By Ron Knecht and Geoffrey Lawrence 

What’s the duty of an elected public official?

Three years ago, when Ron served on the board of regents, Nevada’s elected body that governs public higher education, that board held a big discussion on system governance at one of its meetings.  It was “facilitated” by a woman with a long background in higher education administration, including having been a college president.

A major point she pushed that day was that, once the board acted on a matter, it became the duty of regents to advocate that policy or decision, to speak with one voice and not take contrary or separate positions publicly.

Ron said he had a duty of integrity to advocate for positions on which he had committed to voters and not simply abandon them because some other regents disagreed.  Also, a duty of intellectual integrity not to abandon positions he took after research, analysis and deliberation and merely go along to get along if he was not convinced by others’ arguments and evidence.

As time for the discussion expired, she played her trump card, plaintively screeching, “What about your fiduciary duty?!”  Setting aside the typical statist liberal habit of turning a question into a whiny personal attack, she had indeed raised the central issue: fiduciary duty.

But she was dead wrong in implying that fiduciary duty compelled the vapid groupthink ethos too much followed in politics and bureaucracy.

Her position was that regents owe a fiduciary duty to the Nevada System of Higher Education.   That is, a duty of care, prudence, diligence and loyalty, of candor, full disclosure, good judgment free of conflicts of interest and advocating only the best interests of the system.

The duty of an elected official includes all those high-sounding words encompassed in “fiduciary duty.”  But that duty requires not that one stifle his dissent, subjugating it to the errors of the majority or the interests of an institution or its leaders; instead, one should voice them loud and clear.

The issue is not whether the main duty of elected officials is a fiduciary duty; it certainly is.  The problem is that pontificating with such words blinds people to the profound error in her answer to the key question: To whom is the duty owed?  She was a higher-ed lifer who had moved into the cushy post-retirement gig of consulting to the next generation of people like herself who manipulate elected officials, the press and voters for their benefit and that of their enterprise and its constituencies.

The fiduciary duty of elected officials is owed to the voters, the taxpayers and the broad public interest.  Not to an institution that is a mere instrument with which to pursue the interests of voters, taxpayers and the public good.  That’s worshiping a false god.

People controlling and staffing such institutions, plus those benefitting from its services – that is, the provider bureaucracies and clients of all public-sector institutions – being human, often become selfish special interests that will be as predatory upon the voters, taxpayers and public interest as they are allowed to be by regents, legislators, governors, controllers, school boards, etc.  This is a central problem of government, politics and public administration.

Special-interest advocates are very clever in seeking to relieve voters and taxpayers of their money and rights for the benefit of the provider bureaucracy.  Often, they and their political allies hide behind the beneficiaries of the services of their institution or agency.  Thus, advocates of throwing ever more money at teacher unions and administrative bloat always bleat, “Do it for the children.”

Or they wrap themselves in the flag of some noble cause.  Even though we revere and promote education, when someone says he’s advocating for education, we know he’s almost certainly advocating for taking resources from voters, taxpayers and the efficient and generally fair private sector to give them to the privileged folks who live off the often inefficient and unfair political allocation of resources.

Another day we’ll explain why the public interest in human wellbeing and fairness is served mainly by promoting economic growth – that is, enlarging the social pie so that all may benefit – and discuss other aspects of officials’ duties.  Meantime, be wary of their noble and indignant self-serving words.

Ron Knecht is Nevada State Controller.  Geoffrey Lawrence is Assistant Controller.

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