Monday 20 June 2011

The role of Government

I had a big row via email with my friend Adam on Sunday morning, it started off as a debate about the public sector pensions row and then veered off into a general argument about the role of Government. I think we both ended up with sour tasting cornflakes, sorry Ad! Today I came across the Henry David Thoreau's essay: 'On the duty of civil disobedience' the first few lines of which express (far more neatly than I managed) how I feel about the role of government:

"I HEARTILY accept the motto,—“That government is best which
governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly
and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which
also I believe,—“That government is best which governs not at
all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of
government which they will have."

I've been criticized before for thinking like this. The argument I get back is that if I think like this then surely I am arrogantly arguing for strong government NOW because I don't think that the men and women of Britain are currently prepared for a government 'which governs not at all'. Therefore, by extension, I'm also arrogantly arguing that men and women will not be prepared for this until they all think like me! Or, until they can be trusted! Hands up, against these accusations I am at least partly guilty [apart from the bit about everyone having to think like me - we are already far too samey, I adore diversity, long may it blossom and widen].

With all its slashing and cutting of the public sector and public services our current hyper neo-liberal Government is hurtling along a path to becoming one that 'governs not at all'. Right now this genuinely terrifies me. It seems to me from reading, watching and listening to our contemporary daily news that we continue to mistreat our fellow human beings both in the UK and abroad daily and horrifically. We also continue, through our actions, to mistreat the natural world; we're definitely not ready to be left to our own devices, if we were there'd be no need for BBC Panorama.

For me Governments are there to temper and actively discourage our most damaging behaviours. They are to do this by incentivising and rewarding good behaviours while enforcing laws that prevent us from harming each other and the natural world. But, I believe that Governments should temper our behaviour only so much as is absolutely necessary and not a tiny bit more; acting like a good nurturant parent who allows their offspring to push boundaries, learn from mistakes, mature and take responsibility for themselves. As opposed to the strict parent whose child is only capable of following orders and remains unable in adult life to decide, independently, how to behave maturely. Eventually, probably, public moral norms would have shifted far enough that it would have become totally socially unacceptable to smoke in confined public spaces. The smoking ban that the Government introduced would not then have been necessary, we would have self-governed ourselves into the exact same scenario, restaurant by restaurant, pub by pub. We were being nurtured towards this as we matured as a society, the introduction of the smoking ban in 2007 was simply our nuturent parent getting a little strict on us by saying 'right I'm introducing a new ground rule'. This effectively speeded up the process. The fact that there were not too many tantrums, or too much kicking and screaming demonstrated how well timed its introduction was.

So, in summary, I believe that Governments should allow us as much freedom to self govern as possible, without giving us so much freedom that we cause intolerable harm to others and the natural environment. That is, not so much freedom that we are able to compromise the freedom of others. It is an incredibly hard balance to strike, but right now, this Government seems to be making it too easy for those who are inclined to oppress others and harm the environment for their own gain, to do exactly that. As a parent it is being too hands off.

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