of government from unjustly taking stuff (rights, property, money, fruits of labor) from individuals.

If you are governing by Constitutional principles, you will take great care to know the limits of your moral and Constitutional authority to tell someone what they can and can't do with their property. Over the past 100 years or so, the pendulum has swung to give government quite a bit of legal authority to control other people's property. But, just because you have legal authority doesn't mean you moral authority. Use that authority justly, wisely, morally, with restraint, and of course, righteously.

Govern by Principle, Protect Rights of All

Government actions should be driven by principles of integrity, fairness, decency, impartiality, and above all, Constitutionality. In order to do that, you first have to be firmly grounded in those principles. Learn what our basic rights are and the role of a Constitutional government in protecting those rights. The fundamental role of government is to protect rights. Many think the primary role of government is to do good things for the community. While that can and should happen, it can only happen after the primary role of protecting the rights of all parties is satisfied.

In my world of land development, for example, you are protecting the rights of the property owner, the rights of his neighbors, and the rights and concerns of the city. You can't favor, advantage, or disregard one over the other. Property rights have a very high level of regulation (i.e. government control) compared to most other rights. There is very little I can do or build without the explicit permission of the local city or county government. That comes in the form of zoning, use permits, building permits, and so forth. There are extremely good reasons for this regulation (see more here). However, in the critically important process of protecting the rights of the city and the neighbors, the rights of the property owner seeking to build something are all too often ignored or worse despised and demonized. Government and neighbors regularly demand that a property owner build what they want, not what the property owner wants with no regard for the harm that would result to the property owner. It is so easy for government and neighbors to use the heavy hand of government authority and process to force property owners into a futile corner from which they have little recourse to get out. To protect neighbors and government while dismissing and trampling the rights of an individual property owner is an immoral form of unrighteous dominion called Mob Rule (see more here). A truly moral and righteous government knows to protect the rights of all, not just some in this delicate wielding of government authority.

Be a Referee, Not a King

Elected officials can fall into a "King or Queen Complex" where they believe they have more authority over people's live than they should or actually do. They can believe it is their job to dictate outcomes based on their taste or opinion. Kings and Queens are sovereign authoritarians that own and control the lives, destiny, and decisions of their subjects. This nation was founded in revolt (revolution) against that. We are a nation of people who want to decide our own destiny. Now, as I describe in great detail elsewhere, government plays a key role in making sure one person exercising their liberty does not infringe on the liberty of another. That means government should act more like a referee, but certainly not like a king. As an elected official, it isn't your job to be the final authority on how things should be. Rather, let people exercise their free will to determine that. Kings govern by what they want. Those who govern by righteous dominion govern by what is right, fair, and promotes balanced liberty respecting the rights of all. They let others govern themselves providing just enough governance to protect the rights of one person from another.

Govern by Listening, Understanding

In order to act wisely you need to know the whole story. You need to take the extra time to listen to all concerned and affected parties. Your decisions could have far reaching and potentially devastating consequences to one side, or the other, or both. Never be casual or flippant in your approach. It is deeply unethical to use your authority to tell someone they can't use their property if you aren't willing to sit down and truly hear them out.

In land use cases, for example, don't tell someone they can't use their property until you truly understand the complex situation they are facing and the reasons driving the request. Remember, freedom to use property to create and thrive is the essence of our American society and economy. Likewise, truly parse through the neighbor concerns with a real desire to understand how something might effect them.

The hard part comes with you have weigh both sides and act in away that is fair and balanced. You cannot act solely for the needs of the applicant (land owner, developer). But you also cannot act solely for the needs of the neighbors. Balance and fairness is essential to righteous dominion. It takes significant time and effort to get the whole story. Reasonable and appropriate as well as unfair and harmful demands and expectations can come from all sides: developers, property owners, neighbors, community, government staff, and fellow elected officials. As an elected official, it is your job to parse through that and find the fair, balanced, and factual decision that properly respects the rights of all.

Govern Not by Arbitrary Whim, Populism, or Influence - Resist Mob Rule!

There are many inappropriate influences that can drive an elected official. Arbitrary whim. Goofy, unfounded leaps of logic. Opinion. Bias. Populism. Pandering to the mob.

When you tell someone else what they can or can't do with their property, it isn't just a trivial inconsequential exercise, it is their life and livelihood you are being entrusted with. Elected officials who don't respect the weight of that or the potential harm they can cause are dangerous. Don't deny someone else the use of their property by arbitrary reasoning, bizarre leaps of logic, or flippant attitudes. They wouldn't have gone to the immense trouble and cost of asking your permission unless they truly believed this was a good and viable way for them to use and benefit from their property. It may seem like nothing to you to tell a property owner not to use his property for a year, three years, or twenty years. But, to the property owner, that delay or denial can be catastrophic. If you have an incredibly well founded, highly defensible reason to say "no," that is fine. But before you say "no," question your reasons then question them again. Make sure your reasons are not only bullet proof, but, also give truly sincere consideration to ideas, suggestions, or alternatives to find your way forward to an answer of "yes."

Do not demean or demonize a person for seeking personal gain from his or her property. This pursuit of prosperity is noble and is the foundation of American prosperity. The phrase "they are only in it for the money" is often thrown around flippantly as a way to denigrate or devalue what someone is seeking to do with their property. First of all, there are always many more factors than just money when people seek to use their property for something. There is usually some pursuit of a dream or opportunity to create of which "making money" is merely a means, not and end. But, what is wrong with seeking financial gain with your property? If the tables were turned and the people who disparagingly use that "only in it for the money" were asked to forgo financial gain with their own assets, resources, and property, they would most certainly defend their right to prosperity, as they should.

Some elected officials choose not to "do the right thing" because they would rather please the crowd and/or protect their political aspirations. That form of populism undermines the essence of our Constitutional Republic by advancing Mob Rule (more here). Unfortunately, there is a fast-growing movement toward minimizing the interest of the individual to the benefit of the masses to the point of no concern for the individual. That kind of Mob Rule will ultimately grow into socialism. When individual freedoms are lost, the freedom of all is lost with it.

A democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner. What the wolves want matters, but so does what the sheep wants. (Source)

Social Media is the new torches and pitch forks. Now, just a few people can whip up an online mob into a frenzy of unfounded, unfactual assault against other individuals. With this type of assault, people's reputations can be smeared or politicians can be swayed by the immoral scream of mob rule to deprive individuals of their rights in the effort to appease the mob.

Equally dangerous to populism is becoming bound to the influence of special interests or people in unique positions of power (i.e. croney capitalism). Does that mean you ignore the voice of the people? Does that mean you don't listen to what the special interests and influential people have to say? No. As I said above, you have to listen to the whole story to make a good decision. There will be valuable insight from all those sources. Just don't be swayed solely by one or the other. Let all those be a source of perspective, but let principle and fairness be your only master. Some politicians say: "I'm only here to serve the people." They say that to mean they will only heed the public voice. Well that is only half of their duty. The person they are regulating is also "one of the people." The elected official has just as much duty to protect his rights as he does anyone else.

Govern by Fact, Not Opinion or Preference

Leaders are not elected to exert their opinions, bias, or preferences. They are elected to judiciously assess the facts, fairness, and lawfulness of a situation and choose wisely. In every oath of office is an oath to be impartial. This is not America's Got Talent where you get to run one person off the stage and hit the golden buzzer for the next just because you happen to like one thing over another. You can't tell someone they can't use their property for a proposed use just because you would rather they use it for something else. By exercising your sacred trust of authority over other people's rights and freedoms, you are playing with their lives and livelihoods. Sometimes "doing the right thing" means going against your personal preference or opinion.

You have a solemn duty to protect the rights of neighbors and community. But you have the same duty to protect the rights of those you are regulating. In seeking balance, you have to fairly and wisely serve the rights of both. One of the most harmful and common mistakes of even the most well-intended elected officials is to believe that their duty is to community and neighborhood rights but that they have no duty to the individuals petitioning an elected official for permission to use their property. You may truly believe that a particular proposal causes real harm to neighbors or community. If that is truly true, you are doing your duty to oppose that proposal. However, you must make that determination based on fact, not preference, assumption, or opinion. Unless something causes true and measurable harm to neighbors and community, you cannot say no to a proposal simply because you would prefer to see something else. You must also strongly consider the good that a proposal can bring. And, you must also consider the harm you would cause an applicant if you say no. When you have that much authority over what someone else can and cannot do, and when they have so little recourse to your decision, it doesn't take much to abuse or misuse that authority and slide into the pitfall of unrighteous dominion.

Know the Proper Role and Limit of Government, Do No Harm

Government is not, cannot, and should not be the solution to every problem. Know the proper limit of what government should and should not, can and cannot do. This world is full of suffering, inequality, situations that could be so much better, and stuff that is just plain wrong. Compassionate and aspirational people should want to make all this better. However, not only is there a limit to what government can do to solve for all that, more often than not, the “government cure” is much more harmful, disruptive, and unequal than the problem itself. There is an endless list of examples and ways that dedicated elected officials and public servant professionals work with heart and soul to make our world a better place. Imagine a world without our public safety professionals, without public infrastructure and roads, without our military, without local government in its proper role safeguarding our communities! Good government in its proper role is essential to the incredible quality of life we enjoy. But, there are so many other examples and ways, especially when it expands beyond its proper role, that government causes more harm, inequality, upheaval, and unrest than the root problems it set out to solve in the first place. Government at its best can be and incredible blessing in serving and protecting society. Government at its worst can be cold, arbitrary, unfair, incompetent, and just plain destructive. Even if we wanted government to magically solve all of our problems, it can’t. Even if it could, a government powerful enough to solve for everything is powerful enough to take and damage everything. Wise and righteous dominion knows that there must be limit to what government can and should do. Without that restraint, good intentions inevitably devolve into the harm and dysfunction of unrighteous dominion.

Government Without Principles Breaks Down, Loses Integrity

Government breaks down when elected officials don't govern by principle combined with a true desire to listen and learn. When elected officials set the expectation that their decision making is driven by arbitrary or biased opinions, unpredictable or irrational thinking, influence peddling, or pandering to the crowd regardless of how unfair the demands of the crowd may be, it becomes dysfunctional and puts people who rely on that government decision making and authority in a difficult position.

In land use cases, for example, because land use is so heavily regulated, property owners and developers are constantly subject to local government authority to build and create. It is far better to do business in an environment where you can rely on the merits, fairness, and lawfulness of your requests.

But, if elected officials (or the staff that work for them) are unpredictable, irrational, unfair, biased, or dismissive of the importance of people having the ability to use their property to create prosperity, the developer or land owner is left with few choices.

1) They can throw up their hands in defeat and do nothing with their property. It is not uncommon for a politician to tell a land owner: "I don't care if your property stays vacant." Then, by abusing their regulatory authority, they essentially back a property owner into a corner where doing nothing is the only option that remains. How unethical and un-American is that?

2) They can attempt to "work" the broken system by trying to pander to the irrational and arbitrary drives of the politician, or find some other way to earn and peddle influence. That could range from being ridiculous to corrupt. Government that is dominated by personalities with their quirks, whims, and moods breeds the croney capitalism and "pay to play" environment that is so wrong and corrosive.

3) Or, they can work to inspire, seek out, and support principle driven governance, or Righteous Dominion, in both existing and future elected leadership.

I choose the latter. That is ultimately why I spend the time documenting and sharing these principles like this.

Humility

Arrogance and a false sense of expertise are the great enemies of good leadership, of righteous dominion.

Humility and a sincere desire to learn, and learn some more until you truly understand is a critical and essential characteristic for an elected official. Politicians can be very unknowledgeable and naïve about the complex areas they regulate. Why wouldn’t they be? You couldn’t expect a normal person off the street to come in and all of a sudden understand the complexity and intricacy of a field they've never worked in. They would need to trust and rely on people who have a lifetime of experience, not just high level incidental exposure.

So, lack of knowledge for an elected official is normal and understandable. But, when you combine lack of knowledge with arrogance, or a false belief that you are an expert, it becomes dangerous. As an elected official, you get exposure to things like land use at a level that most people never see. Compared to average people with no experience in that field, you do gain a certain level of expertise. You go to planning conferences, you meet often with city planners, and you see and study many land uses cases. But, as valuable as that is, until you've been on the other side and actually taken the risk to buy some land or build a project you don't really know the full weight of the task. True expertise comes from being in the marketplace for many years, trying to get proformas to work, trying to get users and financing on projects, and learning the hard way what works and doesn't.

There are so many things that it is easy to assume or expect when you aren't the one signing the personal guarantee on the construction loan. The more knowledgeable you become, the more effective you will be. So learn as much as you can. But, also have the humility and wisdom to know the limits of your knowledge. Know when to trust that someone else who really does have life-earned expertise is speaking from the reality of that life experience and expertise. Millions of dollars of other people's money is at stake.

Don't buy into the cliche assumption that "it is just a bunch of greedy developers who only care about money so saying no doesn't really matter." That can be condescending arrogance speaking. It is certainly not righteous use of your authority. They are people wanting to make something, build something, to prosper in the American dream just like everybody else. Instead of demeaning them, see them as the partner they are, the guys who bring the money, risk, and experience to build the stuff that makes a community. Regulate them appropriately as needed to protect the community and neighbors. But, respect that their pursuit, including the part about making money, is fundamental to our way of life as Americans and essential to prosperity of the community you govern.

Remember, the word "regulate" doesn't mean to stop something. It means to make sure it operates in a "regular" or "regulated" manner, meaning safe and stable, not disabled. You aren't there to stop people's freedom to prosper. It isn't your job to decide whether they should profit from their property or not. You are just there to make sure that in doing so, they don't do harm to the community or neighbors.

Courage With Decorum

It takes great courage to lead by principle, especially when that produces outcomes that are not popular, or are opposed by colleagues and professional staff whom you respect. But, you must never lose sight of your fundamental purpose. You are there to protect the people's rights as protected in the Constitution. Yes, you influence the quality of life, taxation, budgeting, infrastructure, design, and overall feel of a community. But, all that is done secondary to, not instead of protecting rights and freedom.

Just as difficult as having courage is to stand on principle with decorum. You can't advance the cause of liberty unless you do it in a way that builds trust and strengthens working relationships. At the very least, you need to work with people who disagree in a way that preserves the dignity of your office. At best you will inspire people through principled leadership to believe in these principles. If you are just seen as divisive, obstructionist, or just on a mission to prove someone is wrong or stupid, you will not be effective in advancing these principles and you certainly won't inspire others to join you.

If you believe in righteous dominion, Constitutional government, and the sacred duty to use those to protect the rights of all, then seek to win hearts and minds to that cause, not just to win to skirmishes.

The more you advance tyranny and bondage for some, the more you advance it for all.
The more you advance liberty for some, the more you advance it for all.

Rule by Righteousness

Above all lead righteously, committed to fairness, compassion, and decency. Human beings are deeply flawed and fallible. Seek to transcend that in you personally. Seek inspiration for that righteousness from many sources. With all of their human flaws and unrighteous mistakes, the Founding Fathers aspired to this and sought to give us a righteous government. I find great wisdom in scripture as to the meaning of righteous government (click here for more). We will only be as free as the righteousness of the leaders we choose.


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Graphic: The Balanced Pendulum of
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(PDF Version)

"Still Mine" Movie: The Proper and
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Jason Barney | jason@jasonbarney.com | 480-818-2000 | Back to Pendulum Balance Home Page