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[Kim Seong-kon] Good government in these troubled times

June 3, 2020 - 05:30 By Kim Seong-kon
We need government to run the country for us and represent us in the international community. Unfortunately, however, we often find our government overbearing and oppressive. Sometimes we suffer heavy taxes and other times, tyrannical rule. That is why “governance” has always been a major concern of political scientists. Thomas Paine aptly pointed out the issue, saying, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

The primary purpose of government is to take care of the people. Thus, what government should run is the country, not the people. Regrettably, however, politicians think that they can control and manipulate the people’s lives. Ronald Reagan’s warning comes to mind, “Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.” Oftentimes, however, government neglects its primary duty and abuses its power. Politicians should keep in mind what Abraham Lincoln said, “No man is good enough to govern another man without the other’s consent.”

Nevertheless, government frequently puts the people under surveillance and arrest if they do not agree with its policies. As a result, there exist political prisoners labeled as anti-government dissidents. We often confuse government with nation, but they are two different entities. For example, we may be anti-government protesters, but we cannot be anti-nation people. Indeed, as Mark Twain said, “Loyalty to the Nation all the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it.”

Franklin Roosevelt, too, once said, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a president and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.” Yet, politicians often forget that it is the people, not them, who are the rulers of the country. Thus, they tend to rule and dominate the people, instead of serving them.

We may think that we will not have such problems so long as we live in a democratic country with an election system. Yet Winston Churchill mocks this naive attitude, saying, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” The phrase means that voters are not trustworthy; many of them are prejudiced and emotional rather than rational, easily swayed by monetary benefits or clouded judgment. Churchill also implies that electoral democracy can easily turn into a mob democracy.

What, then, makes a good government? One of the basic qualifications of a good government is the separation of three branches of the government: executive, legislative, and judicial. Each branch is not supposed to interfere with the other two. If the executive defied the separation of powers and controlled all three, it would not be a good government.

In 1789, George Washington wrote to Attorney General Edmund Randolph, “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.” Indeed, the separation of the judicial from the executive is the key to a good government. Today, we can find the famous phrase by Washington inscribed on the building of the New York Supreme Court. A good government would abide the law and the Constitution. If the executive attempted to manipulate the judicial or defy the Constitution, it would not be a good government, as well.

Politicians, who, for example, have had bad experiences with being prosecuted by the courts during a dictatorial regime in the past, may want to take control of the legislative and the judicial entities of government in order to avoid another possible arrest and indictment that could occur again in the future. However, things have changed now, and they should overcome their past trauma. A government where politicians are obsessed with the past or political vendettas would not be a good one, either.

Indeed, a good government would be future-oriented, not past-oriented. A good government would launch, for example, the Council on Future Strategies, not the Council for Investigation of Past History. A good government would not try to alter the collective consciousness of the people by altering historical facts, as the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s “1984” did. A good government would also abolish surveillance and censorship and allow sheer freedom of speech and the press.

A good government would take good care of senior citizens. The US government, for example, provides seniors over 65 with free Medicare and government-subsidized inexpensive apartments. If a retired senior had to pay more for government medical insurance than when he had a job, his government could not be a good one.

A good government in these troubled times should be dexterous with diplomacy, so it could skillfully navigate the country in the vortex of international politics. A good government would boost the economy by encouraging big business corporations to create more jobs and manufacture more products, instead of condemning them as if they were the exploiters of workers.

We should always remember what Henry David Thoreau wrote in “Civil Disobedience”: “That government is best which governs least.”

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.