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Good Government – Systems or Leaders?

May 10, 2014

Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried. A benevolent dictatorship is a contradiction in terms.

You hear this sort of language all the time when talking of good government. The language of political systems, instead of the virtues of political leaders. ‘Twas not always so. If we look to the past, we find that what made for good government was the quality of a leader. When one looks at the fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, titled “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” from Renaissance Italy, one realises this. The very medium of production – a fresco, not a written work – lends itself to this. Virtues are depicted in images, and there is no need for text.

Of course, there was a very good reason for the shift to talk of systems of government. Firstly, you can’t export good leaders as you can good systems of government. You can ‘spread democracy’ … but its hard to spread ‘good’ leaders. Furthermore, there’s the obvious argument that the institutions of government influence the quality of political leaders. For instance, there’s discussion over whether a federal ICAC should be set up in Australia, or whether political donations should be banned. And obviously such reforms have an influence on how leaders act.

Furthermore, socioeconomic forces were behind this shift in thought. At the heart of old conceptions of leaders were their personal streaks of justice, frugality and such. But in modern political systems, though the state has immense power unseen in the past, individuals have less. When TNCs, political lobbyists, other government departments, the law courts and parliament all wield power, a leader does not wield the same authority. For they are not making the same decisions as before.

For instance, our Attorney General George Brandis does not actually rule in cases of law as the Kings of old might have. Thus Brandis’ personal qualities are not as directly relevant as they used to be. Of course, Brandis might try (as he is) to influence justice indirectly by changing the law (18C anyone?) , but that has to get through parliament and such. Power is devolved, even as the state centralises power.

And this is seen in the destruction of traditional honour systems. The advent of mass media, communications, urbanisation and increasing transportation capabilities (to name a few factors), all led to the decline of traditional honour systems. Communities used to be able to govern in place of a less sizeable legal system by shaming those who disobeyed societal norms and such. However, with greater mobility wrongdoers could evade justice from local communities. You then need larger, impersonal systems like the law to catch perpetrators of crimes.

And of course, political philosophy and such also gives us interesting (if debateable) insight. For instance, democracy is not always good. Democracy works best only when certain preconditions have been met: A wealthy, literate population; mass media to circulate ideas quickly and freely; and a well functioning legal system that commands respect. Or, how about that in fledgling democracies the key moment is not the first election, but when the first elected party is defeated and required to give up office.

All very interesting, very useful points. Knowing, for instance, when the first elected party is defeated is a likely moment of instability allows foreign countries to stabilise a region to prevent a region from descending into civil war or anarchy. Developing an ‘institutional process memory’ of authority results from this insight.

But, what if the pendulum has swung too far the other way? That’s what David Miller in Political Philosophy a Very Short Introduction asserts. It is what the ICAC proceedings and donations issues both raise the spectre of. And, in a decidedly non-academic or rigorous manner (ignorant of all that political philosophy!) , I’ll argue we could do with focusing on the qualities of leaders. Because, at the very least, you want leaders who follow the policies that are right because they are right.

Of course, what those policies are is a matter of fierce debate, occasionally internecine conflict… and general disagreement. But – as I said in my previous article – a virtuous society is a good one. And that includes leaders too. Nobody ever says they don’t want a virtuous society. And there’s a reason for that.

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From → Foundations

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