The unsettled question of governance Ian on Sunday
By Ian McDonald
Stabroek News
January 26, 2003

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When one thinks about it, the concept of ‘Government’ is a strange one for it assumes as its fundamental premise that certain men and women - human beings like you and me - can and should be allowed to take upon themselves the right to direct the rest of us what to do, presumably for our own good. On the face of it that is a very unreasonable premise and a remarkably arrogant presumption.

Why should flesh and blood men and women, with feet of clay like anyone else, presume to think for us and act for us and push us around and mollycoddle us and punish and reward us as if they were inherently superior beings?

It doesn’t make sense does it? Yet unless there is Government with strong executive power which it is able and willing to use at critical times the lives of men in general soon become, as Thomas Hobbes pointed out long ago, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

We in Guyana are still searching for answers to the perennial question of how can men and women best make arrangements for governing themselves. And a basic question lies at the heart of all government: how do men voyage safely between the Scylla of limitless dictation and the Charybdis of back-to-the-jungle anarchy?

It is a riddle that mankind has spent thousands of years trying to solve. And the whole answer certainly does not lie in one day every few years letting a majority of voting citizens indicate what group of flesh and blood men and women with feet of clay (“pack of scoundrels” as the other side always claims) should rule supreme. Such ‘General Election’ may be necessary but it is not by any means sufficient.

The closest mankind has come to a reasonable answer seems to be through the establishment of more than one countervailing centre of power to check and balance the central executives. These may be one or more of the following: a legislature with a power base different from the executive; an independent judiciary administering law that is above all men; free and varied press and media open to all opinion; a truly independent civil service; a vibrant and articulate private business sector; strong non-government organizations of various kinds.

The whole point of a system of countervailing powers is that the winner of an election does not take all, does not get to keep all the spoils for sole and partisan disposal. But there is also a problem with a system of strong countervailing powers. It can and often does lead to muddle and contradictions, indecisiveness and drift.

Since nothing infuriates result-oriented people more than muddle and drift it is little wonder that authoritarian rule, which ruthlessly overrides other centres of influence and power to achieve stated ends, very often is favoured by the powerful and influential in society. But with such rule ordinary men and women are all too likely to lose out.

Personally I think it is worth accepting the drawbacks for the sake of preventing supreme power feeding continuously on itself until it becomes unbearably arrogant, out of touch with ordinary reality, and therefore unfair and dangerous. If men were angels, unchecked authoritarian governing might be best. As men are not angels, governors must always be subject to be taken down a peg or two or three.

The basic political problem in Guyana - how to ensure that the majority does not ride roughshod over any minority - is one of the fundamental problems that faced the founding fathers of the United States more than two centuries ago. So an excellent text to consult on the issue is The Federalist, a collection of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, founding fathers of the American Resolution, in the course of the great debate on proposals for a new Constitution for the United States of America. Here is James Madison writing in an essay dated February 1, 1788:

“The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.

Were the Constitution, therefore, really chargeable with the accumulation of power, or with a mixture of power having a dangerous tendency of such an accumulation, no further argument would be necessary to inspire a universal reprobation of the system.”

And here is Thomas Jefferson quoted in a Federalist essay of February 5, 1788, as writing in his Notes on the Sate of Virginia the following words:

“All the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judicial, result to the legislative body. The concentrating these in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. One hundred and seventy-three despots would surely be as oppressive as one. As little will it avail us that they are chosen by ourselves.

“An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one which should not only be founded on fresh principles, but in which the powers of Government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limit, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.”

Let us recall that the final result of the debate, embodied in the Constitution of the United States, has been called “the first deliberate attempt and assent of a majority to tie its own hands, to give to the minority guarantees of fair and equal treatment.” And again: “this guarantee to the minority in the Constitution is one of the most remarkable examples of self-control in history, and constitutes its chief claim to pre-eminence.”

In our own small but precious corner of the earth, two hundred and fifteen years after that great debate, the issue is recognizable and still needing to be addressed seriously.

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