Do we need government? What purpose should it serve?

The news these days is mostly about the train wreck that is Brexit, the controversies swirling around Donald Trump, the election rhetoric from India and Thailand, the chaos in Venezuela and other such high profile leadership debacles and debates. I’ve started to wonder what all these politicians and so-called leaders actually do for the benefit of their country and its citizens.

The thing is, being the prime minister or president of a country (or even lower down in the order, being an elected representative of any sort) seems to have become associated with power, with being able to drive the agenda that the individual is aligned to and with being very selective about recognizing the will of the people.

You’ll notice all of the examples in my first line come from countries that purport to be democracies. I’m excluding China for the moment from this train of thought, although I’ll come back to that in a bit.

So, here’s the thing. In most of these countries, we, the people, elect these leaders. The funds that allow them to be paid and to do whatever they do come from our taxes (for the most part). Therefore, according to me, they should be set up to serve the people, not lord it over them. Right?

Let’s examine that in a bit more detail – what does a government actually provide its people? Broadly, it can be defined as a framework and facilities for living your life. So, there’s defined laws that protect people’s lives, livelihoods and property. There’s infrastructure in terms of roads, public facilities, some kind of central bank reinforcing the rules around money, armed forces and civil defence forces of various sorts to provide protection. Governments deal with other governments and make some rules around how people or markets situated in different countries interact with each other, how easy it is to get into and out of other countries, trade with them, hire people from them and so forth. Also, in most countries, there is some kind of welfare net to take care of the unemployed. All of this is designed to allow people to live their lives freely, enjoy their rights while being conscious of their duties and generally live in a state of security and peace of mind.

If we go back a few thousand years in history, those needs were met in different ways. There was a feudal society where your feudal lord provided all of those things, in a way, but exacted a price in terms of having rights over your property, cattle and often even your life. Which wasn’t great, obviously, if you were at the lower end of society where you didn’t get much out of the system but got exploited by everyone above you. If you look at America about 200 years ago there was very little rule of law – everyone carried a gun and if you had a difference of opinion or a point of law with someone (like cheating at cards, for instance) you expressed yourself with bullets. If you were transporting goods a long way, across countries on the Atlantic ocean or over land across the American continent, there were pirates, highwaymen and others quite keen to part you from your property. Often when you got to the other end you were at the mercy of the buying party because it was too isolated a place to be able to feasibly threaten to take your stuff back, so you had to sell even at poor terms.

Is the world today much better? We may not have a feudal society but more and more, we’re seeing politicians dividing society with their political planks – using religion or race or outlook as a convenient basis for defining tribes and drumming up support. If you happen to belong to one of the “us” tribes then everything is fine, but if not you’ll find, slowly but surely, that you’re disenfranchised and discriminated against. We have countries in which delusional, misguided or malevolently inclined people can get hold of highly dangerous weapons and wipe out dozens of people before anything can be done to stop them. We have two plane crashes that can be attributed to poor administration of aircraft certification and training procedures rather than natural causes or pilot error – which fall into the province of civil aviation boards that are government departments. We have a complete mess over Brexit in the UK, a demonetization disaster in India and a record breaking government shutdown in the US. We don’t know who is the legitimate president of Venezuela but we do know the economy is in the toilet and people don’t have their basic needs of food being fulfilled. We have Russia annexing Crimea and nobody seems to care, but the moment there is any kind of unrest in an oil producing nation the whole world wants to get involved.

Did the people in any of these countries ask for this stuff to happen? Is this what they wanted when they paid their taxes?

We may all want different things and in the normal course of life, we’ll figure out how to get them. We don’t need so much government and we definitely don’t need the entire apparatus of politics leading up to the selection of a government.

It’s time for people in democracies to stop focusing on which political party or politician to vote for. It’s time to start defining expectations for government – as paying clients for a service, we need to define what that service should be, how it makes priority calls between different customer groups and how, overall it serves the greater good of all.

One last word here about China, which gets a lot of stick for not being a democracy. True, it isn’t a place where people get to choose who runs the country, but somehow, the system has, for about 3 decades now, delivered governments that have run the country extremely well by anyone’s standards. The economy has grown, infrastructure is the envy of most countries, per capita GDP has grown, entrepreneurs have thrived and the vast majority of people here are extremely proud to be citizens of China. While certainly you can argue that the leaders of China are very powerful indeed, their focus and efforts seem to be on doing stuff that’s good for the country rather than displaying their power. Perhaps they’ve understood the concept of leadership being a responsibility to serve, something that has escaped the attention of most leaders in the so called democracies on our planet. Anyway, I recognize that this system isn’t ideal and I’m not advocating that we abandon democracy and embrace a one party state, just saying that democracy isn’t as democratic in its output as we all think it is.

Governments are meant to serve the people. Not the other way round. If they fail at that purpose perhaps we should examine the option of privatizing the key services that a government provides. Security, infrastructure and financial and legal frameworks all exist because we agree that they do – we don’t necessarily need a government to enforce them. Blockchain is a great example, although far from being mature enough to put a lot of applications on it. Privately built infrastructure that levies fees for usage, decentralized security services that any citizen can leverage… all of these things are possible and entrepeneurs are starting to think about them and do them. When most of these things become self-regulated / private enterprise services, perhaps we will see someone actually bidding for the right to run a country for 5 or 10 years, promising certain KPIs and having a management contract with a bonus attached to it.

What should we do in the meantime? I feel like it’s time for the politicians to respond to what people really want – almost like a charter of expectations that citizens vote on and then present almost as some kind of brief for anyone who’s willing to do the job. It could be a single political party that responds, it could be a coalition of parties or even politicians across parties. Perhaps it could even be regular people stepping up to the plate and putting together a convincing team and resources to do the job.