By Roland Watson
Lessons in Democracy

This website is primarily about democracy, not government. This reflects the fact that government is in a sense separate from the political system to which it is subject. All nations, with the exception of failed states, have government. Even dictatorships regularly have extensive bureaucracy to at least give the appearance of doing something for the people. But the real objectives of dictators are simple: to stay in power, and self-enrichment. The objectives of democratic government are, one would hope, less selfish, and sincere.

The government of a democracy is accountable to the people. It must fulfill its end of the social contract. And, in a practical sense, government must be accountable because of the severe consequences that may result from its failure. As the outcomes of fighting unjust wars and inadequately responding to critical threats such as global warming illustrate: great power implies great responsibility.

Accountability in turn has two components, that different government responsibilities are completed properly, if not with excellence, and that government power is not abused.

The central purpose of government in a democracy is to be the role model for, and protector of, equality and freedom and our associated human rights. For the first, government leaders are social servants, since through completing their specific responsibilities they serve society and the people. But above and beyond this they must set an ethical standard, for the people to emulate. For the second, the legal system and associated regulation are the basic means to such protection, along with the institutions of the military, for defense against foreign threats, and the police.

Traditionally, people did not need government. We survived as a species for the bulk of our existence without any government at all. However, since our population has now risen dramatically, we do require some government, if only to increase the efficiency of our social organization. But, as we moved from extended families to tribes and then to nations, we also developed from a situation of no government to one where the institution became massive, impacting all areas of life.

Also, over the centuries shadow governments developed as well, from courts, to oppositions, to the contemporary context with special interests, lobbyists and “think-tanks.” Our existence has changed from one where nobody told us anything, to modern society, where we are told by a powerful central government, and numerous parallel groups, what to do about everything.

Even given these changes, though, we still require little government. While political leaders may strive to convince us otherwise, we are able to fulfill our own needs. We are responsible for ourselves, and we can take care of ourselves. Countless people around the world still live independently, without the benefit of any government assistance.

This illustrates a fundamental distinction: government exists to help us protect our rights, but we must satisfy our needs.

For protection, this was traditionally thought of only in physical terms, i.e., of defense against aggressive groups. In the modern world, though, the concept has necessarily been expanded. Nowadays, with all the social ills that exist, we require many different forms of protection, including from other groups, or nations, as in defense; from criminals; from other powerful institutions; and from the government itself.

Indeed, while we of course still need a means of defense, including against both external and internal (criminal) aggressors, it seems clear that our greatest need for protection is from other institutions and from the abuses of government itself, particularly its collusion with these other institutions. (Many of the needs that we now have for government are actually to solve the problems that it creates.)

An additional protective role for government is stewardship over the natural world, to defend other forms of life.

A second general role, related to the need for efficiency, is the organization of large-scale projects. It is for this benefit that we accept government involvement in the construction of society’s infrastructure, including roads, posts and telecommunications, and water, sewage and energy utilities. Further, giving government charge over these utilities guarantees that they remain in public hands, and solely dedicated to the common good. If such services are privatized, the owners have a selfish motivation, which could negatively affect the quality of the services.

That such assets should have public ownership is expressed in the idea of the “commons.” They should be owned by and shared between the members of the current population, and preserved for future generations.

It is here that the distinction of rights versus needs surfaces. We have rights to equality and freedom, but do we also have rights to food and water and shelter, and such things as health care, education and social security? There are great differences of opinion over the role that government should have, and most such differences boil down to this basic question. As government has grown, its role has expanded beyond protection, of our rights, to assistance, with our needs.

There is of course no reason why we can’t increase the purpose of government. Having a society where all people are guaranteed health care and where the poor and elderly receive assistance can be taken as a sign of real civilization. From this perspective, then, it is acceptable that government fulfills “social welfare” responsibilities. But, we must recognize that as we add these services, we want to do it in a way that does not undermine personal responsibility, i.e., assistance should only be given when people truly are unable to help themselves. Further, we are going to have to pay for this, and in many different ways. Not only is there the direct financial cost; as government grows it becomes unwieldy and much more open to corruption and abuse.

Another extension of responsibility is in the area of economic management. Governments issue currencies, and all of the consequences of their existence must be managed, through such institutions as Central Banks. Also, we need protection, as provided by bank and investment regulators, from the misdeeds of the financial institutions that have been established in response to the creation of currencies.

Coinage also facilitated the world of business and trade, and government has an additional role to play here, through its power to regulate commerce. Government must ensure that the essential prerequisites for a well-functioning economy are in place. These include the rule of law, to guarantee that contracts are honored; minimal corruption; and fair compensation and working conditions for employees, so they are encouraged to work efficiently and to provide quality goods and services.

Another perspective though on government economic responsibility is that it is also linked to protection, i.e., from the negative consequences of free markets. The government must defend us against unscrupulous merchants and employers, and the extreme class structure that results from their exploitation. In addition, the government must protect us from the consequences of new technology, to ensure that all the potential outcomes of the technology are properly evaluated and controlled.

This is also the area where the greatest institutional collusion occurs. Governments argue that people need to be assisted with the economic competition that now dominates the world. But the real intent of this position is to justify helping corporate interests, and not only against foreign competition, but by siding with domestic companies against local workers, consumers and the environment.

Related to this is that government has international responsibilities. A government represents a distinct group of people in its relationships with other such groups. This includes having normal, cordial social relations; foreign affairs, to promote national interests; and defense, against both military threats and predatory trade and business practices.

Governments have taken on other roles as well, although these are not without controversy. The first is education. Most nations have public educational systems, to ensure that all children receive good basic instruction. Establishing a standard, high-quality curriculum, and ensuring that it is extended to everyone, is actually essential. Not only does it enable us, as individuals, to reach our full potential, it is a defense against the social inequality that regularly arises from educational inequality.

Education, though, can be abused. Children are unable to discriminate, and they readily absorb whatever they are told. Through such classes as “civics,” and via other indirect means in the school environment (e.g., the wearing of uniforms), government can enforce any social standards and belief systems that it desires. Schools can be used to shape children into humanitarians and ecologists, or into fascists. (Some Islamic schools, madrassas, for example, are known to be breeding grounds for terrorists.)

As with the regulation of corporations, governments in general around the world are failing at their educational responsibilities. The school systems of many nations are essentially brainwashing institutions, and in all nations, children of the wealthy go to better schools and the system of class structure and inequality is reinforced, not reduced.

The role of government evolves. In the early stages of social development, it bears the responsibility to establish the overall infrastructure of the society, including utilities, schools and health care. It is the only institution capable of overseeing such developments, at least in a well-planned way. But, as the infrastructure is completed, the government’s role necessarily diminishes. Political leaders in turn oppose this reduction of responsibility (and their power) by redirecting the government into other new areas.

This is not to say that all such developments are unacceptable. One candidate, for instance, is the funding of basic science. As a species we have a great interest in scientific research, as it is one of our main routes to new understanding. As it stands now, though, corporations provide most scientific funding. This means that the research is inevitably tilted towards applications that have the potential to make a profit. Governments can offset this, by funding projects that do not have immediate, or even foreseeable, financial returns, but which do lead to an expansion of human knowledge.

A final way that government is evolving is the aforementioned rise of international institutions. Nations are finding new ways to cooperate together. Europe, for example, has established a formal regional government. Further, these institutions are assuming responsibility both for protective and other functions.

Having examined the legitimate roles of government, it is also appropriate to consider what it should not do. And for this, a basic provision is that government should not attempt to protect us from ourselves. We have free will and we must retain the ability to use it as we choose, even if this involves danger. The government should not tell us how to live our lives. It should not treat us as children, by assuming the role of a highly restrictive parent.

Also, the government must be extremely sensitive to its innate tendency to resist criticism.

Lastly, other than through providing a vehicle for their resolution, i.e., through courts and a body of law, the government should not participate in the resolution of social disputes. There will always be disagreements in a large, complex society, and to the greatest extent possible they should be resolved in the arena of public opinion. The government should never side with one group over another (other than to counter discrimination). The people must decide, through compromise and if necessary arbitration. But, for some issues people never will agree, or even agree to disagree, and this, although it may be an unsatisfying aspect of life, cannot be changed.

© Roland O. Watson 2008