Saturday 21 January 2012

On the role of Government

What is the role of Government in improving the wellbeing of citizens and in protecting the wellbeing of the natural environment? 

Firing discussions this week were Roger Scruton's Green Philosophy talk at the RSA and the Institute of Economics Affairs '.... and the Pursuit of Happiness' report on wellbeing. Both Scruton and the IEA argue that Governments, by interfering, actually have counterproductive impacts on the human and environmental wellbeing they are trying to increase. Environmentalists, typically left leaning, are naturally skeptical, but Scruton and the IEA offer quite persuasive arguments. [For more, see the Action for Happiness response to the IEA and Jonathon Ree's review of Green Philosophy.]

I'm left uncertain. What is the role of Government? There is a great paragraph by Henry D Thoreau written in 1849, which I dig out every time I'm considering this question. These are the opening lines on his essay 'On the duty of Civil Disobedience' I share his standpoint and am grateful that he expressed it better than I ever could:

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.

The key line for me is 'when men are prepared for it'. [By men, I'm doubtless he means men and women - give him a break it was 1849!]. And the fact that it was 1849 is interesting, 163 years later are we prepared for a government which 'governs not at all' or 'governs least'? Scruton, the IEA and others on the right seem to think so.

The rise and rise of Neo-liberalism is driving us towards these 'governs not at all' government's. But, are we ready, are we educated and mature enough to co-exist peacefully with each other and in harmony with the natural environment? Would we, if further freed from the restrictions of Government law and regulation, live lives that have a more benign impact on the natural environment and on our fellow citizens at home, abroad and in the future? I'm far from convinced that we would. Would Thoreau, in 1849, have expected us to be prepared by now? Would he be surprised if someone told him back then that in 2012 we are still not prepared? I won't delve into why we are not prepared here, I want to return to the question. If we are not prepared, what should the role of Government be?

Maybe we rapidly remove government interference. Maybe we endure the harsh short term pain of inequality and environmental degradation as relaxed laws are exploited by those acting in narrow rather than enlightened self-interest. Maybe we do this and hope that the shock therapy is enough to jerk citizens into behaving more mindfully longer term. Under Neo-liberalism that seems to be the current risky experiment. Or, do we remove government interference more slowly and in time with increasing ecological intelligence (the ability to think systemically and act mindfully from a position of sustainability literacy)? The theory being that as ecological intelligence goes up, so too does our ability and motivation to live in harmony with each other and the planet. With increased ecological intelligence throughout society, governments could step back in the confidence that we are prepared to take on more personal responsibility for the wellbeing of ourselves, our fellow citizens and the living species of the natural environment.

However, we are far from being an ecologically intelligent population that is prepared for this week's other buzz idea 'responsible [free market] capitalism'. To prepare us, our formal and informal education needs transformation and investment. All education should be education for sustainability - with the aim of increasing our ecological intelligence (not to mention our emotional intelligence). The Government must invest in it today, so that they can govern us less in the future - when we are prepared for it. Lets hope it doesn't take another 163 years. If, in their impatience, they step back too quickly now, it might.


Viridis Lumen said...

A very pertinent and thoughtful piece. The divide you set out - between neoliberalism and the alternative of an ecologically intelligent society - is very much set by our economic system: free market capitalism shorn of even what little regulation remains would drive our society right over the edge into an oblivion of conflict and resource exhaustion, as well as increasingly likely environmental collapse. The alternative, of a more co-operative and enlightened society, demands a more egalitarian culture and means of distribution and exchange - that would demand more rather than less government-initiated activity initially; but in the process of devolving political and economic power to communities, could move us towards the positive scenario you envisage. Education is also key - for decades, children have been inculcated with the free market ideology and associated work ethic. Schools have improved in some respects in regard to environmental understanding, but much more remains to be done to produce pupils who question and adapt our society rather than are blindly trained for more of the same.

Anonymous said...

Hi, thanks very much for your positive comment, sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you!