Monday, January 2, 2012

The Purpose of Government

A couple of generations ago, at a prize-giving breakfast for junior footballers, a retired prime minister was talking to kids about his former job. His answer to the simple question, "What are governments for?" has stuck with me ever since.

He said, "Governments are elected by all the people to run things. Their first job is to look after the old, because they created what we have. Their second job is to look out for children because they inherit the future. Third is to provide whatever can be afforded to look after the indigent because sometimes they can't always be cared for just by their families. And the most important thing is to not interfere with peoples' lives because people always know best what is good for them, and if they don't they have to live with the consequences.

It's difficult to fault the simple logic. The old man's explanation is a concise, accurate, elegant and comprehensive summation of a government's role in a functioning democracy.

So why is it difficult to even imagine a politician saying such a thing now?

Perhaps because of the increasing gap between those we elect to govern us, and we who elect them. They have evolved over the last few decades into a type of aristocracy that hovers, untouched above us, and descends every election time to reclaim their privileges. How closely does their world relate to yours? Ask yourself how well you know the politician you voted for at the last election, apart from the information he or she wanted you to have. Reflect for a while on the amount of time they spend ensuring government stays out of your life. What emerges is not good. Elected representatives collectively assume they know better than you do what you need, and what is good for you. Electors (that's us) collectively know they don't.

Or maybe politicians can't utter such simple explanations because they are too deeply embedded in the comfortable symbiotic relationship between the legislature and the bureaucracy that runs things. Who benefits from, and who is accountable for, the waste of failed programs? Why does each legislative assembly result in more, not fewer regulations, rules and restrictions? Why does the bureaucracy continuously expand? When was the last time your elected representative voted against increased government spending, or to reduce it?

For whatever reason, it is extremely unlikely that we will hear any politician repeat the old man's description. That is a sad indictment on what we have allowed our democracy to become.

The experience of a working life in rich and poor countries across several cultures reinforced my conviction that the old man was right. I've never met anyone who did not want to be left alone to raise any children they may be blessed with, and for their kids to be better off than the parents. That is a timeless, human definition of progress.

Our contemporary version of democracy moves us in the opposite direction while convincing us it's progressive. For evidence, look at the increased volume of legislation, and the increasing rate of its growth. Its product is the increasing petty constraints on your personal freedoms.

Before it overwhelms us, we should recall the old prime minister's words. They describe not what we can look forward to, but what we had, which was better.

A free and functioning society assumes that people are smart enough to be responsible for their actions, and the best government is the one that interferes least in their lives.