Annual Conference of the IACREOT Speech

            I want to share with you my thoughts - from about 30 years experience in government and international affairs - on why your public service is the backbone of our society and our form of government. 

            Moreover, I think your work is more urgent than ever as our nation confronts a crisis of confidence in government.

            Indeed, a similar crisis is raging to an even greater extent on several continents today.  And the instability resulting from widespread popular dissatisfaction with political leaders has made this a very unpredictable - and unstable - world... - shaking the pillars under many governments and under many economies.

            Let me start by explaining my premise.

            I recall about 15 years ago a friend of mine from Nicaragua asked me, "Why is the United States so rich?"

            I thought of our great wealth of natural resources - but many countries with vast oil and mineral riches are trapped in a spiral of underdevelopment and corruption.

            I thought of agriculture - but, as a Kansan, I know that when pioneers reached the prairies they had to carve their existence out of an arid plain.  Indeed, they had to invent and import new ways to farm before they could survive and eventually flourish.

            Other countries have had mighty militaries and even empires, but their societies have crumbled.

            So what makes us so special? I pondered the question for just a few minutes and answered, "Rules."

            The rule of law is an essential ingredient to any country's prosperity.  And that is why the functions that you folks perform - some of them seemingly mundane tasks - are the backbone of any successful society.

            For the most part, we take you for granted.  The city hall or county courthouse - even our jails - are key building blocks of our societies. 

            The vast amount of money that the American people invest in their state and local government, law enforcement and courts is the fundamental investment that we all make so that we can co-exist and prosper as a community.

            This is virtually a hidden cost - because our state and local taxes are one of the first bills we pay as citizens.  But you can literally see the rule of law from space.

            Go back to your rooms tonight and search online for night-time satellite images of the Korean peninsula:   The communist north is pitch black next to the thousands of gleaming communities of the Republic of Korea. 

            Compare the impressive image of Miami with the darkness of the island of Cuba, from whence so many south Florida residents fled to freedom.

            As my plane circles over Kansas farmland approaching the airport in my hometown of Wichita, the grid of cultivated acres below paints a picture of an orderly society - in which a property owner can take a deed to the bank, planting the seed of a bountiful farm economy.

            Flying over the island of Hispaniola a half-dozen times, I've seen a very different sight.  You can easily make out the denuded mountainsides on the Haitian side of the border, while the Dominican Republic - still a relatively poor country - is covered with lush forest that keeps the mudslides from swallowing up whole villages below.

            The DR is not the most developed country in the world, but there is enough of a system of government - a guy with a radio - who can keep the country's inhabitants from stripping down the trees for kindling.

            The 2010 earthquake in Haiti produced a catastrophe of biblical proportions - perhaps the worst natural disaster of its kind in centuries in the Western Hemisphere.

            Those of us who know Haitians know them as remarkably resilient and industrious people. The cruel reality is that if you are poor in Haiti and you do not hustle, you die.   The trouble is, in their homeland they are not given half a chance to prosper.

            Before the hurricanes, flooding, mudslides, and earthquakes that have befallen Haiti in the last decade came the man-made disaster. 

            Ineffective political institutions, a predatory state, corrupt and venal politicians, and a weak civil society have conspired to enslave Haiti's poor majority in a feudal system. 

            One cannot pay anyone in this hemisphere less than you can pay a Haitian for an honest day's work.  But you do not see capital rushing into Haiti-because corruption and an ineffective state make it extraordinarily difficult to do business there.

            What a difference the rule of law makes: Haiti's Dominican neighbors attain a per capita GDP rate six times greater. 

            The lack of enforced building codes in Port au Prince was evident in piles of broken rubble after that momentous earthquake.   While few undeveloped countries' structures could withstand a quake of the magnitude that struck Haiti, shoddy, unsupervised construction has exacted a terrible price.

            The Haiti experience demonstrates that "rules" and civil servants to enforce them not only help us organize our lives.  They are the scaffolding of human survival, coexistence and prosperity.

            I made a speech to a gathering of regional diplomats in Fort Lauderdale about 7-8 years ago in which I observed that within 50 miles of the spot where I spoke there were thriving communities of people who had abandoned their countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

            They are not only surviving, they are flourishing.  Because they found here what they did not have at home:

  • Property rights guaranteed by independent courts.
  • Courts that were accessible to people from all walks of life - and that were capable of delivering an even-handed, transparent judgment within a life-time
  • Judges that are independent.
  • County commissions, city councils, state legislatures, mayors that were freely elected and fully accountable.
  • Even a flourishing civil society that grows up organically to help communities perfect the relationship between citizens and their government.

            Authoritarian government don't want that sort of thing.  I have locked horns with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez since his election in 1998. 

            The fact that he was elected and has won many referenda and elections in the last 13 years shows that democracy without the rule of law is farce. 

            Indeed, Chávez has used a series of increasingly unreliable elections to disintegrate the institutions of government that protect individual rights.

            Don't get me wrong.  Venezuela's democracy before Hugo Chávez was a weak one.  But he has purposefully made matters much worse through a systematic campaign to concentrate power in his hands. 

            Gone are the independent judiciary and congress.  Even the electoral authorities, police, economic regulators, the military, and new popular militias are at the service of his revolution.

            As a result, any Venezuelan who does not fall in line is going to have a very bad day.

            One of those days may be October 7, when the cancer-stricken Chávez will face his toughest reelection challenge yet.   But the process is hopelessly rigged. 

            Vast state resources are used to whip up popular support among those who fear losing their benefits if Chávez loses power.  And Venezuelans who have seen many examples of government repression will show up to the polls to find finger point devices used to activate electronic voting equipment. 

            And the very idea that a corrupt regime that is involved in all forms of lawlessness - including narcotrafficking - is going to turn over power to an opposition candidate is, in my view, wishful thinking.

            Venezuela is an extreme example.  But there are others.  The crisis of government illegitimacy is evident in the Arab world, too. 

            For many very different reasons, the people are withdrawing their consent to be governed by the status quo.  In Egypt that confrontation is pitting an authoritarian military against the radical Muslim brotherhood.

            In Europe, the points of contention are less extreme, but the street battles over how to deal with the fiscal crisis and shrinking economies are having profound consequences for individual nations like Spain and Italy and for the European experiment as a whole.

            Mexico will hold elections on Sunday, and it looks like the candidate of the party that once held power exclusively for 71 years will win the presidency.  One of the central issues is whether to continue the war on drugs launched by outgoing President Felipe Calderon.

            President Calderon's objective was to build a modern, competitive Mexico, where the rule of law would be respected.  The frontal offensive against criminal syndicates five years ago has provoked a drug war. 

            Although the vast majority of the 40,000 deaths in recent years are the result of gang-on-gang turf wars, most innocent Mexicans are beleaguered by insecurity and violence. 

            The opposition candidates were relatively cautious in their commentary about Calderon's unpopular strategy, many wonder whether any successor would prosecute this anti-drug offensive with the same intensity. 

            If Mexico pulls back from that struggle, people in this State and community will pay the price, as will the rest of us whose communities are being torn to shreds by drug violence.

            Of course, we have our own crisis of governance right here in the United States.  The confrontations are less spectacular than those I just described, but no less profound and important.

            For ages, American politicians have been held up to a certain amount of scorn. 

            Mark Twain famously said, "‘It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress."

            Will Rogers dished out such ridicule as well as anyone.   He said, "With Congress, every time they make a joke it's a law, and every time they make a law it's a joke."

            Most of us would agree that Twain and Rogers laid it on pretty thick.  But when they made those wisecracks, the vast majority of the American people regarded Congress with a healthy measure of respect. 

            Today, according to the most recent polls, about 20 percent of the American people approve of the job Congress is doing.  Senator John McCain quipped, "We're down to staff and immediate family members."

            The debate over health care legislation is one symptom, reminding us of the old axiom:  if you love sausage and respect the law, you should never see either one of them made.

            No matter where you stand on the law, it is a massive piece of legislation that is less popular with the American people today than the day it was passed.  And now it has been upheld by a 5-4 decision of the court based on the idea that it is a TAX increase.

            And what about the failure to deal in a serious way with the fundamental responsibility of protecting our borders and controlling immigration?

            Add to that our fiscal woes -- at both the federal level and in many statehouses.  Both parties are being criticized for failing to step up to the plate, make the tough decisions, and make the best deal possible to save our country from financial ruin.

            I explained the Tea Party phenomenon to my foreign friends this way:  In Europe they are rioting because the government is spending too little money.   Here in the United States, people are protesting because the government is spending too much.

            I certainly didn't bring up these issues to debate them on their merits - and I know this is a nonpartisan organization.

            But I must observe with great disappointment if not bitterness that the political class in this country is as far out of step with the people as it has been in my adult life. 

            For us to deal with our problems - indeed for the Arabs, Europeans, and Mexicans to deal with theirs - it has to begin by repairing or forging the social compact among the people and restoring their consent to be governed by politicians who are more credible and institutions that are more accountable.

            Although there is reason to be pessimistic about the way things are in our world and even in our country, Americans have been well-served by our democratic architecture for about 240 years.

            Can these institutions work miracles?  Well, they do every day. 

            Our capacity to assimilate the views and accommodate the interests of people from vastly different outlooks and backgrounds is truly awe-inspiring. 

            Yes, it starts with free and fair elections -- but it must be accompanied by public servants and public agencies that defend individual freedom and advance the common good - whether that is through a trustworthy county treasurer or a reliable deed that is the cornerstone of our capitalist system.

            And yes, the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers - which was created so that you can each do your essential job with the maximum creativity and care. 

            And I pay tribute to those of you who continue to make a commitment to this organization so that you can hone your services.

            Thank you for all you do.  Now, let's get to work!

 

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