How do you govern a nation well, looking after people fairly and allowing maximum freedom and prosperity?
A good and fair government represents all people, not just business, not just the rich or powerful, not just trade unions, not just one particular race, one particular religion or one particular worldview. A good government enables all of those groups to compete and resolve disputes, side by side, on a fair, predictable and stable platform. Organs of government must give oversight to each major and minor community and ensure that education, health and human rights are being protected, both from outsiders and insiders of each community.
This requires some study and engagement with minority groups and the active fostering of tolerance between communities, and therefore, may require some intervention from time to time.
In a democratic country, people are free to belong to any religion (or none) as they wish - this is the human right of freedom of belief1. To remain just and fair, governments should be neutral when it comes to religion - secular. In liberal democracies, rules should apply to all people fairly and equally regardless of religion2 as much as possible. History has shown us that if the state encourages, officially represents or enforces just-one-religion then it always creates enduring social inequalities and infringes upon the basic human right of being able to choose religion and beliefs freely1, which over time is destabilizing. Therefore, for both ethical and practical reasons, politicians and government officials should not be under the control of religious institutions either formally, informally or symbolically2. This preserves equality and fairness to the maximum extent, except for those who want to impose their beliefs or practices on others, allowing for a reasonable, fair and tolerant society.
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The concept of the rule of law, sometimes called equality under law, first arose in the classical era of the Roman Republic and was so ingrained with that culture that even "until the early twentieth century, lawyers had to be well versed in Latin"3. It means that rulers create laws, and the laws apply to all people regardless of station, wealth, religion, beliefs, heritage or stature - no-one is above the law.
Liberty must be protected by law and by civil society. Liberty on its own leads to a reduction in basic freedoms as communities fall foul to bullies, prejudice and intolerance4.
“Liberty alone, however, cannot serve as the overriding value of social life or the sole end of political association. [...] Individual liberty readily degenerates into license and social atomization.”
It is easy to accidentally skew this picture. For example, if the penalty for a minor misdemeanour is fixed-rate, such as a $100 fine, then, this skews the law in favour of the rich - they can easily afford that fine; whereas for the poor it can create a disproportionate punishment. Because of complex issues such as this, laws must be concocted carefully, and with representation for as many segments of society as possible, to ensure that no indirect unfairness is created.
Also first practiced by the classical Roman Republic, where government was divided into three branches3, the "division of powers" was later given clear articulation by the practical philosopher Machiavelli in his book The Discourses (1517)5, then by English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704)6 and the French judge and theorist Montesquieu (1689-1755)6.
The Separation of Powers means that a legislative body writes the laws but has no physical power (so it cannot become totalitarian), whilst the police seek out lawbreakers, but their work is checked by a judiciary which is not involved with creating laws. Both of those pillars are independent of the caste of politicians which form the national executive7. The system is designed so that no power acts alone, without oversight.6
“This ancient doctrine, which can be traced back to Aristotle, was perhaps most thoroughly explained by the French jurist, Montesquieu, who based his analysis on the British constitution of the early 18th century.
The doctrine is based on the notion that there are three distinct functions of government - the legislative, executive and judicial functions. According to the doctrine in its basic form, these three functions should be vested in distinct bodies so that excessive power is not concentrated in the hands of one body.”
The key lesson that we learn from the historical of horrible dictatorships is this: Never give undivided power to a single individual. A good-natured leader is likely to attract support for increasing their own power (for example, to 'get things done'). But once too much power is institutionalized in the hands of a single leader, it is only a matter of time before position is filled by an autocrat who abuses the power to oppress, subjugate political opponents and damage the ethical and economic health of the country9.
One key sign of this is the "decree" - a method for a leader to force through legislation without due democratic process. For example. Argentinian "president Carlos Menem passed close to 300 presidential decrees in his eight years in office, about three times as many as were passed by all previous Argentine presidents put together, going back to 1853"9.
Human Rights have had a powerful positive effect on the world, ratcheting humanity away from barbarism, political oppression, gender inequality and religious prejudice. Humanity has felt the need for Human Rights for a long time. The derivation of ethics from religious codes has been inadequate as either a source of governance or as a guide to personal conduct: too many old and archaic rules lead to needless segregation, sectarianism, suffering and pain, especially of minorities. Even the well-loved Golden Rule (treat others as you wish to be treated) fails as thugs indulge in dog-eat-dog competiton. Many have built secular (non-religious) frameworks. Immanuel Kant theorized on the categorical imperative10; but this required everyone spend an inordinate amount of time indulging in long-term strategic thinking when making any moral choices. John Stuart Mill in the 18th century constructed his under-appreciated utilitarian ethic11. But the most successful work in this area is by far the Enlightenment's push for human rights.
Human rights solves some of the "deliberation overhead" issues by stipulating some things you cannot deprive people of. One of the earliest Western legal systems that declares the existence of Human rights was created by Hugo Grotius in his book Der Jure Belli ac Pacis in the 17th century CE, based on reason and humanitarianism - and made famous for not referring to divinity12. The wheels had been set in motion in the Enlightenment, as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau deliberated upon secular sources of morals in France in order to prevent the Christian abuses of the Dark Ages from occurring again13 and it was this that brought HR to the fore in the West14.
It is now widely acknowledged that "the source of human rights is man's moral nature"15 and the international Vienna Declaration states that "all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person"16. Governments, institutions and individuals are now held to account across the world for failing to respect basic human rights.
People must have open access to the information that informs the political process, to the reports that government read, to independent evaluations of government plans, to economic and social data, to governmental financial expenditures, to policy statements and to a wide range of other information. This information flow needs to be constant, and to include data on what their representatives have supported (via votes or otherwise) or opposed in government.
A central theme of the United Nations' Human Development Report (2022) is that poor-quality information is damaging the ability of populations to factually debate political and social issues. "The free flow of information is fundamental to [governance] processes. Accurate information allows people to develop well-informed policy preferences, hold those in power accountable and participate meaningfully in... debate"18.
To keep government good, the people must be able to boldly criticize government, to insult those in charge so that the rulers can tell when they're unhappy, to accuse their leaders of mismanagement without being punished, to loudly question policies and be heeded, to scrutinize the actions of those in power so that they are not given free reign, and finally, if the government cannot be thusly improved, to replace the government with another one.
The press has long served as an important part of democracy. Its role is to investigate the truth when politicians try to hide it, and to uncover government's failings. It is a protector of the people against those with power. Without effective mass media the populace cannot cast informed votes. Good journalism is good for democracy20 - when journalism operates "properly and in the public interest [it] is one of the true safeguards of our democracy"21. 'Research shows that the information that news provides becomes the building blocks for our political attitudes'22. The Economist looked at the decline in sales of newspapers and worried about the collapse of the newspaper industry:
“News is not just a product: the press is the fourth estate, a pillar of the polity. Journalists investigate and criticize governments, thus helping voters decide whether to keep them or sack them. Autocracies can function perfectly well without news, but democracies cannot. Will the death of the daily newspaper [...] damage democracy?”
The Economist (2009)23
That all depends on how well the press is performing now. When the Fourth Estate is broken, the issue of its worth becomes somewhat complicated. Given its importance, the push for improved quality in news reporting and journalism is still a high priority endeavour, but one which governments find it very difficult to pursue.
“[John Dewey (1859-1952)] believed that the emergence of a modern mass media had the potential to improve the conditions and operations of American democracy, if structured with those ends in mind, but he worried that the particular shape of the American media system, governed primarily by commercial interests, would have a much more negative influence.”
Julian McDougall (2012)24
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“Lord Acton's warning: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Much of the apparatus of democracy is designed to protect the people from whoever wields the greatest physical power. The government alone is given the authority to decree the use of violence: Citizens cannot imprison people, wage wars or confiscate property; but the State can. Or it can empower others to do it in its name according to strict rules. This monopolizing of power into a single body has led to massive stability across the world: Where a strong central power is in control, petty feuding, tribal wars and local militias all have to either conform to the new legal proclamations, or they will face physical consequences. But, this centralisation opens up a de-stabilizing weakness: totalitarianism all-too-frequently turns into oppression. For this reason, constitutions and legal frameworks restrict what governments can do, and as long as the rule of law applies to all, government employees with the remit of inflicting of violence must be well-trained in how to do so within the law.
These services should be accessible to everyone regardless of their social standing or level of wealth. Some services are mandatory: it should not be possible for infants to avoid health routines, nor for children to avoid education. Most of these services should be ran by government-led departments with clear mandates, in a way that allows them to be largely independent of party politics, with guaranteed lines of funding. National stability and longevity rely upon these services running universally, smoothly and predictably.
To govern well, you must engage with your regional neighbours, and other countries around the world. Find out their unique problems to see if you can help them. Tell them your problems, to see if they can help. Learn from each other's mistakes, and engender tolerance and understanding between peoples, and encourage those countries to take up all of the How to Govern Well Measures.
To govern well, long-term strategies need to be adopted. But in democratic and capitalist countries there are many disincentives to doing so. Some long-term goals (e.g. reducing sovereign debt) can have painful short-term consequences (e.g., higher taxes, public sector pay freezes). If those consequences are unpopular with voters, there is strong pressure for governments to simply ignore the long-term issue in order to maintain popularity26,27. Unfortunately, many people vote on short-term and shallow issues that are not in their own long-term interests27,28,29. The classical theorist Schumpeter says that "it is a melancholy reflection" that it is often the case that the wiser a decision is, the less popular it is bound to be30. In other words, the democratic system means that short-term gains can be prioritized in a way that delays (or prevents) good governance31. One negative side is that many voters, over time, notice indirectly that there is too much spin and too much short-termism, and they can lose interest - and trust - in politics overall27.
Likewise, company governing boards are heavily swayed by current share prices and short-term economic goals, on which their bonuses and employment depend, even if this is bad for everyone in the long-term. Even the longest-term plans of government rarely extend beyond a single generation (30-40 years maximum); anything longer is pushed into the preserve of special-interest groups. It is essential, but very rare, that government pursues truly long-term strategies.
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Learning from past mistakes is a key part of good governance. Many of the elements of good governance are designed to limit the abuses of aristocratic, monarchical, and autocratic governments32 (i.e., where powerful individuals or families rule without being held accountable and without having to rule well). Knowledge of past mistakes, i.e., having a political education, is a key characteristic of any politician, or at least, of any government in general.
The Enlightenment brought to the fore the advantages of basing policies on evidence and a solid intellectual framework34: No longer were the pronouncements of forceful leaders enough; from then on, rulers must prove their case through convincing arguments based on facts and figures. This rationalist approach popularized the Scientific Method35, and the requirement for knowledgeable experts to stand alongside politicians and rulers. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) described Enlightenment demands on government as being "the enthronement of reason in public affairs"36.
As rulers are prone to abuse their position for their own ends, power must be subject to checks and balances37. And to end the cyclic spectre of prejudiced sectarian government and religious division, government must be secular and tolerant - that is - neutral, on the topic of religion38. These threads all merged to form the liberal democracy that has proven itself as the best approach to statecraft we as a species has so far devised.
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The world is complex, and many popular opinions (and slogans) are simply wrong39. The solution, even if unpopular, is to enable educated specialists to speak freely, to advise government, and to be listened to by the appropriate government departments. It is very poor management indeed to ignore and put-down expert opinion, especially as the public can be easily swayed into an anti-specialist sentiment, on account of the often counter-intuitive nature of informed facts.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant warns that failure to encourage holders of specialist knowledge results in barbarism and "only produces bunglers"40. In H, Kohn's description of the 'democratic way of life', this falls under the category of 'open minded critical enquiry'41. In an era where politics is being pulled away from depth analysis, David Nutt, a scientific advisor to the UK government, had to speak out for basic science, saying that being "willing to change our minds in the light of new evidence is essential to rational policy-making"42, a truism that the developed world has long since assumed to be a part of liberal democracy, but is today increasingly being trumped by popularist parties, with politicians desperate to find support even in poorly-thought-out policies which don't have proper evidenced support. Some of the lessons of the Enlightenment need to be relearned.
Schumpeter discusses this around the context of economics and crime. Our technical ability to describe and predict world economies by 1910 had become "much more correct although less simple and sweeping" and has moved away "from that happy stage in which all problems, methods and results could be made accessible to every educated person without special training"43. And the same with crime - our instincts and feelings alone lead to bad policy.
“Government and parliament will have to accept the specialists' advice whatever they may think themselves. For crime is a complex phenomenon. [...] Popular slogans about it are almost invariably wrong. And a rational treatment of it requires that legislation in this matter should be protected from both the fits of vindictiveness and the fits of sentimentality in which the laymen in the government and in the parliament are alternatingly prone to indulge.”
It is important to learn from historical mistakes, without having to repeat them as a nation, and this can be done through collaboration. Democracy faces many challenges; for further reading, try these topics: