What is government for?

I’ve been reading John Keane’s ‘The Life and Death of Democracy’ – slowly, because it contains a lot of history otherwise unfamiliar to me, and is a book about the same size and weight as a house-brick! Yesterday I ran into a thought form that stopped me in my tracks. To paraphrase Mr Keane: Should government reflect society or counterbalance it?

Democracy is mostly based on the idea of majority rule, but this can lead to two obvious problems. One is that the majority are given the power to oppress the minority, or minorities. Secondly is that those who accumulate wealth, fame and power can easily use that to try and get their own way. If democracy reflects the social and economic dynamics in a country, can it be fair? We tend to assume that the democratic systems we have are pretty much the best thing available, so this questioning of core tenets really interested me.

What happens if the basic job of government is to counterbalance society? Government would then exist, to a fair degree, to right wrongs, protect minorities, ensure fairness, prevent money from controlling all advantages and generally try and keep the playing field as level as possible. It would be a system that prioritised the needs of the weakest, least able and most vulnerable on the grounds that those who are wealthy and successful can reasonably be assumed to be capable of taking care of themselves. And you wouldn’t turn them into some kind of minority to pick on here, no French revolution style execution of aristocrats (I refer you to majority rule). Would counterbalance government be viable? I like it as an idea, but I don’t know if it would work and I’m pretty certain a lot of people would hate it.

The current system encourages us to think about our needs, to vote from a place of selfishness, and perhaps with some eye to enlightened self-interest. It can be a bit short term. I have noticed repeatedly that people who are successful tend to ascribe that to their brains, efforts and other things that make that both deserved, and likely to continue. It isn’t entirely true. Anyone can fall. Illness, misfortune, accident, assault… anyone can end up a victim of crime, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then your life falls apart. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how clever you are, you can’t think your way out of debilitating illness, buy off a terminal disease or be talented enough not to get hit in a random motorway accident you didn’t see coming.

What keeps many of us (not me!) from wanting to invest in a safety net for other people, is that ‘we’ think ‘they’ don’t deserve it, and we refuse to believe we could end up in just as much trouble. That could use a rethink. There but for the grace of (insert random element here) go any of us. People who have wealth, money and power fear that other people are going to take that away from them. We are, culturally speaking, so terribly afraid of each other. It reduces our collective scope for co-operation. What would happen if we set up government to counter balance, rather than to reflect? I’m not sure, but I think it’s worth thinking about.

In case you were wondering, it’s not an entirely hypothetical idea. Uruguay was exploring it in the early twentieth century. I knew almost nothing about South American political history before this week. It is fascinating seeing how fiction authors I’ve read; Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende, Louis de Berniers, fit into that context. There is always more to learn.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

10 responses to “What is government for?

  • angharadlois

    In an ideal world, that would be the role of the Lords – we could select people who could take a longer-term, balanced view for the good of all. Sometimes the Lords’ debates really do feel like that, but there’s always another peerage being handed out to major party donors to counterbalance the optimism… But I am very much of the view that, while our current democracy is probably the least worst system we’ve had, historically, that doesn’t necessarily make it too good to change.

    • Nimue Brown

      That’s a really good thought, actually. It would help deal with the issue of what the Lords is *for* as well, and that mix of both might work nicely. I think often the Lords does trend that way, but making it explicitly their job to come at things from that angle… I can really see that working.

  • literaryvittles

    great post! i feel as though the reflection vs. counterbalance dilemma has been an integral part of the U.S. government since it was established. It’s funny because “we” (Americans) seem to want both: we want a government that responds to individual needs (hence the individual vote), but we also claim that “all men are equal,” and it seems like the second part—equality—can’t be achieved unless we have a government whose primary purpose is to counterbalance existing inequalities. again, really enjoyed this post.

  • simplypolitikos

    I take it you’re from the U.S? There are several welfare states in Europe, that make sure everybody has the same opportunities, no matter which strata in the society they come from. For instance, education (even university education) is free, and pretty much the same goes for health care. The closest thing to this in the U.S is the mormon society in Utah, which has the highest degree of social mobilization in America. In other words, only in Utah the American dream dreams on…

    • Nimue Brown

      I am English, and I see how money buy educational advantage. Poor kids can’t buy coaching for the exams to get into Grammar schools. Rich kids go to private schools where there are smaller class sizes and more help available. The theory of equal opportunity exists, I grant you, but the reality is that the best indicator of your likely material success in life remains the wealth of your parents. I believe Scandinavian countries are a good deal further forward on rectifying this, though.

  • Druid Dave

    Government is a Body of People who Creat & Enforce the Social Contract under which the People can theoretically Live In Peace.

    Druids used to be the Wise Men of a Tribe of Celts who Created and Enforced the Rules and Regulations of their Tribes in the Neolithic Age. But in those days, Community Groups which lived under such Social Contracts lived in Small Tribes that numbers no more than a few thousand People.

    Nowadays, Governments govern over so many Millions at one time that Government now has become Too Big and Bureaucratic to the point that it does not fulfill its Peaceful Purpose anymore.


    • Nimue Brown

      I think you’ve nailed a thing there – the whole idea of ‘social contract’ works a lot better at a community level. De-centralising might help fix this. I very much believe that powers should be devolved to the most local level reasonable for managing them. If all the decisions are made somewhere else by someone else… democracy gets a bit meaningless.

  • Anzan

    And what of the folks who prefer to live by themselves without government intrusion. If they choose to enjoy no benefits provided by taxes, and prefer to trade with locals. I guess the question is, what if one chooses to opt out of any of it and provide for themselves alone?

    I question why is there this idea that all must fall under the rule of the majority (and whatever type of government the majority chooses to impose)? And is the idea of sacrificing the few (forcing the few who don’t want to conform) for the needs of the many (to ensure equality) morally/ethically correct?

    And this presupposes that those that rule will stick to the ideals of fairness, but any realistic look at the history of every culture that’s ever been shows that this never works out. At least historically, it seems the larger the government the larger the suffering of the ruled. But smaller governments spent too much time warring for territory and resources… so where is the happy medium?

    • Nimue Brown

      Very good questions. I have no idea what the answers are, but we most certainly need to keep asking, to question all assumption, to ponder what we might do more effectively. thank you for piling in with these thoughts, much appreciated.

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