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The paradox of government

I'm fascinated by the concept of government, and the paradoxes it presents. On one hand, governments grant us a certain set of rights or liberties. On the other hand, they work to strip us of the very liberties they promise.

Now, I don't mean that all governments strip people of liberties, but there are liberal regimes, and there are sufficiently restrictive and dictatorial ones. Both models may have results to show, it does not mean that people in a restrictive regime are unhappy (refer to Dan Dennett's TED talk, where he states that ideas or memes can be dangerous when taken from one part of the world, where they are widespread, and, using the virus analogy, where people are immune to the memes; to a part of the world where they are foreign, where people may not be immune to the memes and where people may get infected). History has shown that people were sufficiently satisfied with autocratic governments with a benevolent dictator, and that people in other parts of the world would accept nothing other than the ability to rule themselves. However, in this post, I'm going to examine the paradox of government in general, without reference to any specific model, though I may refer to specific examples, which may or may not generalise.

Government is a paradox because people allow, through a sufficiently arbitrary process, someone else to tell them what they may or may not do. These arbitrarily chosen people may or may not do as a person who is governed wants. These arbitrarily chosen people may take away all the freedoms that the person values, and leave him in a comparative state of slavedom; and the person has to just "live with it". After all, governments are good, right?

I made some arguments without sufficiently substantiating them. Let's take the points one by one.

First, the process of choosing who governs the "people". I believe that the argument is not too difficult to drive home for autocratic or dictatorial regimes, where the person ruling is chosen by heredity or nepotism; both of which are sufficiently arbitrary for us folks in the developed world, right? But democracy is not arbitrary, you say. After all, the "people" choose their representatives.

Now, consider democracy from the point of view of a single person. This person feels that he wants a certain person to tell him how he (and others around him) may or may not live. As to why would any sane person want this, that's another debate. Now, this person has cast his preference in the form of a vote. As it may happen, the majority does not agree with this person. Is this process of choosing not sufficiently arbitrary from the point of view of this one person? For the elected representatives have been chosen by the will of others. In fact, in some democracies, the people do not directly cast their votes, instead, relying on an "electoral college". My examples, however shall draw from my familiarity with the Indian democracy. Consider the election of the president. The president is not elected by the people. An electoral college is formed consisting of the houses of the parliament, the state legislatures, and the union territories of Delhi and Puducherry. These representatives toe party lines when it comes to the election of the president. Of course, the Indian system prohibits the use of a "whip" in the presidential elections, but other systems may allow a whip. Now, does the process appear sufficiently arbitrary?

Further, consider the freedoms that people value, and the ones they must forego under the government. A person may value a life where "No-one can possess a fire-arm or fire-arms or a sword or swords", whereas the government may allow for a state where people can possess guns to protect themselves from the government. On the other hand, if recent gun debates are any indication, people may find a government that does not allow them to possess firearms as a restrictive government that does not allow them the freedom to defend themselves against a person or persons unknown; or against aggression by the government.

A sobering Facebook app called "Trial by Timeline" lists a number of crimes that you can be convicted of, if you were to step out of your country, and into others around the world, proving that not everyone enjoys the freedoms we take for granted.

At the same time other people like Richard Stallman are asking for freedom from copyrights and patents, the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve software, but copyright laws in the "developed" countries heralded as a beacon of freedom deny them those rights. Stallman does not use a mobile phone, because it can be used to "spy" on him. Of course, given the latest in the news, that may ring true, but this post is in no way motivated by current events.

RMS brings me to the second half of this essay. We have been told that governments are pro-people; that they are there to protect us from the evils in the world, like monopolies, war, famine and other countless untold disasters. After all, we would never give up our freedoms for nothing, right?

However, as anyone with any knowledge of economics and politics knows: big corporations like big governments. They actively lobby for laws, spending a tonne of money in lobbying fees, which are then used by representatives to finance their elections, and convince the people to elect them again. The corporations lobby for laws that are restrictive, and that hurt the freedoms of the ordinary people, the very people that elect governments. As always, these laws are sugar coated, to give the people the feeling that they are winning, whereas they are losing all the time.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I've always been a vocal protester against copyright laws and patents. The spin is always that these laws allow people to "protect" their intellectual "property", that these laws protect them from others who may want to "steal" their ideas. However, the cost of maintaining a patent is often so prohibitively high, that most ordinary people never patent their innovations. Corporations do so, however, and use patents against people that may actually try to invent and innovate. We stand on the shoulders of giants, right? Any discovery has to make use of previous discoveries, and patents prevent us from doing just that; they restrict innovation, and focus efforts on other aspects, namely -- legal mess. Consider the recent legal mess, wherein Apple was banned from importing certain iPhones in the US; just because the standards essential patents were owned by a company that is currently engaged in a "thermonuclear war" by Apple. Companies aside, any ordinary person becomes a criminal when he tries to rip a DVD (for which he has paid in full) onto his own computer for his own personal use, because that action circumvents copy protection; and that action is a violation of the DMCA.

Governments are indeed a paradox. Why do we need them? Why can't people just live their own lives without someone telling them what they can and cannot do? Is this not the very Orwellian situation?

I think governments exist because we don't trust others to allow us to live the way we want. As a result, we are willing to give up some of our freedoms, in exchange for the guarantees for ones we care about. That, and our inherently hierarchical societal structure, though I may be confusing the cause and effect here. There is no doubt in my mind that governments are largely responsible for the progress and stability that we enjoy. Yet, the paradoxes offered by the concept cannot be explained away.


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