Fresh thinking about government

The eminent neo-Confucian scholar Tu Weiming argues for the importance of bracketing our Western-centric ideas about society, progress, and justice when we think about our global futures. (Here is an interesting article by Tu titled “Mutual Learning as an Agenda for Social Development”; link.) So for a moment let us put aside the familiar rhetoric about “democracy” that usually surfaces when we talk about how societies ought to be governed. Much of that language derives from Western political theorists like Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, and Mill, and arguably shows the signs of times and places very different from current social realities. Can we begin to rethink the task of collective governance in a way that might help frame current discussions more fruitfully?  Is it possible to rethink democracy in a way that is less Western-centric?

In order to think carefully about the idea of government, we need two different sets of assumptions: first, what the social realities or conditions are within the context of which “government” needs to function; and second, a core set of value assumptions that define the standards to which government ought to conform.

What are the fundamentals? There are several basic social realities that are hard to seriously question, and there are a few normative ideas that have credibility but could be debated.

Large social groups require governance.

Let’s define a large group as a population of greater than 50,000 people living in proximity to one another, involved in a range of interactions and exchanges with each other and sharing access to a set of resources. This establishes interdependence and mutual effects among persons.

Here are some core governance needs: Maintenance of public order, management of conflicts, provision of some set of public goods, establishment of a system of rules and laws, collection of taxes to support the activities of government.

Persons have interests and commitments that they care about.

People have interests, desires, and commitments, and these interests lead to competition and cooperation, predation and defense. They behave purposively and strategically to further their interests and protect themselves against predation.

There are perhaps other basic facts about individuals that would be important from the perspective of other civilizational values systems — for example,

Persons are psychologically and socially defined by the social relationships within which they exist.

Here is another salient fact:

Governments take actions that affect different people differently.

And another fact:

The powers of government create opportunities for corruption, preferential treatment, and favoring of the powerful by government officials.

So citizens care deeply about the outcomes of governmental action, and they are especially concerned at the possibility that others may gain great advantages through corrupt influence on officials and agencies.

Now consider a few values that most people would probably accept.

  • Government should pursue the public good, not the private good of officials or private individuals.
  • Government should not favor some persons over others.
  • Government should take the desires and needs of citizens into account when formulating rules, policies, and laws.
  • Government policies and laws should reflect the preferences and interests of citizens.
  • Government should establish a neutral framework of law and policy that is applied without regard to persons and private interests.
  • Citizens should have the ability to express criticism and disagreement with government actions.
Designing government requires that we take account of these basic facts and do our best to embody the values we agree about.  We need a set of institutions that will be durable, that will reinforce the fundamental values around which they are designed, and that will be difficult to distort when self-interested actors occupy roles within them.  Most fundamentally, we need a set of institutions that embody pursuit of the public good; that reflect citizen preferences; and that secure a just system of law for all citizens.

So what kinds of governance institutions are compatible with this list of facts and values?

This is where the mechanisms of constitutional electoral democracy come in. Western political theorists argue that a constitution sets the regulative framework for governance — the fundamental legal protections defining citizenship and the scope and role of government. And electoral democracy permits citizens to express their preferences and enforce good performance by officials.  So policies are selected that correspond to the preferences of citizens; and they are implemented in good faith under the enforcement mechanism of representative electoral democracy.

But here is the more challenging question: are there other institutional arrangements that might fit these facts and values about as well? In particular, could we imagine a Confucian single-party state with an energetic anti-corruption office, an energetic and independent “investigative journalism” office, and a robust social survey office that serves the functions of gathering citizen preferences and concerns? Could such a system genuinely embody the public good in a hypothetical modern Asian society? In other words, could we imagine an administrative-authority system that effectively embodied the public good and protections of the fundamental interests and preferences of citizens? Could the “checks and balances” represented by an electoral system be established through other means?

It is easy to see objections to this hypothetical possibility; they largely come down to the problem of independence and effectiveness when a regulative office finds it necessary to criticize powerful officials or private persons. But it’s worth asking the question of alternative governance design, and it’s not inconceivable that solutions to these problems could be created.

(Here is an interesting collection of Tu Weiming’s writings; Humanity and Self-Cultivation: Essays in Confucian Thought.)

One response

  1. I'm not any kind of political philosopher, and I find discussions about "what is the best government" far too abstract and unreal for my own taste. On the other hand, work in collective action theory looks at these issues on a more mundane level, asking questions about the extent to which the actions of rulers can be curbed, the extent to which rulers provide public goods, and the extent of commoner voice. When one takes a cross-cultural perspective, these things do not always go together, although there are patterns.I am thinking here of Blanton and Fargher 2008, Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States (and various papers of theirs, 2008-2010). They draw on Margaret Levi and other collective action theorists, and operationalize the concepts for historical data from societies from Ming China to the Aztecs. In my opinion, this practice of breaking down discussions of comparative government into smaller functions and processes can broaden the scope of "fresh thinking about government."

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