Tag Archives: enlightened self interest

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.