Sunday, December 18, 2011

What Do We Want Our Government to Do for Us?

I have had little or no interest in Indian politics of the past several decades. Regardless of the party in power, my focus has always been on policies and the nature of governance. I had hoped that India’s young democracy would gradually mature over time in the right direction, but sadly enough, what I see are several serious and disturbing fundamental problems that undermine the hope for a free, just and prosperous society.

The Hazare movement against corruption in government has elevated public concern about the corrosive nature of governance in the country. Unfortunately, even if this protest yields passage of legislation by the parliament to appoint a body to investigate serious corruption by politicians and government officials, it is unlikely to bring about the much needed reforms. However, in this age of street protests in many oppressive countries, it is refreshing to see that the Indian public is directly demanding some level of honesty and accountability on the part of powerful politicians and officials.

There is little hope, and history has vividly demonstrated, that governments are capable of reforming from within. This blog cannot do justice to describing adequately what would bring about the desired change. Instead, I would like to mention very briefly what we as citizens would probably like our governments to do for us.

There is no doubt that we want our government to serve all its citizens. Individuals and private organizations pursue their self-interest and are unlikely to concern themselves with our common interests. It is the shared interests of all people that we expect our government to look after.

In my opinion, the government’s role must be confined to assuring security and liberty, justice and equity, and providing basic public services and creating an environment for vibrant and fair economic activity. When governments extend themselves into other functions, such as running businesses and trying to direct markets, they also introduce unwanted regulations and licenses that give officials and politicians the power and opportunity to profit from misuse of public funds and to take bribes. Until the citizens of a country restrict their government to those desired functions described above, there will be only limited, if any, positive results from protests against corruption.

Let me briefly and broadly elaborate the rightful functions of government. Security and liberty relate to protecting against external threats, and preventing crimes and internal instability without compromising individual freedom and rights as offered by the constitution of the country. Justice, both legal and social, assure equality and opportunity regardless of gender, caste, religion and sexual orientation, and the ability to seek and obtain remedy against wrongful acts by individuals, organizations and governments. Equity is important in assuring fairness and human rights – the ability to avail basic services such as education, livable housing and healthcare, and protection from poverty.

Government may involve itself directly or indirectly in offering affordable public services such as roads, water supply and electricity. At times, the government may fund private initiatives, such as basic research, that could lead to innovation and comparative advantage for the country in certain sectors of the industry. Finally, monetary, fiscal and regulatory policies as well as international agreements must be designed to promote private business activities that conform to essential public considerations such as environmental safety, competitive business practices, and consumer protection.

Unfortunately, governments at both central and state levels in India play a much wider role with excessive powers. It has resulted in inefficiencies that hinder economic growth and prosperity, loss of freedoms and individual rights, corruption and injustice. Until such time government’s role is properly redefined and confined to what is essential to meet the collective needs of its people, the nation will not be able to achieve its dream of a fair, just and prosperous society.

Abraham M. George
http://www.shantibhavanonline.org/

2 comments:

Nagesh Hegde said...

You have rightly said that the governments should provide Basic Public Services. But we are increasingly witnessing the private parties making deep inroads in areas such as primary education, health services, transport and even water supply -thus making them beyond the reach of common man. Media should have alerted the public about this kind of degeneration of the public services but what do we do when the quality of the media itself is degenerating?
Nagesh Hegde

Abraham M. George, The George Foundation said...

There is no harm in government allowing private companies to offer public services such as electricity and water supply. However, where these services are offered in a "monopolistic" environment -- only one private company serving an area --, the government can regulate their pricing. That would force them to be more efficient. In the U.S., electric, water, gas and other basic services are offered by private companies that are required to obtain government approvals before raising their prices.

As regards education and healthcare, the public should have the choice. Public and private institutions may co-exist, and people make their choices. However, those earning below a certain income may receive set (partial) reimbursements from government even if they choose to avail private services.

In my opinion, there is a role for the government in offering basic services, but it is not necessarily one of directly offering them through government-run inefficient and corrupt institutions.

The media needs to understand the alternatives that are possible before it argues in support of one approach or the other. Unfortunately, the Indian media does not take the effort to obtain varying expert opinions that may not always be consistent with prevailing wisdom.