The value of friction

Friday, October 14, 2022

My family doctor and I recently had a gentleman’s disagreement about mandatory motorcycle helmets. I offered my usual, libertarian view that government should protect us from each other, but not from ourselves. My doctor argued the irrefutable truth that helmets save lives.

The rationale for helmet mandates he offered was that traumatic brain injury, more often than not, translates into a cost to the public. That’s also irrefutable, but the topic of conversation turned before I was able to mention that fast food takes more lives and public funds than motorcycles ever will, and those aren’t likely to go away anytime soon.

In the end, the only takeaway from the discussion was that both of our positions were deeply entrenched and well-rehearsed. What is more important is that our exchange was unremarkably civil. It was no more than a chat among friends, which isn’t really so unique, is it? If one were to turn on a television or read social media, the impression given is that we are all at each other’s throats, all of the time. My personal experience tells me that’s not the case.

I was reminded of that dynamic as I read a pair of opposing editorial contributions in the Gazette earlier this week. One was in favor of the pool/ball field project; the other was opposed. Both were dignified and thought-provoking.

The argument in favor of the project cited the need for amenities that help draw prospective employees and businesses to our area. I have had a bit of formal education in the economic development arena, and I can confirm that towns like ours tend to overlook such details and are known to suffer for it.

The opposing argument simply pointed out that we may need to take care of some more basic needs before we spend money on bells and whistles. It wasn’t a fun argument but was very practical. We teach our kids to eat their vegetables before dessert, and the points made in the letter were essentially the same. The writer simply contended that we should pay more attention to city infrastructures before setting funds aside for amusements.

I was particularly impressed by the latter submission because, in the process of opposing the project, they managed to thank the kind people who contributed personal funds for the construction of the sports complex. That was nice. That was the right thing to do, yet the letter in favor of the project was every bit as gracious.

Civil discourse is one of the foundations of our form of government, and it works well enough when it gets ugly, but it’s even better when the discussion remains civil. A bit of friction is good.

As a former fan of city politics, I have always believed that the mandated public hearing process at the city level takes place at the wrong end of the process. By the time the hearing rolls around, the hard decisions have already been made and any creative suggestions made by the audience are typically answered with “we thought of that, but….” The process is designed to fulfill a legal obligation but does little to build consensus, and occasionally works against it.

I no longer follow city matters as avidly as I did twenty years ago. Without knowing the issues or people anymore, I won’t be making pitches for any of the candidates. I would, if I may, leave you with a story that I’ve told once or twice before. Under our current circumstances, I think it warrants repetition.

Many years ago, I was talking to a city council member about the importance of open meetings, the public hearing process, and the value of constructive friction demonstrated in letters to the Gazette. During the discussion, I repeated the tired old cliche, “sunshine is the best disinfectant” and suggested that transparency and consensus were vitally important to the operation of local government.

The council member disagreed, saying that early announcements brought the naysayers and troublemakers out of the woodwork. The council member, without any hint of embarrassment, said that the best way to get a project through the council was to stay under the public radar for as long as possible.

Having said that, let’s be careful not to misread my analogy. My old story is not directed at the bond issue, and I am not suggesting for a moment that plans for the pool project were held in the dark. They were not. I can only guess that COVID stretched the public meetings out over a much longer time than was ever intended and may even set a new endurance record for a public discussion period.

What I would suggest is that if you have not made up your mind about who you are voting for in a few weeks, you might consider asking a candidate how they feel about transparency. Do they believe in an open exchange of ideas? Do they welcome opposing views? Do they embrace civil, objective, thoughtful friction? That’s my litmus test this year. Feel free to join me. The answers you hear may surprise you.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: