Academic debate can at times overlap the reality of daily life. The winds of fortune have pushed the Virgin Islands into one of those times. The debate in which we live is the debate about the breadth and depth of necessary reform. How far and how fast do we as a society want reform to go?
The 17th century political philosopher John Locke postulated that a social contract exists in a society. As individuals, we grant to government the power to organize and achieve collectively those goals which we cannot attain or realize individually. In practical terms, that means that we give government, through paying taxes and obeying laws, the ability to provide public services and promote the peace. A question we now face is: What happens when the government fails to meet those goals?
In the Virgin Islands, we face a rampant crime problem. Just this week, a federal trial was halted and charges of jury tampering were leveled against a St. Croix man. We have roads in disrepair. Our garbage and sewage offend the senses because the government does not properly dispose of the waste.
There are threads in the fabric of society, of which I am one, that propose broad and deep reforms to the systems that the government has established. In some cases, abolition of government systems in favor of altogether new systems are proposed. On the surface — and I acknowledge that in some cases the ideas penetrate far beneath the superficial — these ideas may seem radical. It is precisely that point that demands further inspection.
Only a fool proposes a radical change for change's sake. Consider the U.S. Housing and Urban Development takeover of the Housing Authority. That was, for all intents and purposes, a radical change in the way the V.I. government conducts business. Yet, it serves the specific purpose of protecting those people who are powerless to protect themselves against the government excess that deprived them of a safe place to live.
In the late 19th century, Benjamin Disraeli helped the British Conservative Party oust Gladstone and the Liberals with a "policy of sewage." Issues of public health drove that election. The are those of us here in the Virgin Islands who would, like Disraeli, acknowledge that corruption that endangers public health must be eliminated at almost any cost to local sovereignty. That concept would seem radical to more than a few people.
The 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell, in his treatise on power, asserted that governments, by design, are conservative. The ideas that most threaten the power structure of a government are the most vehemently rejected. Societies develop comfort levels with their governments, and drastic changes to the structure can lead to instability in the society. However, from time to time revolutions in thought and action occur.
The trouble with revolution is that upheaval can become quite messy, and the end result may not resemble the initial plans. Consider the French revolution. It began as a cry for reform and ended as a murderous affair. That danger leads the more conservative elements of a society to be wary of wholesale change.
Can corruption be eliminated? No. On the other hand, should corruption be allowed to endanger the health and safety of a society? That is the question that drives much of the public debate in the Virgin Islands at present.
Many proposals have been advanced to reform the local government. Some have called for federal takeovers, others for drastic changes in the electoral system, and some have even proposed a tax protest wherein taxes are not paid.
There are some radical elements in this society. The best academic question is what spawned them and how do we fix it? That question needs to be answered quickly; before the ideological revolution gets out of hand.
Editor's note: Bill Turner is a writer, a former history teacher and the executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association. He writes a daily commentary on events in the Virgin Islands that can be accessed at V.I. Buzz.
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