It's a Gray Area: Our motto should be 'Make the system work'

As everyone with any awareness realizes, life today is complicated. Nevertheless, things do seem to get done successfully, mostly because the incentives and flexibility in the private sector deliver what people need, when they need it and for an acceptable cost.

But things can always be better — and that is where we come in. As members of society, each of us can make substantial contributions to our world and way of life by helping to make the system work!

This is more than good citizenship to make us feel good about ourselves. It really does help.

Obviously included in this is being a knowledgeable and active voter. But in addition, we can also help by expressing reasoned opinions during our everyday conversations with our friends, and also on talk radio programs and in letters to the editors of the print and electronic media outlets, as well as letters to public office holders. On this last point, it is a little-known fact that most elected officials have a formula: that one personal letter stressing a position on an issue represents at least 30 similar views among constituents. So these letters really count in helping to make the system work.

Another important contribution is selectively questioning the authority of government officials, employers and others who have some control over our lives about their actions and rules. It is a natural tendency for human beings inappropriately to expand their power over us, and if no one questions that expansion, inappropriate results will frequently occur.

Recently, before my wife and I took a wonderful trip to South Africa, I dutifully called Citibank to inform the bank that I was planning to use my VISA card in some specified countries between some specified dates. But after I used the card just one time during the trip, the bank suspended it.

After returning home, I called Citibank, reminded the bank of my previous call and complained. The agent immediately offered apologies, which, of course the agent is trained to do, but I insisted that I be given a credit of $50 for the hassle. If not, I said I would cancel the card and take my business elsewhere. Citibank agreed to the $50 credit.

In my view, I did Citibank a favor, because someone in the hierarchy will soon see this credit and ask why it occurred. This, in turn, will help Citibank focus on what went wrong, tighten procedures, do a better job serving its customers and then make more money. So for everybody's sake, I believe I was making the system work.

Similarly, employers, parents and friends are in a strong position to make the system work by complimenting and rewarding thoughtful and productive behavior by those people around them. All of us hear from other people when things go wrong, but seldom when they go right. Monetary bonuses are fine, but it is also amazing how far a smile and a thank you can go. Try it and see, and by so doing you will be helping to make the system work!

The same thing is true regarding education, where there is no such thing as a boring class — only boring students. If students challenge their teachers by actively participating and asking thoughtful questions, it will almost always result in a positive change. Just like in other areas of life, this will stimulate teachers to perform better — not only for the preservation of their jobs, but also to obtain the gratification of doing their jobs well. Thus students are also in a meaningful position to make the system work.

Finally, in my profession, and contrary to the beliefs of many people, it is not the job of criminal defense attorneys to prove that their clients are innocent of an offense, or even that they are not guilty. Instead it is the defense attorney's job to force the prosecutor to produce enough evidence to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to 12 jurors. In other words, like it is in so many situations in life, it is the job of a defense attorney simply to make the criminal justice system work.

This is our country and our government, and if things aren't working in their public and private aspects, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Functional libertarians openly welcome this responsibility. It is not the government that provides a good life for us; it is our firm responsibility as adults to provide it for ourselves. As a result, "Make the System Work" should be our motto, because in the end, the responsibility and power to affect our world rest with each one of us.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired Orange County Superior Court judge. He lives in Newport Beach. He can be contacted at

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