Let us start the week’s Open Perspective with a quote from President Barak Obama who laments “if the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists — to protect them and promote their common welfare — all else is lost”.
May be not all is lost. The causative forces explaining low citizen confidence are not far to seek and they can be addressed. I have just learnt that distrust of government is a universal state of emotion and that citizens have perfectly legitimate reasons for unleashing such emotions.
Interestingly, distrust of government is not limited to ordinary citizens; numerous past presidents and various gurus have serious problems with the behaviour of governments and those in positions of influence.
Many a government tends to meddle into the private affairs of citizens in a show of unapproved power of control. According to Mark Twain government readily forgets that as an institution of the people “it is merely a servant; a merely temporary servant”.
Twain further stresses that “it cannot be government prerogative to determine what is wrong and what is right and decide who is a patriot and who is not. Its function is to obey orders, not to originate them.”
The point here is that citizens see governments as carelessly arrogant institutions that can threaten individual rights and freedoms. As President Reagan says “the first duty of government is to protect the people, not to run their lives”.
In similar language, Thomas Jefferson declares that “the care of human life and happiness and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government. The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest unfortunately that is not the case”.
Citizens distrust government because of the propensity for self-interest and habitual degeneration into an oppressive leviathan. In the case of young fledgling democracies such as Malawi there is the additional fear of government sliding back into historically familiar autocratic tendencies.
Citizens understand that government exists not for the interest of those who govern but for the governed. As Alexander Hamilton warns: “the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint”.
Indeed has it not been said wittingly that the duty of the patriot is to protect his country from its government?
The tendency for government to grow in size and in power threatens citizens. That is why the outcry the world-over is for small manageable government. Reagan rightly notes “as government expands liberty shrinks” and the likelihood of tyranny becomes palpable.
Citizens are turning into tough participants in governance aware that a ‘nation of sheep begets a government of wolves’ which thrives on perpetrating trepidation. However, it is government — the servant — that should fear the people, never the opposite.
In too many cases, government is not a solution. Government is often the problem being so packed with negatively wired people and blindly partisan operatives. This is the reason people not only demand to be seen and heard, they further seek government that listens to and solves people’s problems and not subsidise them.
Globally, people believe government cannot be trusted to do things correctly. It is associated with incompetence, sluggard action and wastefulness. Yet in the words of James Madison “good government implies not only protection and happiness of citizens but good knowledge of the means by which these objects are attained”.
Interestingly, most governments are inefficient despite comprising highly trained men and women. To draw on President Reagan’s humour, “the most terrifying words in the English language are: I am from Government and I am here to help”.
So intense is the distrust that John Steinbeck admits that “I find out of long experience that I admire all nations but I hate all governments”. In the same vein H.L Mencken believes that “every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under”.
Nothing contributes to this intensely conflicted people-government relationship than the iniquity of corruption. We shall return to this matter when we examine what people think about politicians in the next entry.
Suffice to say government sponsored corruption undermines accountability which is the very essence of good governance. With rampant corruption it can hardly be said that the protection and happiness of the people are the joint object of government — hardly ever!
A major cause for the erosion of confidence is blind, opportunistic partisan party politics; the often dismal failure of governments to articulate universal truths and goals with a strong non-partisan thrust for even development.
Admittedly, it is hard for citizens to trust government when the ruling party and an indoctrinated civil service moot out peculiar self-interests which interfere with people’s perception of people-centred and development orientated governance based on universal principle.
In most pluralistic systems society is effectively polarised along party lines, making consensus on critical issues unattainable and crippling national policy and strategy. Partisans from those who rule never trust opposition nor does opposition always see the opportunity to collaborate with government.
This state of affairs is of course self-inflicted but perfectly avoidable injury. The bottom line is that no one will trust a government presiding over chaos. Not one except perhaps for the party in power.
But distrust of government by the citizenry also emanates from the indiscipline of ruling parties, exacerbated by the relentless onslaught on government by the opposition, donors and the public.
The discipline of ruling parties is a major factor in determining whether or not citizens will trust government, particularly with regard to resources and freedoms. Unfortunately parties more so in Africa are never known for discipline. They are instead a source of much public anxiety.
Ironically, all comes back to the citizen.
The citizenry should spend more time worrying about identifying and electing thoughtful, serious and ethical politicians on both sides of the political aisle; people who are motivated to work together for progress — advises Charity Tillemann-Dick.
In this season of values clarification, let leaders hearken.
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