Today, I got drawn into an online conversation. It started with the following blog entry: Experiments in Living and its subsequent exchange of replies that eventually touched on the issue of need and structure of government. From the exchange I got the sense that government seems to be categorically opposite to the notion of liberty, as well as that certain national governments are being viewed as completely separate from and in opposition to the population. For me the latter seems peculiar and indicates a fundamental flaw of existing government structures. I have posted earlier some of my own thoughts about governance under the heading leadership and power – not authoritarian rule and legalized force.
Here I will share with you my reply to the above-mentioned online dialogue:
I am not sure if smaller government is my preferred vision in general.
The size of government needs to be internally consistent with the tasks it will be entrusted with by the community. In certain cases, I say no government can be the possible solution. In others, a much larger governance structure and bureaucracy may be warranted to serve the needs of the people.
When we look at pre-contact Inuit culture, as an example, we can see a people with no formal or centralized government structure. Inuit were able to solve their existential problems with a set of shared and common values, by maintaining relationships, and by focusing on and adapting to local needs. Life happened in seemingly isolated family units roaming the vastness of this Arctic archipelago. Nonetheless, they had a cultural identity with an embedded concern for the well being of all. They employed appropriate technology to live in one of the harshest environments. There was a “national” communications system supporting the exchange of knowledge across the Arctic. Without written tradition, this culture has produced their own experienced minds! I am not claiming that this has been utopia, because we also know of famines and tragedy, which can be seen as failures to mastering the local challenges and survival.
Unfortunately, the process of colonization and ‘civilizing’ that imposed and established ‘proper’ governance and poured in resources, which were never available to Inuit in such a magnitude or quality before, did not result in a better quality of life or in less tragedy and economic poverty among modern day Inuit. Even after establishing the façade of self-governance through the creation of Nunavut as a distinct jurisdiction it is difficult to discern whether government is doing good for the people who continue to live in that part of the world or not.
I agree with you that a smaller size and a more local nature will definitely make any system of governance more representative, more transparent, and more accountable. What I am still exploring as a thought is the essence that will create a governance structure that does not institutionalize power and eventually morphs into a self-serving apparatus. Why did Inuit function as a quasi-nation, as expressed by a distinct cultural identity and shared concern for welfare? There was no external power that mandated unity. What other unifying factor did make it possible then? My notion is that the answer lies in shared values and attitudes – the result of co-created meaning from multi-dimensional interactions as part of being human and the foundation for human becoming.
We need niches in our globalized world to co-create new experiments in living, to re-conceptualize the need and structure of government, and most pressingly a process to imagine and establish shared basic values, criteria, and attitudes for a peaceful co-existence among diverse cultures and backgrounds. The one large-scale initiative that I am aware of is the Global Ethic Foundation that issues a Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.
At this point in time, it is difficult for me to side with the trendy call to downsize governments without an extensive analysis of the motives and without some alternatives revealed. However, I support every initiative to rethink and transform what our governments have become today. Maybe one day we will have our political and economic leaders engaged in joining efforts with the spiritual/religious leaders to envision a value system and attitudes that support a peaceful existence for all!
Thanks to Malcolm Greenhill and the other contributors for some stimulating thoughts from a wide spectrum of world views. Malcolm also shared some interesting thoughts on education, particularly making a case for the disappearing classical education and the concept of experienced minds and their effects on today’s society (and on the quality of political leaders). Read his blog post here: Comparing Quality of Minds.