How should Government work?
One of my favourite TV shows of all time is the classic BBC sitcom/political satire, Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister. The show follows the exploits of Jim Hacker, first Minister for Administrative Affairs and later Prime Minister; Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Department’s Permanent Secretary and later Cabinet Secretary; and Bernard Woolley, Hacker’s Private Secretary in the labyrinthine world of British politics and Civil Service bureaucracy. All of the episodes I would recommend, but this week, one in particular came to mind whilst I was considering my post for this week. The episode, from Series 2 of Yes Prime Minister, is called ‘Patron of the Arts’ and revolves around Prime Minister Hacker and funding for the Arts Council – an excellent clip can be seen below:
At this point you might consider how all of this is relevant with the rather enigmatic title at the top of the page – the simple truth is that this article was due to be a discourse about art and whether or not it should be funded or encouraged by the State, hence the video and the modern art picture. However, when I was thinking about how I would formulate this question I came to the judgement that it would be far more interesting to investigate the heart of the matter – what should Government actually do? Clearly Prime Minister Hacker believed that art did not warrant Government support but at a more basic and theoretical level what responsibilities should the State have. In order to answer this question, allow me to present my, at present, basic formulation of the responsibilities or dimensions of Government: to Protect, to, Represent, to Enable and to Provide – the P.R.E.P.
It could be said that at the heart of the responsibility of Government is that to protect society – as the executive of a society its other responsibilities are meaningless if chaos and anarchy is allowed to run rampant. Through this principle it can be established that Government has a duty to protect its society in terms of security and justice – exercising the commonly established morality of the society through the courts and criminal law. It also follows that the Government should protect a society through a military or civil defence body, to prevent threats from without posing a threat to order and peace, as the judicial system protects from the threats to order and peace within. That is common wisdom – every national Government worth a mention has established such mechanisms and unsurprisingly so: the duty to protect is central to the workings of Government.
But, the duty to protect, it can be said goes much farther than purely military might and the execution of justice. The factors which threaten a society from without are not just those of foreign armies, but may be those of international forces, ideas or capital which would be detrimental to the workings of a society – an example for each can be given: the US Administration’s denial of climate change, the establishment of radical law under IS and Russian investors buying up large proportions of central London, driving up property prices illustrate negative exogenous factors. Whilst I would not advocate protectionism or isolationism, ideas which if exercised would have huge negative consequences for any country in terms of cutting if off from beneficial ideas and interaction with other cultures which enriches the people, a balance must be struck. A society cannot survive if it is completely isolated for it will stagnate and in its own echo-chamber be unable to develop new ideas and progress, but equally if a society is completely outward and interconnected then it is not its own society anymore – it will have morphed into something which leaves behind the sense of identity and ownership which was previously afforded. To strike the balance, in protecting a national identity and also being strengthened through international connections and influences, falls to Government for the same reason as the Government manages a military – to ensure order and peace through the protection of society.
Similarly, not all dangers which threaten society from within can be dealt with the a Police force or prosecution. Inequalities erode the very pillars of society. A modern society cannot function optimally or even, eventually, at all, if the mainstays of liberty and social justice – wage equality, minority emancipation, healthcare, freedom of speech, freedom of press and the plurality of opinions and ideas – are not exercised. The lack of these features eats away at the legitimacy of a Government. If a Government cannot protect its citizens from the evils of poverty, hunger and oppression, then what even is the point of the executive existing? If the common man is not protected from such injustices then he will not believe in his Government and if the Government does not protect him then it has failed. When he is protected and society is too guaranteed, it can be said that in terms of protection, a Government is successful.
In Western ideas of society at least it is central to the idea of Government that as the executive of society must accurately represent the feelings and attitudes of the people. Stemming from Athenian ideas of the political structure, it is accepted that the best way in which a society should be run is ‘By the people and for the people.’ It is not only good for a Government but necessary for the people’s views, wishes and perhaps more importantly their concerns to be heard and dealt with. If people do not feel as if they are participating in a Government they will become disenfranchised. Disenfranchisement leads to anger and anger leads to potential for disaster. When this anger is harnessed by a force which acts against the greater good of society and against the ideals of justice and equality, it can bring about the downfall of nations. The anger of disenfranchisement harnessed by the Front National in France or by UKIP in the UK is case in point. In order to protect society, people should be represented, but at a more fundamental level it is the duty of Government to represent the people, otherwise, it can be questioned as to what the point of such an executive body is.
However, the duty of representation being established, it should be clear that the demands of the majority should never be allowed to infringe upon the rights of a minority, or force a Government to act in opposition to the forces of progress. Take universal suffrage as case in point. When the Baldwin Ministry of 1928 passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act which extended the same voting rights to women as to men, there was societal outrage that such a group, at the time considered weaker than men and too innocent for politics, were given the right to vote. However, by 2017 it is taken as the norm that women be allowed to exercise their rights as citizens in line with their male peers, but if the majority were to be listened to originally, whilst I would doubt women would not have the vote today, the process would have been delayed. Thus I would propose that Governments should always act according to their duty to represent the majority, unless their doing so would infringe on the established liberties and freedoms enjoyed by their citizens which they are entitled to not just as citizens but through a recognition of their worth as human beings alone. Therefore no Government could justify, say genocide of a minority if demanded by society as to do so would infringe the right to life and freedom which is intrinsic to human dignity.
The argument so far proposed may be seen as a recommendation for big, bureaucratic, strangling Government. This is not the case – responsible Government according to social democratic principles should be highly present and regulatory in some sectors and also softer in others. To me it is apparent that there exists a two-stream method in which Government can act – passive and active Government. Passive Government consists of indirect methods to promote the common good, keep societal order and provide for the weak. In this can be considered schemes such as subsidisation, tax cuts to stimulate economic action and guidelines for alcohol consumption. The Government allows for people, businesses and society to affect change itself. It follows that in instances the individual or the business will work most effectively when it is enabled through such schemes to make progress and in enabling this to occur Government is fulfilling its duty to the people through letting them to flourish through their own actions.
Equally so, active Government fulfils a duty which a Government has to its society in allowing it to flourish. Active Government is when change is affected directly through the Government, through legislation which is enforced by the judiciary, through direct regulation or through the activities of Government managing critical aspects of the societal system, such as those of schools, healthcare and energy. Through active Government which is able to supply people with the necessities of life, it enables the populace to progress. Government schools enable for the youth to become educated and progress society through their work. Government healthcare enables all to be fit and healthy and enables the economy to function with a strong workforce. Government provision of welfare enables people to live without fear of destitution or debt. Through enabling the population with passive and active Government, individuals and society are enriched.
However, it should be said that enabling does not mean deregulation or laissez-faire economics. Such systems exploit society for the sake of profit. It is the people and society which should be enabled by the Government not the market to raise profits for shareholders at the expense of the common man. Government has no intrinsic obligation to the markets or to capital. They are merely tools of the State which should be utilised for the purpose of enriching society and enabling the people. The people, for Government, to the principle of representation, come first and foremost over abstract ideals of free-market enterprise and the drive for profits.
What I would personally consider perhaps the most important duty of Government is that of provision. Government has a duty to every citizen, according to social democratic principles, to ensure that they have basic provision to enable them to live. In the words of the Welfare State principle, a citizen should be cared for ‘from cradle to grave’. This is the flipside of the social contract in which we are born into. Often Libertarians will whine about how they get nothing from the taxes which they are given and often they are right to whine. When taxes are squandered on excessive armies, tax cuts for the wealthiest and subsidies for the richest corporations, you should feel angry. You are neither being represented nor respected by your Government. A successful Government however, will use your tax income to fulfil their side of the societal contract – to provide you with the basic necessities of life in which you are entitled to access as a citizen as an intrinsic right. When tax money is spent on universal healthcare which you use, pays for roads which you use, pays for Police that protect you and fund benefits upon which you can rely in times of need, the Government is fulfilling its most important obligation to you as a citizen and you will not feel annoyed.
At a one fundamental level, we are all a cog in society and provision of services is merely the oil to the machine – it keeps the population happy, healthy and satisfied with their views being represented through the spending of tax on services which protect them from harm and enable them to progress. Provision is the food which sates the hunger of society. At another level however, it is the fulfilment of a moral obligation which the society and by extension the Government has to every individual within society – every member of society is of value and should be valued and respected with provision being provided to them that ensures, under no circumstances, will a citizen have their rights or dignity infringed through poverty, hunger, disease or injustice. When the Government manages all that is necessary for living – energy, water, gas, electricity, healthcare, infrastructure provision, it can only work to make them most effective for their people and therefore no longer to the people have to live by the whim of the market and capital to survive. It is the goal to which all decent Government should strive – when the people have nothing to fear and society can develop under the democratically enabled state which protects, represents, enables, provides and cares.
I definitely plan on returning to this subject in the future – it really has been interesting to put into words what I believe Government should be like! I hope you’ve enjoyed this somewhat lengthier article and do feel free to contribute any opinions or questions in the comments below!
As I am in North Wales on a fieldtrip next week, do not expect an article – but if I can however, I will try to knock a short one out in time!