Moving to

I'm moving to Mostly.

I plan to use that site as a "self-marketing website" of sorts and to manage content in a way that I would otherwise not be able to do on blogger alone.

This blog will stay, ostensibly for more provisional ideas prior to refinement. I'll be gradually moving content (I still like) over to the other website. =)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Government as Friend to the People (An Essay from Long Ago)

I decided to re-read the contribution that I wrote for the 35th ISC Symposium in 2005. (Incidentally, a fellow PSC scholar from my "batch" won the top prize/one of the top prizes for his contribution to the 2006 symposium.) That was my first exposure to, not the "Swiss standard of living", but Swiss prices. I also looked at some of my old blog posts. Amusingly, it turns out that I my beliefs in social justice have not changed very much.

In any event, I'd like to share that old essay. It is essentially an extended idealistic rant about how a government should relate to the people. (Notably, the flow could have been better.) My own views on this subject have not changed: the government should act with the good of the people as the ultimate objective...


The Government as Friend to the People
“Distrust of Politicians High” reads an online newspaper article dated 20 November 2004 [1]. There is arguably no more poignant outcry against this international phenomenon than a recent track and MTV by rap artist Eminem, “Mosh”. The lyrics say it all: “… no more blood for oil, we have our own battles to fight…” [2]1 The decline in public trust is corollary to a growing number of governments being perceived not to be fulfilling their responsibilities — to govern in the interests of the people. This essay advances a view that governments should act in the manner of a true friend of the people, while seeking to discuss public policy in a realistic manner. To achieve this, an education centric policy will be advanced.

Consider the idea of friendship, sound conceptions of which are found in Aristotelian thought. Aristotle defines three possible forms of friendship: friendship based on pleasure, friendship based on utility, and the “perfected” friendship [1]. In Aristotelian thought, paramount importance is placed on telos — that for the sake of which something is done. In each of these classes of friendships, the purpose of all interactions is exactly the basis of the friendship. It is clear what the first two categories entail. As for the “perfected friendship”, interactions are characterized as being for the sake of the friend. Hence, in such a friendship, one acts not with a view that benefiting a friend is good for oneself, but rather with a view that benefiting a friend is good.

This essay suggests that governments should relate to the people in the sense of the perfected friendship — regulating and allocating resources for the sake of the people. This is not as easy as it sounds. In a manner of speaking, it is an attempt to benefit all parties involved — no mean feat. This essay would discuss various aspects of attempting to achieve this goal. I will then venture to propose a policy based on education as a means to this end. It is practical, though probably difficult to implement, but arguably within sight for a number of countries in the world today.

Governments Have To Make Choices
No theory of government can be divorced from economics, the allocation of state resources being a chief function of a government. It is useful to perceive the economy as a mapping from the set of “possible allocations of physical and human resources, and forms of economic regulation”, to the set of “possible outcomes”. In its duties, a government has to make choices, even in the unlikely event of perfect knowledge of all possible choices and outcomes. Unless viewed with a one track mind, there exists no magic formula best for a state.

A certain statement illustrates this point well: “Maximizing commodities is not the only measure of a decent living.” It should be noted that the aforementioned set of outcomes does not reflect only economic output, but rather various other so-called “performance indicators”; Social welfare, for instance. But there exists no basis for meaningful comparison between this and commodious aspect.

Hence, the role of the government is to choose within the perceived set of pareto-optimal options, to introduce vocabulary from multi-objective optimization. A pareto-optimal option means an option that is not dominated by any other, that is, there exists no other option with all aspects of output performing better than or equal to it, with at least one aspect performing strictly better.

Certain choices benefit certain groups more than others, or even at the expense of others. A one liner describing US President George W. Bush’s tax cuts reads “Rich gain, Poor lose, Trade-offs for the middle class.” — a poignant illustration of this, as well as singular focus on economic growth2. In this essay, it is proposed that governments make choices based on the interests of all. This is difficult, but arguably possible as discussed below.

Conflicts of Interest
An apparent obstacle to the simultaneous promotion of the interests of all is the conflict of interest between the corporation and labor, with huge implications on technical progress and economic growth. I speak of the fact that certain actions require a given critical mass of motive strength to be performed. A single man may be able to master all workings and contingencies of operating a mill, but he is inadequate to the task of managing those of a large nuclear power plant. Without further elaboration, corporations are necessary for the maintenance of the modern economy.

For a corporation to not disintegrate, certain prerequisites have to be met, such as revenue requirements. These requirements are invariably related to the manner in which labor is reimbursed: the greater the reimbursement, the more stringent the requirements for maintaining the corporation. Furthermore, expansion of the corporation, and hence economic growth, has prerequisites more demanding than those for subsistence of the corporation.

If government imposes safety requirements, labor potentially benefits but not the corporate baseline. With corporate tax cuts, social spending falls, affecting labor indirectly. It may appear that the interests of the worker conflict with economic progress. Or is it? Consider an endeavor that increases the capabilities of labor. Corporate performance improves as does the capacity to reimburse. This is an effect of public spending on education. Depending on how well it is implemented, in spite of increased taxation to fund it, all parties involved could benefit.

Education and Technical Progress
Promoting education promotes technical progress. This is obvious, but requires elaboration. Technical progress is a product of “creativity”. The term “creativity” is a cultural anachronism. In what we understand as “creativity”, nothing new is truly created. Rather, it is the juxtaposition of existing objects, concepts and ideas into new ones. The development of inventions and theorems is a result of this process. The role of education is to introduce known objects, concepts and ideas, primarily so they may be utilized, and secondarily that they may be improved in future. In other words, education aims primarily to increase competence, and in an auxiliary capacity, to promote technical progress.

Technical progress increases efficiency, but often causes unemployment, which may be circumvented by suitable public spending for the creation of jobs — opportunities to put education to use, to be addressed next.

Self-cultivation, Opportunities and Meritocracy
A major problem in modern day society is the loss of hope among parts of the population. This stems from the apparent lack of prospects for advancement, and hence, apparently nothing to work towards, in turn leading to a lack of willingness to pursue self-cultivation. A leading symptom of this is the “Don’t ask me why; I only work here.” mentality. Promoting education is pointless if people perceive that they derive no benefit from heightened capabilities. By extension, there would be apparently no point in any exertion to the end of education or self-cultivation. Hence, it is necessary to promote an environment where there exist opportunities for advancement, rewarding actions benefiting society.

All else being equal, people pursue greater rewards in preference to lesser ones, and it is logical to encourage higher levels of competence. It follows that rewards should be bestowed proportional to levels of competency. This is the principle of meritocracy. But employing a principle is not sufficient, it is necessary to provide the actual opportunities or promote an environment in which these may arise. The principle of meritocracy gives a basis for hope. Opportunities make it real.

What exactly constitutes an opportunity? At an abstract level, it is the possibility to employ oneself in return for a desired reward. On a practical level, this would mainly refer to jobs, for the most part, and outlets for the exhibition of ability. Drawing on historical evidence, in the USA during the 1940s and 50s, well implemented public spending in the avenue of job creation was able to cancel the effects of recession and bring about prosperity. This suggests that public spending on the generation of opportunities brings tangible reward and possibly a high return on investment. These need not be jobs per se; facilitation of the recognition of educational qualifications is a benign improvement to the economic environment with related positive effects.

Opportunities are not handouts. Rewards have to be worked for and it becomes a matter of personal responsibility to cultivate oneself to achieve these rewards. One who wishes to be employed as a scientist has to accumulate and synthesize knowledge; the aspiring athlete must train his mind and body; one who does not desire to pursue anything need not do so.

It would appear that such a manner of juxtaposing the principle of meritocracy and promoting opportunities equates to empowering people to live their lives as they will, depending on how they wish to interact with society. In the presence of opportunities, to emphasize the point, this empowerment acquires a reality as various courses in life become truly open to people. This is the gift of liberty.

Responsibility in Personal Life
The grant of responsibility is a sign of regard. Previously, meritocracy and opportunities were discussed as being functionally equivalent to placing the responsibility of selection and pursuit of professional goals in the hands of people, where it arguably belongs. This section discusses the return of responsibility to people in their personal lives.

As mentioned in the introduction, in recent years, the government has had an increasingly greater hand in dictating what actions are permissible even when they affect mainly the person performing the action. For example, the consumption of selected drugs without prescription has been outlawed, and gambling is often regulated. A notable opinion is that this, sometimes called “the criminalization of victimless acts”, serves as a tool for the control of “dangerous classes”. Whatever form they take, these restrictions represent a denial that the individual has the capacity to act responsibly; tantamount to saying, “You are incapable of choosing wisely, I shall choose for you.” The government, I believe, should respect the people.

To respect the people, the government has to deregulate the personal lives of the governed. However, sudden deregulation could lead to individuals harming themselves, which, on the outset was what regulation was put in place to prevent. Given the state of affairs today, immediate deregulation is not a practical option. One looking back to the Fall of Man may wonder how much of that fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil presently remains within the descendents of Adam and Eve. It is knowledge that is required.

To be able to act responsibly, people require knowledge of what possible choices they may make, and their respective outcomes. Given a comprehensive scheme promoting education, people would be able to choose in an informed fashion. Naturally, deregulation of the lives of the governed should proceed in tandem with the promotion of education.

On the whole, I believe this to be the exemplar of the government acting as a friend of the people. “You have the following choices, these are their consequences. Choose what you will.” This statement is characterized by respect tempered by concern — the mark of a true friend.

Summary and Conclusion
The ideal outcome of such a policy is a people that on one hand is a skilled workforce, and on the other, also a collection of individuals taking interest in self-cultivation and responsibility in their lives. This is a scenario congenial to the development of both economy and individual, in general beneficial to all and arguably worked towards for the sake of all.

The maintenance of this condition, I am inclined to believe, is predicated on sustained public policy promoting education and a sufficient range and volume of opportunities. Personally, I am inclined to believe that the humanistic educational reforms3 of Wilhelm von Humboldt in Germany in 1809 were the root cause of the rise of Germany as a scientific and industrial powerhouse [4].

Although, the comparatively short term gains obtained by promoting the interests of corporations at the expense of the people may seem attractive to a party trying to stay in power or please its corporate backers4, it remains that a choice has to be made. And the true friend will act for his friend, for the sake of his friend.

Excerpts from a translation of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Limits of State Action were read by Noam Chomsky at a seminar in 1970, of which one aptly describes the ideal product of such a policy. “… artists, men who love their labor for its own sake, improve it by their own plastic genius and inventive skill, and thereby cultivate their intellect, ennoble their character and exalt and refine their pleasures.” [3]

[1] Daniel Robinson, “Lecture 13: Aristotle on Friendship” in The Giants of Philosophy. The Teaching Company. (Audio Lecture)
[2] Eminem, “Mosh”. Music Television. (Music Video)
[3] Noam Chomsky, “On Government in the Future”. Sound Seminar, Recorded at the Poetry Centre of the New York YM/YWHA on 16 February 1970.
[4] Richard Miniter, “Wilhelm von Humboldt: German Classical Liberal”. Accessed on 11 December 2004.
[5] Straits Times Interactive. “Distrust of Politicians High Globally”. 20 November 2004. Singapore Press Holdings.

Note: Endnotes are included for interest only and are not part of the essay.
Also of interest: “In Praise of Idleness” by Bertrand Russell

1 (back) This endnote is best read after the essay.

Eminem denounces the “psychological warfare to trick us to think that we ain't loyal”. This appeal to the somewhat vacuous notion of “supporting our troops” is meaningless in the sense that any American taking an interest in America cannot be against that. Yet, that same person can be against waging a pre-emptive war. In a related issue, consider the “scientific methods of strike breaking”, where strikers fighting for better working conditions were demonized as being “against harmony” or “un-American” in massive propaganda campaigns.

This form of propaganda partially denies one moral freedom to choose. It is an even stronger affront to human moral freedom than regulation of one’s personal life. It amounts to deception, or at least deliberate misguidance. This very denial of moral freedom is denounced by moral philosopher Kant.

Returning to Eminem, in the same track, “Mosh”, he also advocates Americans taking responsibility to shape America’s future.

2 (back) One may argue that the policy or deliberately increasing inequality had economic growth singly in mind. Evidence supporting the policy is most likely based on studies, such as "A Reassessment of the Relationship Between Inequality and Growth" by Kristin J. Forbes appearing in the September 2000 issue of “The American Economic Review". The author is a current member of the President’s Council if Economic Advisors and was appointed in May 2003. In that article, regression analysis was performed on a number of data sets, and it was found that “in the short and medium term, an increase in a country’s level of income inequality has a significant positive relationship with subsequent economic growth.” This conclusion was said to be “highly robust across samples, variable definitions, and model specifications.”

3 (back) See reference [4] for a short introduction to the reforms of Wilhelm von Humboldt.

4 (back) Noam Chomsky writes voluminously on the topic of corporate power and its effects. Among other things, he is also a strong advocate of collective responsibility. One is strongly encouraged to read him.

1 comment:

market2garden said...

I agree with individual rights, community responsibilities and national interests are equally important. Yes, without the basis of predicated on sustained public policy to foster wisdom through education, all sorts of openness are meaningless. There would be a drastic change in the mind-set of the SG cabinet - to have faith in our own people rather to distrust the First World Electorates.