Sunday, June 26, 2011


Government, what is it, and why is it? As always the dictionary is not much help as the term can be and is defined in different ways. It seems to me that perhaps the most succinct and useful definition would be something like the following: Those individuals holding offices of a nation or other polity who are responsible for the direction and supervision of public affairs. All human groups, from the smallest to the largest, have some form of government. In the smallest hunting and gathering societies this is often the eldest male or the best hunter or even the person with the strongest personality who can convince others to follow his lead. He (and it most often is a “he”) is responsible for deciding when the game in the area is becoming hard to find and it is time to move, or some event occurs to indicate a change is necessary, and so on. In somewhat larger groups, like the small-scale agriculturalists in New Guinea and other places it can be the eldest male clan member or someone with a reputation as a “big man” or a “man with a name.” Such individuals become leaders because they are recognized to have the skills necessary to lead and others agree to follow them. The Big Man decides when the gardens are “running out of grease” and they need to move on, or when various festivals should occur, or even when and where they should go to “war.” When groups grow larger leadership sometimes becomes more specialized and the criteria for leadership can become more complicated. The bottom line, however, is, or should be, always the direction, guidance, and responsibility for public affairs

Under such a definition of government one could argue that even severe dictatorships qualify as governments because the leaders, in principle at least, are responsible for the direction and responsibility for public affairs, even if they do not govern in the public interest. All human societies can be justifiably said to have some form of government, however “primitive.”

Strangely enough what made me start thinking about this has to do with tigers. The other day there was an advertisement for people to help save the tigers. For some minimum monthly stipend you could symbolically adopt a tiger. This by itself would not have been enough to cause me to consider it as a governmental problem, but it came at the end of a whole series of such problems we have had to consider over the past few years. You must know there have been pleas to save the whales, save the wild horses, save the salmon, seals, polar bears, wolves, pygmy rabbits, frogs, owls, eagles, manatees, coral reefs, old growth forests, mangrove swamps, crocodiles, sharks, dolphins, puffins, and who knows what all other species. There are also demands for contributions for medical conditions such as breast and prostate cancer, and so on. More importantly perhaps, are the constant requests to save abused dogs, cats, and other pets, and even more importantly to save children from poverty and hunger, as well as provide them with medical care.

These requests infuriate me, not because I think they are not terrible conditions that are completely deserving, but because they make me wonder where in the hell governments have been for the last few centuries. The fact that all these problems and needs still exist indicates a massive failure of government and also of leadership. On a more abstract plane it also indicates a failure of the human species to manage their affairs in thoughtful and responsible ways. When you add in, as in the case of the U.S., the failure to live within our means, our deteriorating schools, infrastructure, and environment, the situation is even more shocking.

You could, of course, argue that all these problems are not really matters of public interest and should be handled by private institutions and businesses, “the self-correcting market.” But it should be perfectly obvious by now that these problems have arisen and continue because of the lack of governmental supervision, the lack of regulation. If the purpose of government is to direct and supervise public affairs this implies regulation, and nowhere is regulation more important than in industrialized countries that operate importantly on the profit motive. Without proper regulation in a capitalistic society greed and dishonesty flourish, as we are now experiencing. Is it the case that environmental protection, clean air and water, the preservation of species, the adequate care of children and pets, health care, education , and the judicious use of available resources are not public affairs? This is precisely what those who insist on privatization and unregulated free markets apparently want us to believe. Following the bizarre idea that “no government is good government” is to argue there is no place at all in human affairs for government, a negation of the very concept of government, and it is not only contrary to the fundamentals of human society , indeed, even to the nature of human nature, it has also proven to be the road to disaster. Humans live in social groups and follow the prescriptions and proscriptions of culture because that is their means of survival. To argue there should be no proscriptions on human behavior is nonsensical in the extreme.

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