On the role of Government

January 21st 2012

What is the role of Government in improving the wellbeing of citizens and in protecting the wellbeing of the natural environment? 

Firing discussions this week were Roger Scruton's Green Philosophy talk at the RSA and the Institute of Economics Affairs '.... and the Pursuit of Happiness' report on wellbeing. Both Scruton and the IEA argue that Governments, by interfering, actually have counterproductive impacts on the human and environmental wellbeing they are trying to increase. Environmentalists, typically left leaning, are naturally sceptical, but Scruton and the IEA offer quite persuasive arguments. [For more, see the Action for Happiness response to the IEA and Jonathon Ree's review of Green Philosophy.]

I'm left uncertain. What is the role of Government? There is a great paragraph by Henry D Thoreau written in 1849, which I dig out every time I'm considering this question. These are the opening lines on his essay 'On the duty of Civil Disobedience' I share his standpoint and am grateful that he expressed it better than I ever could:

I HEARTILY accept the motto,—“That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe,—“That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

The key line for me is 'when men are prepared for it'. [By men, I'm doubtless he means men and women]. And the fact that it was 1849 is interesting, 163 years later are we prepared for a government which 'governs not at all' or 'governs least'? Scruton, the IEA and others on the right seem to think so.

The rise and rise of Neo-liberalism is driving us towards these 'governs not at all' government's. But are we ready? Are we educated and mature enough to co-exist peacefully with each other and in harmony with the natural environment? Would we, if further freed from the restrictions of Government law and regulation, live lives that have a more benign impact on the natural environment and on our fellow citizens at home, abroad and in the future? I'm far from convinced that we would. Would Thoreau, in 1849, have expected us to be prepared by now? Would he be surprised if someone told him back then that in 2012 we are still not prepared? I won't delve into why we are not prepared here, I want to return to the question. If we are not prepared, what should the role of Government be?

Maybe we rapidly remove government interference. Maybe we endure the harsh short term pain of inequality and environmental degradation as relaxed laws are exploited by those acting in narrow rather than enlightened self-interest. Maybe we do this and hope that the shock therapy is enough to jerk citizens into behaving more mindfully longer term. Under Neo-liberalism that seems to be the current risky experiment. Or, do we remove government interference more slowly and in time with increasing ecological intelligence (the ability to think systemically and act mindfully from a position of sustainability literacy)? The theory being that as ecological intelligence goes up, so too does our ability and motivation to live in harmony with each other and the planet. With increased ecological intelligence throughout society, governments could step back in the confidence that we are prepared to take on more personal responsibility for the wellbeing of ourselves, our fellow citizens and the living species of the natural environment.

However, we are far from being an ecologically intelligent population that is prepared for this week's other buzz idea 'responsible [free market] capitalism'. To prepare us, our formal and informal education needs transformation and investment. All education should be education for sustainability - with the aim of increasing our ecological intelligence (not to mention our emotional intelligence). The Government must invest in it today, so that they can govern us less in the future - when we are prepared for it. Let’s hope it doesn't take another 163 years. If, in their impatience, they step back too quickly now, it might.


Morgan Phillips