Beyond distrust: how should citizens view their government?

We’re firmly in that age when questioning the government can easily get labeled as being anti-national. The label can then become an object of radically networked outrage, silencing the original intent, and the question itself.

So, using what lens should citizens view the governments they elect in democracies?

Should trust be the lens with which we should view our governments? After all, we have collectively elected it. Or, should we assume that democratic governments have in their consideration, the interests of a large section of people?

What should be the guiding principle underlining our attitude towards the government?

Over the last few days, I came across a couple of viewpoints that provide some clarity. Yesterday, my colleague Pavan Srinath (@zeusisdead) mentioned that “Constant vigilance!” should be the mantra for the citizenry’s attitude towards its government. Harry Potter readers would remember this as the frequent refrain of the hyper-paranoid Auror “Mad-Eye” Moody, who frequently bellowed “constant vigilance” at people in order to keep them on their guard, says the awesome HarryPotter wiki page. The guiding principle here is that citizens should always be vigilant — interrogating the rationale behind governmental actions. This vigilance would then translate to questions like: will a particular governmental action restrict freedom of citizens? What economic costs will it have? Is government the agency best-suited to do a particular job? And if yes, does it have the capacity to take up the task it hopes to accomplish?

Another perspective on this citizen-government equation was provided by Dr. Ajay Shah (@ajay_shah), during his talk to at a GCPP workshop. Dr. Shah used an analogy,saying:

as a child, you don’t question the quality (or the quantity) of the food that your mother serves. You are absolutely sure that she has your best interests in mind. The principal-agent problem hardly applies. On the other hand, when you eat food at a hostel canteen, you would want to have a detailed contract with the vendor on aspects of quality, quantity, timeliness, and reliability of the food being served. Applying this analogy to the citizen—government relationship, the citizens can either think of a government as their mother or as their canteen vendor. Now, because the government is a complex of principals and agents, don’t treat the government as your mother. Treat it like that canteen vendor.

Constant vigilance and the canteen vendor metaphor are two lenses through which we can look at our governments. An important note here: vigilance is different from distrust. You trust a canteen vendor that he/she will not poison your food but you still have checks and balances in place, making it difficult for the agent to opt for a path that is diametrically opposite to that of the principal. And so it should be with respect to the governments.

But what would this state of constant vigilance imply? It would mean that people will always question governmental decisions no matter how good the intent, or how good the leader is. This would mean that more often than not, we would closely examine and question governmental decisions rather than acquiesce with them. This would mean that the default reaction to any government would be that of skepticism.

The skeptics will also run the risk of being labeled partisans at the very least, and anti-nationals at the worst. The credibility of a skeptic will then rest on the universal application of her skepticism with respect to governments across political formations.

Finally, this couplet from Iqbal’s Tasveer-e-Dard is on similar lines:

Ye Khamoshi Kahan Tak? Lazzat-e-Faryad Paida Kar
Zameen Par Tu Ho Aur Teri Sada Ho Asmanon Mein

How long will you remain silent? Create taste for complaint!
You should be on the earth, so your cries be in the heavens!

Remember, the government is not your mother!

To understand the difference between criticising a government and hating a nation, read our column in the Hindu thRead: Love thy nation, watch thy government.


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