Self-Demolition Through Neglect
Western Civilization — and its non-western imitators — have achieved something unique. The accomplishment is that, for the first time in the record written by mankind, it liberated its peoples from hunger, maladies, suffering and ignorance. Thus, it achieved a decent material existence for all. These achievements enabled the masses to live a better life than history’s ruling classes had ever enjoyed.
However, a non-pecuniary item tops the list of achievements. About that one, it is hard to say whether it had been a precondition of the good life or its consequence. We are talking about liberty. The plausible answer to the relationship of freedom and prosperity is gradualism. A bit of prosperity led to a larger chunk of freedom. In turn, that, due to improved governance, inspired the community to create more commonly (but unequally) shared wealth. This incremental process has been accompanied by the growing skills of society thanks to what we may call “education.”
Indeed, once anarchy is overcome, freedom’s peril comes from government, which, in its limited form is, nevertheless, a precondition of a civilization. This is so because liberty is not a natural condition of mankind — even if the striving for it might be. For that reason, to achieve and to secure the freedom of the individual, we find that cause tied to the ability of the community to assure its members’ rights. Attaining that end demands that there be an executive with delegated powers to enforce the agreed upon rules that are a requirement of civilization.
In the course of this process, it is crucial that society — a conglomerate of individuals united for a purpose — retain its ability to do more than only to determine the composition of its “executive committee.” It is a crucial ability — by some nowadays wantonly ignored — that society should be able to protect itself against the transgressions of the government it had established to serve it.
That requirement gains in significance with the development of bureaucracies. These can move themselves to institutional immunity by placing themselves beyond the control exercised through elections. The same pertains to the growth and the power of the entrenched political classes. In their case, hard-to-contest influence flows from their ability to divide internally the alternating roles of opposition and government. Such an informal deal among insiders that continue to submit to elections with a pre-determined outcome, results in continuity while seemingly the programs change.
Bees have a habit to return to their hive, stray dogs look for a master, and the crowd tends to confirm its permanent but personally alternating leaders because things are kept tolerable. Experience tells that, once the bottom the ability to hand out soothing bribes thins out, it might be too late.
The above is a reminder that, contrary to what we like to believe, freedom is not a “natural condition.” Even if achieved, liberty requires constant protection — even from the institutions created to uphold it.
Lest we forget, while crucial, the state is a man made institution. Being operated by men, the government is subject to abuse by persons that have lost their moral bearing to the temptation of power. The pitfall should not be a surprise. Men have interests and might conclude that these are best served if they are unconstrained by laws. The temptation to abuse power is always present and it is not an aberration. Thus, we wisely tend to set as an ideal a “government of laws and not of men.”
If the foregoing is generally true — a short text cannot be expected to avoid the pitfalls of omission and distortion through abbreviation- then we are left with a conclusion.
Good governance responds to the needs of its citizenry. However, that raises demands on the citizen. Responsible government’s prerequisite is a responsible citizenry. Automobiles do not reach their destination by starting the engine and by choosing “D.” Attentive steering, breaking and acceleration, an eye on the destination, are required to control motion.
Disturbingly, active critical citizenship is dying. This is the juncture at which a fissure broadens into a gaping wound that nurtures a festering sore.
The inattention bolstered by disinterest is a surprise. We live in a context of the internet revolution that provides access to “everything.” The ability to know all, a genuine “you are there,” has enhanced the perspective that TV gave us by bringing the world into our living room. Therefore, participatory democracy’s technical precondition is achieved. In the case of functioning democracies, our time’s failure that supports bad governance is not governmental secrecy, or the elitist exclusion of the “unwashed masses,” but the citizen’s disinterest.
Why do we not care? Being willing to emasculate ourselves by withdrawing into a non-political private sphere has, as one would have to assume, good reasons that explain inappropriate behavior. Inchoately, the idea is wide-spread that the private sphere, personal autonomy and property rights exist in a vacuum. In fact, it is precisely the public context that guarantees these rights. Therefore, even if many do not believe it, politics, the business of the community, matters on the private level.
Oddly, the reasons that threaten our way of life flow from our hither success. Public affairs have lost its perceived purpose of preventing deprivation. At a high level of material well being the withdrawal into what seems to be an “island” makes life simple and secure. Systems of social security guarantee high material standards and suggests that, “no matter what they do, I will be fine.” The sense of individual security even if the public order deteriorates, conveys the illusion that, regardless of what happens outside, there is protection within ones own “gated community.”
Even if freedom enables its beneficiaries to control their destiny, many of our contemporaries withdraw into their world an even refuse to follow the news. (“What can I do about it?”) Those that, defying the sybaritic trend, are moved to activism are the source of “turbulent noise” that disturbs the peace of the neighborhood. Thus, they become classified as “extremists.” Accordingly, in developed countries the majority does not vote. Those that do exit periodically their passivity have reduced themselves into political illiterates. Therefore, they have no memory and no perspective of the record of the ideas and of persons they judge.
Instant last minute information is characterized by its superficiality, as understanding the issues demands an effort from hedonists. Thus our decisions reflect thirty-second flashes of slogans. The results represent superficial impressions and what the news packagers label as nobly correct attitudes. In this game, notoriety replaces the constructive record, and being “known” serves as an “ersatz” of substance. Ask yourself, would Obama have been elected if fully under-pigmented, Merkel the Chancellor if admittedly a Socialist, or Juncker the EU’s boss, if the substance behind the image would be known to those that do not care to find out?
Withdrawal interrupted by occasional sorties from a cocoon ignores mounting threats — bad news does not gather votes — and leaves the arena to others. Once the citizen flees his responsibility, it is the statist interventionist of the national or international variety, and their regulation enamored green auxiliaries, that are allowed to govern. They pander as “new” the policies that have failed elsewhere and they prevail as they assure the uninformed that, those that acquiesce should, as moral persons, feel good about themselves.
Alas, it is good people that, when made aware of the slow movement to a chess-mate, will respond that their participation in public affairs lacks sense. “Anyhow, they up there, do what they want” is the mantra. Indeed, in a way this is true. Due to lack of control from “below” those “up there” can do, regardless of elections, as they please. They continue to be re-electable by the unknowing herd of the manipulated. Until informed citizenship is provoked by misgovernment to reengage in public life, we will be moving on a downward slope. Optimists shall hope that this will happen before the consequences of being neutral regarding one’s own affairs had produced irreversible results.