Are We Responsible Enough to Govern Ourselves?

I want to talk about responsibility. Personal as well as social responsibility.

Let’s talk about social responsibility. The majority of us are part of society. We enter into a social contract with our fellow citizens and our government to give up some of our liberties in exchange for certain conveniences. For example, we allow the government to tax us in exchange for them to build infrastructure such as roads, communication and utilities that we can use. We expect them to pass laws, regulations and statutes that will protect us from others who would do us harm, and to look out for our best interests on the international stage.

Has anyone ever heard of the Bystander Effect?

It was a study that wanted to know what, if any differences there were in the response time of normal people giving aid to complete strangers who were being or are hurt depending on how many other bystanders were present, and they found out something interesting. That the more people are watching, the less likely help will be rendered in any form. Why was this? Their theory was that because everybody could see everyone else also watching, they assumed that somebody else would dial the police, or the ambulance or render immediate aid in some form.

So what does this have to do with society?

Now having read that, think of western governments that a lot of us are in this contract with. By now, most of us know that something is wrong. We know that spending is too high, government meddling in the economy distorts the marketplace and various other problems. No one however, does much of anything to protest it. We all assume that someone else will do it, and yes there are those who stick it to the man, but they are few and far between. Even OWS (Occupy Wall St) that the majority of Americans support, but even now it is starting to fizzle out.

The world sits atop a precipice, a financial one. The western world is in so much debt that any day now we can plunge into another depression. If that was our only problem we might be so lucky.

Online privacy is practically a thing of the past. Goverments and corporations are increasingly meddling into our private lifes
Inflation is accelerating around the world i.e. your money is being taken away from you insidiously
Too Big Too Fail companies getting trillions of free dollars because apparently socialism is now in for friends of the government
The Mainstream Media seems to be getting more biased by the day sometimes outright trying to misinform us
– Resource depletion is accelerating and that doesn’t bode well for our modern civilisations as we are completely reliant on these resources
– US politicians stirring the hornet’s nest that is Iran, and domestically passing draconian laws

So it’s quite obvious, that when it comes to social responsibility, we have dropped the ball big time there.

Now let’s talk about personal responsibility.

We like to think of ourselves as responsible, more so as we age yet are we really? Let’s look at the populations of Greece, Italy, Spain. Are they really acting responsibly protesting the governments austerity measures that are removing unsustainable programs? Programs that will only make their situation worse by accelerating their countries economic downfall. Sounds silly protesting to keep entitlements that are damaging to your economy, and thus your personal wellbeing doesn’t it? Of course, those protesting don’t know this, but it is part of their responsibility, their social contract to be informed on what does and doesn’t work economically. It’s not good enough to demand something just because it benefits you. Ignorance will eventually hurt them, and their fellow countrymen and the entire region.

All 3 of the just mentioned countries are in so much debt, they are finding it problematic to attract further financing on the debt markets. So we must ask, why are they (and others) in so much debt? Well, one of the reasons is that people vote for politicians who bring the most benefits to themselves, without asking such simple questions like ‘Where is that money going to come from to pay for this program?’ or anything else remotely resembling a sensible question. The recently elected politicians can’t just raise taxes as soon as they’re elected to office, so what is a politically expedient way of getting the necessary money to keep the promises without also attracting the ire of voters? Easy, borrow it on the foreign market. Even if they know it can’t be repaid, the loan will come due on some other politicians watch, and not their own. Problem solved!

Another reason that government debts have spiralled upwards around the world (It’s not just limited to those 3 mentioned countries above, they are just the top 3 examples!) is because previous government programs will rarely get cut, as there are people who rely on those programs who won’t or can’t give them up and this effects the politician’s chance of re-election. Thus, the upward thrust of government programs that history has shown happens time and time again happens again. Politicians are so concerned with keeping their jobs, they don’t do their job to the full potential. And people are so concerned with their own benefits, or entitlements that they won’t allow politicians to do their job to its full potential either. Does this sound like responsibility? More like ignorance with a dash of cowardice.

This shows a huge lack of personal responsibility that we exhibit. The fault of the matter lies at the feet of the populace. Yes, politicians have run up the debt, made things unsustainable, spend too much, borrow too much, or print too much and we rightly blame them for their part in these problems. But we blame them for the whole problem, when we are part of the problem; we voted them in based on what they would provide to us, for not asking of them basic questions on how they will fund these generous entitlement programs, or not understanding basic economics. We are the instigating factor in the crux of this huge worldwide issue that will come to bear down on us in the ensuing years. Worldwide, we are at over 300% Debt to GDP. Yep, cumulatively speaking, total worldwide debt is currently 3 times bigger than ALL THE MONEY that exists, and this gap is just getting higher.

Now, some may argue that this view is to simple to be right, and there’s probably an element of truth there, but how else can you explain the fact that almost ALL western nations are indebted to an extreme degree (According to the CIA Factbook, in 2010 only 4 countries worldwide were debt-free). Even the USA, the cornerstone of our world economy, now has more than a 100% Debt to GDP ratio, and that’s just government debt! It doesn’t include household debt which raises that ratio many times higher. So while this might not explain the entirety of the problem, I think it explains a majority of it. If anyone has any competing or complimentary theories, I would love to hear them.

So, what are the solutions for these rash of problems that are so endemic? Here are a few suggestions as I see them. If you have any alternatives, please feel free to add them in the comments.

Career Politicians

The career politician has to go. Career politicians are beholden to an ignorant populace for the choices they make, therefore they cannot always make the tough decisions that need to be made to move society forward, as an ignorant populace can and will (and have!) remove them from office if there is any short term pain. Thus, they must cater to the lowest common denominator that binds the varying social groups together, do the minimum necessary and rarely stray outside of this niche for fear of spoiling their re-election chances.

I think we should limit politicians to 1 or 2 terms. I prefer 1 term as once the politician is elected, he then has 2, 4 or 5 years to fix what needs fixing, then get the hell out, without needing to pander to the masses. Politicians are there to manage the big picture, they are supposed to be smarter than us, and routinely when they have to make the hard long-term decisions that need short-term pain, but will result in long-term gain, we punish them by being short-sighted and demanding the best of now, and the best of then, which is impossible. Thus, the calibre of politician is reduced as people who talk a lofty game are voted in, and who pander to the now crowd, and the future is left behind.

Of course, a 1 term senator lends itself to some abuse so see #3.

Stop the Revolving Door

We need to jam the revolving door between big business, or business of any kind to be fair, and government. When I worked in Saudi Arabia and was signing my employment contract; there was a clause that stipulated that should the company and I part ways, that I cannot work for any other company inside Saudi Arabia for a minimum of 2 years. While in the private sector, this is a silly rule and of itself shows of the collaboration between big businesses afraid of losing secrets to competitors and using the government to pass such laws, but it’s a monarchy so what do you expect. In the revolving door between public and private sector in the west, I think this is vitally necessary.

All too often, you see officials from big companies that have huge influence in the halls of power, and high-ranking private sector officials moving into a regulatory position overseeing an industry they just came from, or into a myriad of other positions. This puts them in a position of power to provide favourable circumstances for his recently departed company. Often times, they will re-join that company after their stint in the government . This is unacceptable and creates a clear conflict of interest. Another strategy that lobbying firms apply, is to offer government employees high paying jobs once they finish up in the government. This effectively puts the government employee in the pocket of the firm, as they will rarely do anything to risk a multi-million dollar job that is sitting and waiting for them.

This practise simply must stop. I would like a 2 year gap between any private sector switch to a government position. Obviously there would need to be qualifying conditions for this, and not an outright ban. I propose the following conditions be met for a 2 year ban to be legal:

From Private Sector to Government

– The corporation lobbies the government, and has spent money doing so in the past year
– The government position in question will have some part in regulating or overseeing the industry from which the corporation the individual recently departed from is involved in

From Government to Private Sector (Harder to regulate, and maybe even impossible)

– If moving from Government to a big corporation, the government position had some part in regulating the industry the corporation belongs too, thus providing the corporation an unfair competitive advantage in the marketplace
– The corporation lobbies the government, and has spent money doing so in the past year

Social Scientists

In almost all countries, there are dozens, maybe even hundreds of universities. These universities do hundreds of studies each year in any matter of subjects. I propose that for each program that politicians want to implement, that 3 randomly assigned universities must carry out relevant social/economical/statistical studies on the impact of the programs in question to the general population, to the budget and to attempt to assign a statistical risk to eventual outcomes, and its potential success to the programs original goal.

For example, if a politician wants to implement a program to help seniors pay for medicines, or to revamp the social security (or universal care system or anything), a study must done to access the impact of the program, and whether it’s implementation will be positive or negative, whether it’s affordable without (or with if it’s part of the program) raising taxes. So 3 randomly assigned universities from around the country should participate, and 2/3 of these studies must agree with the recommended outcome of the program in order for it to be eligible for a vote in the senate / parliament. The names of the Universities, and thus research teams should be kept secret from all, and the outcomes of all 3 studies should be published in the public domain.

So many times, we see politicians come out with fancy sounding programs enacted, that do not do as their name suggests and are actually harmful to the general populace at large and beneficial to a few. This should do away with that, with a few safeguards such as secrecy, publishing the results publicly warts and all. We can possibly have sound, fiscally responsible and efficient programs that are worthy of the country. They can have binding recommendations on how to make the program more efficient, cheaper, more inclusive etc before passing into law.

In Conclusion, I see politics as a very malleable instrument used by people. It can mean many things to many people, much like religion. There is no right answer, but there are plenty of wrong answers. Too often, politics becomes a shouting match between 2 choices; each of which is at least partly wrong.

As human beings, we desire certainty, it’s an evolutionary outcome of our brain. If we are certain of something, it relieves us of a large cognitive load and we can move on with our daily lives. Of course, this evolved on the african plains when Lion = Avoid and/or Run, River = Drink and Zebra = Food. With our complex society, our large and varying political spectrum, we adapted our politics to the simplicity of our ancestor’s life view. To a left-winger, a right-winger might be a lion and vice versa, and it’s just not feasible.

My point in all this is that politics cannot continue to be a shouting match between black and white view points. Anybody can make anything sound right by making it eloquent or simple. This is simply not true. We are where we are today because of science and the scientific method, philosophy, rule of law and a balance of power between an informed, educated populace and elected officials. Except we don’t have an informed educated populace. Merely a shortsighted one, and this distorts the quality of our elected officials.

It is our personal responsibility to learn, to understand, and to take part in the political process, lest we regret it for a very long time; and as such, we are paying the price for it now, and will continue to do so until the debt and credit problems are dealt with. Which I believe is going to be very painful for a lot of people for a long time. But we bought it on ourselves.

I believe the following quote from Plato is more relevant now than at almost any other time in history:

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” – Plato

We are the Roman Republic, right before it gave way to Tyranny.

9 thoughts on “Are We Responsible Enough to Govern Ourselves?”

  1. I think there are a few holes in your argument, although I agree with more or less everything your saying.

    I agree with the career politician problem. They are too isolated from this world and the public. I heard a comment the other day at the houses of parliament that went a bit like this:

    “These people go to school in Eton/Harrow, they pass on to university at Oxford/Cambridge, and then they come to work here in Parliament? It’s like they’ve never left the 17th century.” Which is referring to the old types of architecture you get in all of those places.

    Personally I think all politicians need to work out in the field, something very community based. They shouldn’t be able to make decisions in an area without having operated within that area, and there should be a massive price cap on what they are allowed to earn throughout their term (getting rid of power for money purposes). This won’t work though.

    Firstly when it comes to the private sector, you will have trouble controlling their money. They can put it more or less where they like, and even with limits on government, there will be a way to get around it (the Politicians wife gets a good pay rise as a housewife).

    At the same time parties will receive donations when they are not in power, in case they go into power. To stay safe the industry will only fund parties that are likely to win, or who are sympathetic to company values. So you end up with a spare few with most of the money (democrats vs. liberals, conservatives vs. labour). These parties have the most money. They have the best ability to campaign and encourage the population to vote for them. People then decide that there is no point voting for anyone else as it will just waste their vote. So we end up with the lesser of two evils.

    It’s a shame, sometimes it feels that an autocracy would work better. In a democratic nation, we have free choice, which we don’t expect, but there is so much red tape that any real action gets lost in the paperwork.

    At least with dictators (for example the kings and queens of old) you would occasionally get someone who cared for the nation and would push to make things better.

    As for the short and single terms, it won’t work out. It takes a long time to fix these kinds of problems and having a short term will at first distract them as they keep up public opinion. Then when they get started their term will finish and the next leader will scrap all previous plans.

    People aren’t elected by saying they will do exactly the same, they are elected for saying they will do something different. That doesn’t mean it will be better.

  2. Love love love that quote, and really it’s so true. They get free healthcare, free transport, free everything (In America, free for life with just one term), and it completely removes any connection they have to the rest of us.

    I don’t agree with them having to work out in the field. That’s what they have advisors for, and thats what the social studies are for. The studies have to be binding. If they want to release a program, it is evaluated, debated on and studied in detail by 3 different qualified groups, and then it is binding either in an approval or disapproval depending on the outcome. This will also help in the 1 term cap, as a successor politician can’t simply scrap a project his predecessor bought on, which is simply a waste of resources and a farce to prove himself different.

    Politics needs to go back to real, proven results that are of benefit to people. And if the populace can’t really see that, and only elect people who talk differently, and do the same (but differently sounding talking points) crap, then what’s the point of reform to begin with right?

    I think terms should be 5 years. That’s enough time to start, and finish a whole heap of programs, and unless a program is to build a nuclear plant, or a fusion research centre, then a succeeding politician can’t just scrap it on a whim as the studies are binding to project completion. Otherwise it ends up being a waste of resources that would have had a proven benefit to the community and nation (which is the only way it can get approved).

    Yes, I agree with you on the private sector and money. That’s why I added it would almost be impossible to regulate. Money should be removed all together from politics. If you are a politician, you should not be able to invest money at all, and perhaps you would have to liquidate your holdings if you are in any conflict of interest case (final ruling of course to be done through the justice system, not at a whim).

    Politicians are at the end of the day, public servants and they should treat it as such. They get paid handsomely, so they have no need to invest. No investing will naturally stop insider trading (which is freaking legal for them! but punishable by jail for the rest of us).

    I think I answered all your comments. What do you think? Thanks for the intelligent discourse. BTW, love your blog. Subscribed to it 🙂

  3. Ok I think you’ve shot down more or less everything I said. And I almost totally agree with you!

    I still think they should work in the field though. Personal experience is always better than second hand. Besides if they had a more human connection with the area they are more likely to fight for the cause and actually feel obligated to do good.

    Personally I would like to give each politician a full psych profile. A book I read (The author was a bit annoying and didn’t balance his arguments but the points were interesting) suggested that you are more likely to find psychopaths at the top of corporations and governments than in most other places. That’s psychopath in the emotionless selfish person, not the deranged psycho killer. Apparently their pathological lack of emotions (possibly caused by dysfunctional families) leads to a few things: firstly they are never satisfied with where they are and are always trying to achieve more (apparently to fill in the emotionless gap). Secondly they have no distractions, they concentrate on reaching the top only. Thirdly they care little for others, so will do whatever it takes to get there.

    This is all niché psychology so it’s not something I would take entirely seriously, but it makes me wonder sometimes.

    Again investment wise I would like to take money out of politics, but the same applies, there will always be a way around it.

    If only we could leave this up to the public… or academics? Or if there was some way of guaranteeing a sympathetic ruler…

  4. Yeah, I guess you have a point there in regards to personal experience, but then the variety of legislation would be constrained no? Theres are an awful amount of industries and fields out there. I think we also need more scientists, and engineers running for office instead of just liberal arts majors. In regards to your original comment about autocracy, think of China. They are plowing ahead in almost every industry, and that’s because its an autocratic regime run by engineers. Problem solvers! Now, they are still brutal and relentless, and could learn a thing or two from us in the west.

    Ah, how about this. Any politician running for office must have some experience in any field of experience. Say min 5 years. This way, they have worked and experienced the real world. Whether it be business, retail, management, science. You can’t get familiar with everything but you can be familiar with something, and thus you can relate into new ventures or pieces of legislation?

    Maybe we should both write a combined post detailing ‘How to Fix Politics!’. Haha, we are on a roll.

  5. We could do 😛 but it would be highly controversial!

    You’re right in terms of limited legislation, I was thinking maybe we could limit politicians to specialist areas? But that would only make more politicians and I’m not sure if that’ll make anything better…

    In terms of the 1 term limit per person, maybe it could be expanded to per family? (immediate or extended? not sure). It would decrease the rates of nepotism and give some form of decreased corruption (only slightly but at least a bit).

    About the China bit, they are doing pretty well. From memory I remember someone telling me how Stalin did the same for his country. Extremely successful overall, but the quality of life is shocking.

    Even so, if I bring back what you said: “Now, they are still brutal and relentless, and could learn a thing or two from us in the west.”

    This is second hand and not about China, but my parents went exploring Iran last summer. They came back in shock. Their opinion when they came back was that Iran was more or less as modern as most western countries and completely different from how it’s represented in the media, books, and public opinion.

    We always hear stuff about propaganda during the wars. sometimes we hear about propaganda in foreign closed off countries (like in China or North Korea). You know countries promoting themselves to the population, and then slagging off others. We never hear about propaganda in our own countries – that doesn’t mean we are not subjected to it.

    1. I think we should do it. I’ll start writing it up, and then send you a draft after and you can add your parts?

      I know there is always propaganda, but the Chinese government is very brutal, and commits atrocities and those are facts. Their standard of living has gone through the roof compared to what it was, but the government still steal peoples lands, kills, finances dictators, occupies another country. I’m sure the same is true of Iran; good people, advanced economy but still a very repressive regime (remember the twitter revolution in 2009?).

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