Sunday, July 17, 2011

Government Property: Keep Out

Every time we see some variation of this sign, every time a public employee tries to give us an order, we need to remember and remind them of a few things.

It isn’t government property or council property or some other level or branch of authority. It is public property* and belongs to us, not them**.

For practical reasons someone has to be responsible for administering such property and making appropriate rules about admission, use etc, to the benefit of all. That much is obvious, and so is the fact that many such rules are necessary (you can’t have just anybody wandering about a nuclear submarine base, we probably don’t want people shouting in libraries) but many decisions of that kind are clearly made for the convenience of the staff and to satisfy the ego of a middle manager.

The point is that the manager/council/ministry or whatever, is supposedly administering on our behalf property and institutions bought and run with our money. We are entitled, and we owe it to ourselves and others, to require that they answer for and justify the decisions they take. All of them. High and low. Remind them where they get their power from. And who pays them. The fact that many such decision and rules will be perfectly sound and necessary doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be explained openly and subjected to analysis and criticism.

The next time you’re told that you can’t park there, you can’t wear Wellington boots in the Town Hall lobby, or you see a door marked ‘Private’ in a public building, ask why, and keep asking until you find someone who can give a satisfactory answer.

No, I probably won’t do it either, but the world would be a better place if we did.

I’d been thinking about this (in a vague sort of way) for a few days, since I saw a door marked Private in a town hall in one of the villages we passed through in the North, and I wondered why the citizens who pay for it all and whose representatives and employees these people were, were not allowed in that room. No, I didn’t ask, and there may have been a good reason, but sometimes, at least, there is not. I had been thinking about it vaguely, as I say, when a remark yesterday in a comment by Vincent (A Wayfarer’s Notes, on the blogroll; I can’t put in a link as deep in the country here connections are a little temperamental and I’m effectively blogging via a piece of string connected to a broken coat hanger hooked up to the light bulb) reminded me about it.

*This is not in fact true and never has been. Power, even in benign democracies under the rule of law, is not, in practice, entrusted to our leaders by the rest of us, but arrogated by them to themselves. However, in countries like Britain they need to maintain the fiction that they are merely representatives acting in our name with our consent, and that can be used to our advantage.

**Yes, it is ‘us’ and ‘them’. They are not doing it for you and me, but for themselves. Therefore they are not us. And they need to be reminded that we know this.


Vincent said...

We remind them with our votes, of course.

What in your view is the most admirable government, or form of government, there has ever been? I mean, I am not sure we can expect too much.

I couldn't work out what comment I made reminded you.

CIngram said...

I think to really judge a government you have to have lived under it, and preferably to have experienced it in many different circumstances. Which makes it very hard to answer the question. Or perhaps it is that the best form of government depends on your position in society.

As a professional in good health I like to see low taxes and little government intervention, which I am also persuaded are better for everyone as they promote growth and well-being.

Despite being of the right, however, I can appreciate that for a manual worker with a family to feed and house, the possibility of losing his job or falling ill can be genuinely frightening, and to lessen the risk by sharing it is to some extent a good thing.

In a sense, all government is tyranny, but anarchy could not exist, and libertarianism, even if it worked out what it was, would not last either, such is human nature.

The standard answer to the question is some form of benign dictatorship. The trouble with that is that it's the dictator, not the ruled, who decides what benign means. I lived the first twenty years of my life in Britain, and have spent most of the rest in post-Franco Spain. Both work well for me. Perhaps they are close to being the best form of government that could actually exist. Others would disagree.

The comment was one you made to my post about the press on Saturday. You pointed out that it is up to all of us to demand moral standards if we think they are important. It reminded me of something else I'd been thinking it's up to to all of us to demand.