12 October 2006

Purpose of Government

Men are not evolved to rule one another, that's why they're so crap at it - Lee Warren

I recently moved into a new Apartment. Since the building was new, we had to form an Owner's Association to take care of common activities. What I found interesting here was the marked similarity between this and the Government we elect, where we do well and more importantly where we mess up the system.


Getting the purpose right usually solves half the problem. For an Apartment Owner's Association , the problem is rather simple. We had a couple of common tasks like security, cleaning of common areas, water supply, gardening, electrical maintenance of common utilities etc.
Defining the purpose of Government is difficult. Some people want the Government to do everything for them, just like some of our flat owners who wanted the association to do a lot more activities, like following up with the civic authorities for better roads or to negotiate with local groceries, vegetable vendors to get cheap prices for their goods. Some owners even went to the absurd lengths of saying it is the association's responsibility to take care of kids playing in the common play-area.
Government too faces this problem. There are few who want the government to do everything. The public just needs to go to the job (9-5), pick up salaries and spend. For them the whole public has to be happy, completely devoid of self-responsibility, and just have to do their job and get good pays for doing it.

The purpose of Government should be to take care of common tasks, much like the Association, is Administration of External Security, Internal Security, Law and Order, Primary Education and Monitoring efficient usage and fair distribution of natural resources. All the remaining tasks like Health, Infrastructure, Social Welfare, Public Entertainement etc are additional burdens on the Government. I will explain why I think they are burdens.

Cost Centre

Our Association is registered as a Non-Profit Organization, i.e it is a cost centre. It does not generate any funds of its own, but spends money it receives by way of contributions. The association members are seldom paid and if so, it is only a honorary payment. The service of the members is voluntary and is respected by the community.

The Government is also a cost centre. It generates its income from Taxes and the working members (i.e ministers) are also paid honorary incomes. Their service is also voluntary and should be respected by the community.

It is very obvious that the Flat Owner would always want to keep the maintenance contribution to the minimum possible. Since the association is only a cost-centre, this can be achieved only by reducing the number of things association does. We tend to keep the barest minimal things for the association. The remaining should be done by other members and on their interest. Hence 'Ganesh Chaturdi' celebrations are not part of Association duties. It may help due to its interest in common good or authority, but this activity is strictly outside the association's perview. The accounts and activities are not part of association. The more duties we give to the association, the more difficult it is for the members to do them as they work elsewhere to earn their living and in some sense to contribute to the cost-centre.

Similarly for a Government, it is beneficial to keep its activities to minimum. If we burden the Government with every task, not only is it difficult for the few members to keep things running, but also creates a huge and inefficient system. Just think of what our Government does...It keeps law and order, develops and maintains basic infrastucture like rails, roads and ports, runs services like schools and hospitals, manufactures a varied variety of commodities from watches (HMT) to complex defence machinery (HAL), aids in research and higher education, meets transportation demands, collects tax and accounts for its expenditure and also plans for its own sustenance, apart from targetting moral social agenda like women empowerment or ensuring basic child education or eradication of caste inequalities etc. These are just some of the many many tasks our government does. No doubt you and me pay huge taxes to support such a massive system. How can a group of 300 MPs handle such varied tasks efficiently. Now doubt our system is inefficient. And try making that huge system accountable !!

Power Centre

A Flat Owner's association is a power centre. Not that it holds power in any real sense like the Governments. But its decision, in most matters, is final. To decide who will service the Apartments's gardens or How much to pay for the security or when to switch on / off the water pumping motors are routine activities. If we have each of the flat owners decide these, then we would end up in chaos. Each one would prefer a certain method. The Association helps in such decisions. Not everyone might be happy, but the system works. Since, the Association members can be changed, it gives everyone a chance to put in their effort or suggestion. But think of abuse of Power that can happen. For instance, if the Association decides that flat occupants should not keep pet animals, then they are drudging on dangerous territory. Such decisions are strictly out of Association's perview. It might be a case that all but one flat owner is in favour of banishing pets, and the association decides that since majority do not want to keep pets, no one should, then the sole flat owner's rights are abused. Majority opinion is not always the right opinion. You might feel differently that since barking dogs create a nuisance and disturb other flat owners, it is a correct decision. The question here is does an Association have the power to deny a individual right to keep pets. The answer is NO.

Similarly the Government is a Power Centre. What it decides is final. Further we give it the power to punish individuals by sentencing them to jail and sometimes to the gallows. This is a dangerous weapon because individual freedom is at the core of our society. And we are placing this individual freedom in the hands of a group of people. If I had not done any crime, but a court falsely implicates me and sentences me, then there is no alternative place for me in this world. My individual right are trampled at the group's mercy. To avoid such occurances, the Law should be objective. The primary responsibility of Government is to objectively define Law, and let it known to everybody in the society. i.e there should not be any ambiquity in Law. One should know in advance that doing X would incur Y punishment. And method of determining the crime should be clear, objective and precise. It should not be a case that a lower court implicates and a higher court acquits or vice-versa. Moreover each person should know what is a crime, prior to committing the crime. i.e knowledge about crime and law and order should be publicly known. Our laws should be easily accessible and clear. What benefit is it to a citizen if a court case proceeds for 20 years without a judgement, when the human lifespan itself is averaging 50 years.
Objective, Effective, Un-biased Legal System is the only and real power of a Government. Any compromise on this is suicidal to Democracy.

Since Government's authority is absolute, it is better it decides the least possible, i.e it restricts itself to the only the required tasks. If Government regulates / monitors private enterprise any more than absolutely required for "peaceful and lawful" functioning, it is nothing short of facism and this is exactly what we want to avoid in democracy.

End Note

By nature Government is not efficient. The function of a government is to provide workable solutions to common problems in areas where being effective is far far more important than being efficient. A country's external security is one such aspect. We cannot compromise on effectiveness of security for efficiency on it. This is an area for the Government to function. Further such areas should be devoid of competition. Consider what competition in terms on Internal / External security agencies would do.

Finally, Government cannot be equated to ruling a kingdom, where the subjects are at whims and fancies of the rulers. It cannot be equated to running a corporation, where duties are fixed, authorities are delegated and everybody works like a machine. Control (read Govt Regulation) and Freedom (read Industry) are inversely related. A Government is more like planning for a holiday together with your neighbours. Each one of you have the freedom and responsibility for the tour. But, since your destination is same, there is convenience in doing things together.

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