The devil you don’t know

Because the term political dynasty continues to defy definition, those who want the undefined outlawed have taken to quoting US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous dictum on pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

A little background check on Stewart’s famous remark revealed that it was part of his concurring opinion in a majority decision by the US Supreme Court reversing a 1964 case involving the screening of a French film called Les Amants (Jacobellis v. Ohio). I also discovered that Stewart’s statement as quoted by anti-dynasty freaks is truncated.

The full Stewart quotation referring to pornography goes, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

So Potter could not define pornography after all. He wouldn’t know pornography from a National Geographic Special on lost tribes in the Amazon. His definition was subjective, capricious, and arbitrary.

And so it was left to Miller v. California to refine Jacobellis v Ohio. The new definition of pornography was based on “community standards” and “redeeming value.” Unfortunately those parameters still failed to draw lines clearly. It was still “I know it when I see it” or better yet, “You’ll know it when we say what it is.” Deep Throat could still be seen as hard-core by some and as an instructional video on sword-swallowing by others. Certain things simply defy objective definition, like pornography and political dynasties.

But that has not prevented anti-dynasty advocates from proposing that the Supreme Court finish the job that Congress still has to do—define political dynasties and ban them. They want a bunch of political appointees to do what elected representatives of the people can’t and won’t do, not only because it is against their interests, but more importantly because the appointed framers of the Constitution banned something “about which it clearly had no idea” and so left the task of defining what is to be banned to elected representatives.

We can trust the Supreme Court to do right by us? The Constitution was explicit about the ban on appointments during election periods but that did not stop the Supreme Court from turning the unambiguous into something vague and redefining it to suit the purpose of their patron. As Robert Gordon, Chancellor Kent Professor Emeritus of Law and Legal History at Yale Law School said, “Judges who are really keen to reach a certain result will reach it, whatever obstacles of precedent or their own principles or past practice may stand in their way.” We can trust the Court to do right by us? Right.

There are two types of political dynasties, one elected by the people and the other imposed on them. The latter is what I would call a warlord dynasty. Such a dynasty can be defined easily, without any need for Potter Stewart. The former is undefinable if by a definition we mean one that does not involve taking away a voter’s right to choose his representatives and every citizen’s right to run for elective office.

At the end of the day, laws that will ban legitimate political dynasties reflect a condescending attitude towards voters. It’s nothing more than “voters don’t know what’s good for them so we who know better must enact laws to protect those idiots from themselves.” I would rather have laws that respect the wisdom of the voter who from practical experience would rather vote for the devil he thinks he knows than the devil he knows he don’t.

But what I would really like to see is for an end to this absurd and distracting debate over political dynasties. Let’s focus instead on real issues: the RH Bill, the Freedom of Information Bill, and the Sin Tax.

Buencamino is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph).

No comments yet.