The rivalry of left and right, Democrat and Republican, has its uses.
The need to either build alliances with members of the other side or overcome their opposition at the polls, or on the floor of the Legislature, pushes us to refine and improve our ideas. The unexamined bill, as Socrates might have said, is not worth passing.
But, too often these days, in Utah and in Washington, what could be a healthy friction that hones our ideas into sharper plans has become a blockade. Neither side wants to move toward the other in a spirit of compromise or even admit that there is such a thing as middle, or common, ground.
There are, though, two important issues on which, if they would stop to think about it, modern liberals and conservatives could agree and move forward. At least in Utah. Both of them involve law enforcement, criminal justice and extreme examples of what principled people on the left and the right may rightly see as government overreach.
One is the death penalty. More specifically, the abolition of capital punishment.
Liberals in America and around the world have long opposed capital punishment on the grounds that it is “cruel and unusual” in all circumstances, and that it is much more often carried out on the poor and disfavored. It is not so much an eye for an eye as it is a way to keep the lower classes in line.
And conservatives, in Utah and elsewhere, are increasingly coming to the same conclusion by a different, but equally valid, route. If conservatism means respect for life, limited government and fiscal responsibility, giving the state the power to take a life is contrary to all of that. Especially when the necessary safeguards and mandatory reviews inflate the cost of a death penalty case to much more than what it costs to prosecute a case where the ultimate penalty is not in play.
A bill to end capital punishment in Utah made it through a House committee last year, but no further. Even though the main sponsors of that bill no longer sit in the Legislature, it is an idea whose time has definitely come. The death penalty has little deterrent value, is by its very nature discriminatory and capricious and, because of the long time necessary to carry a case though, only prolongs and intensifies the suffering of those left grieving by the original crime.
And the continued use of the death penalty in Utah, especially by means of the gruesome firing squad, increasingly singles us out as a backwater unattractive to modern society.
Speaking of modern society, the other issue on which left and right should be able to make common cause is the increasing amount of electronic surveillance in all of our lives.
Just the other day, Republican leaders of the Utah Legislature were less than impressed with a presentation by the Attorney General’s Office and Department of Public Safety touting a new network of online robo-spies that could, in fact, be used to detect crime nearly everywhere and capture criminals in minutes rather than days.
Lawmakers conjured up images of everything from “1984” to North Korea. They were, properly, not completely mollified by promises that data sought and collected would only be used for clearly legitimate law enforcement purposes and that personal information would generally not be identifiably tied to any, well, person.
It would also cost $2.2 million a year. To start.
The universal, mostly private-sector driven, electronic web in which we all live has rendered the concept of personal privacy somewhat quaint. But that doesn’t mean that our government should be turning those tools on us.
Lawmakers, of the left and the right, should be able to agree to set strict limits on the use and storage of all that data by any government agency, and insist on the right to keep a close eye on those who are playing in that sandbox.