Disciplining Government


In addition to constitutional disciplines over government - or the lack of them - some "outside" disciplines do fortunately exist, their effectiveness proving a valuable supplement to any constraints imposed by constitution.

During the "crash" of 2009 onwards, several European governments got themselves ever-deeper in debt, and they might be able to get away with it but for the Bond Markets. To finance debt, governments borrow money by selling bonds, or IOUs. The Bond Rating Agencies assess the safety of the bonds by examining not just the debt, but the ability and resolve to bring it down, then rate the Bonds of individual governments accordingly. So for example, at the end of 2010 Greece found itself having to pay a much higher rate on its Bonds than Germany in order to tempt buyers.

Needless to say, the Bond Rating Agencies and Markets are not very popular with governments which find their debt downgraded. However they have no choice but to accept the Market's assessment and its consequences.

At the close of 2010 a whole mass of US government secret documents was unleashed and avidly read by the public. Of course from government's point of view this is High Treason. But many 'ordinary folks' quietly saw it as a courageous blow against government secrecy and the arrogance which lies behind it. As long as the media remain totally independent and aggressively inquisitive, the public interest will in general benefit.

In principle, any independent, non-governmental agencies which naturally exercise, or are specifically given, powers to investigate, publicize, criticize and discipline government, far from being 'undemocratic', will serve to supplement any constitutional constraints giving weight to the genuine interests of "The People". This is no latter-day discovery. The need for outside discipline over the governing body, be it King, President or democratically elected government, was clearly appreciated 800 years ago.

Perhaps we can learn more from Magna Carta than copying a few paragraphs and ideals.

While the Magna Carta is revered and respected as being the 'grand-daddy' of constitutions, and while it is studied, analyzed, and to a large degree copied, a fact rarely considered is that the Magna Carta was 'consumer-driven'.

The King did not write a constitution in which a few crumbs of monarchial self-discipline graciously thrown to the public were greatly outweighed by his own rights and privileges. It was the barons, nobles and clergy who as objects of the king's whims and the taxpayers who funded them, it was they who drew up the Great Charter and compelled the King to agree to it.

The Constitutional approach to government operational and financial discipline backed wherever possible by independent agencies is essential; the motivation to improve government efficiency and standards of business conduct is unlikely to come from inside government itself, and even if it does, the disciplines thus created are likely to be more cosmetic than real. Governments frequently pay lip-service to improving productivity and financial discipline, but seldom make any real changes. Self discipline is a noble ideal, but it rarely if ever comes about.

In the legendary British 50s comedy series following the exploits of St Trinian's School for Ladies, sex, smoking, drinking and especially gambling aren't on the official curriculum, but they're not exactly frowned upon. In fact understanding the odds on horses teaches the girls plenty about economics. The Fourth Form consists of ink-stained, ungovernable pranksters, while the Sixth Form girls use their "talents" to pacify any visiting school inspectors with the delights of the summer house. The chemistry lab manufactures hooch which is spread through the black market by Flash Harry, and for St T, a sports contest with any other team is considered a victory when all of the opposition have been carried off on stretchers.

St Trinian's is presided over by the genial Miss Millicent Fritton, whose philosophy is summed up as: "in other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared".

Clearly, St Trinians is surely in need of discipline. But would this ever be achieved by asking the Sixth Form girls to write and enforce a new School Rule Book? Probably not. And in the same way, we can hardly expect government to discipline itself.

No government, president or monarch, no institution of law or enforcement, should be created or be allowed to exist and to function without a constitution. No one should have power over others, unless and until that power and the conditions of its use have been strictly defined. And even then, there can never be enough additional vigilance on the part of the media, outside rating, appraisal and accounting agencies, as well as alert citizens. Those outside of, and subject to government's powers should never forget the one absolute certainty: that power corrupts.

Michael Sartorius 2013

Governing Government

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