op-ed by Noni Mausa
The Rulers Cannot Take Responsibility
At least, not in the sense of crime and punishment. Only in immediate, short term and small decisions can political rulers be unambiguously judged right or wrong, and adequately punished. There is no punishment, however severe, that can adequately balance the potential harm done by one man or a small group to an entire nation. Even in ordinary people, the threat of reprisals is unevenly effective in preventing crimes. And nobody thinks such threats can prevent stupidity, misjudgment and decisions made on incomplete data. The scope for such poor decisions is magnified thousandfold in the public arena.
In government the scale of possible harm is so disproportionate to what a bad ruler can suffer or repay, that for all practical purposes they wield power without responsibility.
Even the most earnest and caring leader, the cleverest, the strongest, cannot “take responsibility.” They can do much good and much harm, but they personally can’t be held accountable in any way that mends the broken crockery of the nation.
The whole purpose of government is to make decisions for the common good across time. Longer than a term of office or even a lifetime, the work of government requires planning and caution. It is
inherently conservative in the original sense of the word. The only way rulers can “take responsibility” is to realize this and to make decisions and support social structures that are cautious and conscious.
They need to build and maintain excess capacity. They must conserve resources that might be useful or more valuable in the future. They need to nurture relationships with other nations and peoples. They need to sponsor or at least tolerate a myriad of niches of knowledge, skills and unique obsessions. We can’t know when we will need them. A high-functioning nation is the opposite of a high-functioning business. Efficiency for its own sake is dangerous. Demanding
immediate profits, or any profits at all, can reduce the effectiveness of a government. Messyculture, not monoculture, is more valuable over time. (Taxol, anyone?) And a large, durable bureaucracy acts as a keel and ballast together, steadying and orienting the nation. Even in non-democratic countries, a series of captains (kings, tyrants, revolutionaries) take the wheel and steer for a little time, only to
When you’re sleeping on a mountain ledge in the fog and can’t see the dropoff, it makes sense to sleep right up against the stone wall. In effective government, red tape and a habit of caution are kept in place to prevent us rolling over the edge.
Are there any conservatives in the US today? Maybe the Greens, and some of the Democrats. Perhaps some of the quieter, older Republicans. But it’s almost certain that there is no-one high in the big US parties today who is conservative enough to keep us off the rocks. This leaves informed voters with nothing but distasteful choices. The best we can do is look for candidates who are least
likely to cut the safety tape, and most likely to send out scouts to monitor the crumbling cliff’s edge.