Political Parenting: Let the Kids Sort It Out

Political Parenting: Let the Kids Sort It Out

If you live near or enjoy visiting the Apalachicola River or Bay, the water-war hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court matters to you.

The case is the latest in a lengthy, expensive and, for Florida at least, frustrating struggle over water rights.

The Apalachicola River is downstream of Atlanta, which is growing at a blistering pace. Both to satisfy those already resident and to reserve capacity for future growth, the Atlanta region claims rights to a lot of water. Result: Less water available downstream, less water in the Apalachicola River, less fresh water mixing with the Gulf in Apalachicola Bay . . . and a less vital eco-system throughout.

That’s our argument, anyway.

Georgia takes a different view. Georgia maintains that the amount of water it uses is irrelevant to our plight, because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the flow of whatever water remains in the system and might choose not to pass additional water through. To summarize Georgia’s argument, someone is likely to steal the water from Florida anyway, so it might as well be Atlanta, rather than Uncle Sam.

Georgia’s attorney didn’t put it quite that way.

Florida’s decision to take this dispute all the way to the Supreme Court reflects the high stakes for our state and the lack of progress in any other venue. I don’t question the wisdom of the effort.

However, when disputes between parties lower down the federal system get bumped up, there is a huge risk that a floodgate opens. Not one for water, but for authority. And strangely enough, in these disputes authority is more likely to flow uphill than to flow down. The result can be both massive in scope and nearly irreversible.

Rather like siblings invoking the ultimate authority (“I’m telling Mom/Dad!”), seeking to resolve our conflicts by resorting to an institutional “higher power” is a kind of mutually assured destruction. If Mom or Dad must resolve the dispute, all the disputants lose. They lose because they no longer can negotiate between themselves, and because the parent often imposes additional unanticipated consequences on all parties to encourage negotiations in the future. Even “winners” often discover that they’ve lost more than they’ve won.

The lesson applies as clearly to the legislative process as it does to litigation. If someone doesn’t like a local ordinance, plan or policy, the best venue to address one’s dissatisfaction is local. This doesn’t mean that one can always get what one wants locally (any more than one can do so further up the ladder). It does mean that the decisions made are both more modest in their impact and more remediable. It is much easier to change a local ordinance than a state statute . . . or the state constitution.

A number of items in both the legislative and Constitutional Revision Commission hoppers are inspired by disputes or dissatisfactions with specific local authorities. Bubbling up from these individual discontents, they plead to have Parental Florida take sides in spats between the children.

The lessons of history suggest that such efforts very often produce unanticipated discontents in the future that outweigh any present satisfaction.

And the lessons of parenting counsel that the state should let the children sort it out themselves.



There are leadership lessons to be learned wherever we look. Join Holly McPhail and me online for our On Demand webinar, Discovering Leadership, as we explore some of the inspirations behind the leadership lessons captured in my new book, More than Self. Click here to to access.

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