- Government for the citizens
- Opposition to tyranny
- Equal participation of all citizens
- Equal treatment of all citizens
- Good governance
- Protection of individual rights
- Fair trial
- Opposition to forced conscription
- Legal vs. appropriate
- No more legislation than is necessary
- Separation of state from religion
- Separation of powers
- Limit on term of service
- Constitution and constitutional court
This post is part of a series about government.
Government for the citizens
All members of the government are supposed to work for the benefit of the citizens. The citizens are the real sovereign, and not the government, which is supposed to be subordinate to them, as merely a tool used by the citizens to coordinate their actions on a large scale. The citizens, and not the government itself or some birthright or “divine” power, are the only legitimate source for exercising the powers of the government.
Opposition to tyranny
Any form of government that acts as a dictatorship, tyranny, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, reign of terror, fascism, or collectivism for the “common good”, is fundamentally wrong, as it harms the well-being of people. The tyrant ruler himself would not want to live as an ordinary citizen under a dictatorial regime, where his individual rights would be trampled.
Any fundamentalist ideology which believes that it is the only correct ideology and is not open to discussion, freedom of speech, and toleration of diversity, must not be in power in the government because it will cause an unjustified harm to many people.
Equal participation of all citizens
All citizens should have an equal amount of influence on matters of government. In particular, wealthier citizens should not have more influence on government decisions than less wealthy citizens.
Equal treatment of all citizens
All citizens should receive equal treatment by the law and by the government.
In particular, a crime committed by a wealthy citizen should receive the same treatment as the same crime committed by a less wealthy citizen, even if the first has more money to hire more lawyers to defend him. Also, members of government, police officers, judges etc. should not be immune from prosecution and punishment, and should get the same treatment as all other citizens.
There should be no favoritism: no citizen should get any benefits from the government merely because he is a member of government or a friend of one of those members, or a member of some powerful group.
There should be no discrimination against a certain class of citizens, in particular based on ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, religion, political opinion, etc.
Elected representatives and government functionaries are supposed to serve the citizens, and should not act to get personal benefits for themselves, their friends, or wealthy donors. They should act strictly according to procedures of good governance, with full transparency, and not with corruption, bribery, or exploitation of their power and position to advance their own self-interests.
When someone uncovers corruption or a government failure, it is their duty to report this to the competent authorities, and their duty is to investigate the matter and to provide physical and legal protection to the reporter so he will not get harmed by the people he reported on.
All actions of the government, and in particular, information about the state’s budget and financial actions, should be presented in full detail and in an accessible manner to all citizens, as the citizens are the funders of government, and the government should be held accountable to the citizens. Public transparency is critical so that the citizens can oversee and examine how the elected officials act, and can decide whether they are doing a good job or should be replaced by more competent and trustworthy people.
(Only a very small part of the information about the government’s actions, which is related to sensitive information that could endanger the public or the safety of the state, should be allowed to be confidential and accessible only to authorized people. However, the type and extent of this kind of information should be strictly supervised by very clear rules and regulations, to prevent the abuse of power. All too often, governments oppress human rights in the name of “national security”).
The people selected for government positions should be worthy for the position and have appropriate qualifications for the job, based on their knowledge, experience, talents, abilities, and personal character. They should not be selected based on nepotism or cronyism.
Protection of individual rights
Although in cases of disagreement, decisions are made according to the majority vote, even the majority must not have the power to harm the individual rights of members of minority groups. This should be stipulated in a constitution that cannot be changed by a normal majority, in order to protect minorities from temporary whims of the majority, to prevent the tyranny of the majority over a minority.
A person that is being prosecuted for an alleged crime is entitled to a fair procedure: the right to be informed of what he is accused of, what are his legal rights, getting a fair trial, and he should be presumed innocent so long as his guilt has not yet been proven in a court of law, in due process. Even if he is convicted, he has the right to appeal the judgment in higher courts. Even during arrest or while being incarcerated, a person’s basic human rights should still be respected, such as the right for proper food, sleep, medical treatment, and freedom from physical or psychological abuse.
Opposition to forced conscription
Forcing people to do work, and in particular, forced conscription into the state’s army, under threat of punishment, is a violation of their individual rights and liberties. A country may indeed need to be protected by an army from its enemies, but if the country is important enough for its citizens, enough of them would join the army voluntarily.
Legal vs. appropriate
The law of a state is not the supreme law. Above it are laws of fairness, consideration of others, kindness, and an individual’s rights. The law of a state is merely a tool that is supposed to approximate the supreme law, and when there is a contradiction between the two, we should obey the supreme law and not the law of the state, and the latter should be amended to become closer to the former.
As an example for this principle, consider the case of the Nazi regime which legislated laws that were clearly unethical, such as the deportation of certain types of people to concentration camps. The fact that some law was the law of the state does not mean that people of good conscience had an ethical obligation to obey it; in fact, they had an ethical obligation to resist the government and to violate its unethical laws (e.g. refuse to help with the deportation).
Sometimes we see people debate whether some action is legal and hence should be allowed, when in fact they should be debating whether it is compatible with basic principles of fairness and ethics. For example, consider a minister of a government who embezzled public money, was tried and convicted, and then served time in jail for his crime. Is it appropriate to allow him to return to a position of power in government, even if this is currently not forbidden by the law? It is very clear to any ethical person that this is wrong ethically and logically. His actions were not a result of a momentary whim but a result of a deep flaw in his personal character. Allowing him to return to a position of power will not only endanger public money but also give a wrong message to the other members of government, that even if they are caught doing a crime, it is not so bad, because they could eventually return to a position in government. This undermines the ability of the law to deter potential violators.
No more legislation than is necessary
The more rules and regulations there are in the books, the more expensive their enforcement becomes. The bureaucratic mechanism becomes more complex, bloated, and onerous, and so the likelihood of corruption increases (the inappropriate burden of bureaucracy increases the incentive to bribe government officials in order to promote ethically-legitimate interests that conflict with unnecessary rules).
Therefore, each law should be carefully examined to see whether it is indeed necessary, whether it is indeed the role of the state to interfere in this case, or whether some other mechanisms should take care of the matter (such as the individual, the community, society, culture, insurance companies, or others). There are members of parliament who are inflicted by “legislativitis”, meaning over-legislation. Instead, unnecessary rules should be removed from the law books.
Care should also be taken to phrase rules as clearly and precisely as possible, to prevent misinterpretation that might lead to injustice, unequal treatment of people, or corruption.
Separation of state from religion
The government should be completely independent from any religious matters and should never legislate anything related to religion or based on religious reasons. This is an important instance of the previous principle (no more legislation than is necessary). The rationale for this principle is that practicing a religion is a completely personal matter. When the government starts meddling in this sphere, this invariable results in harm to some or even most people, and the supposed benefits are always ethically unjust. These claims will now be explained.
A basic human right is freedom of conscience – the right to think and believe as one wishes, and that includes the right to choose one’s religious beliefs and the right to practice the religion in public (of course, so long as this does not cause harm to others). When government operates according to the rules of one religion, and makes them the law of the state, that necessarily harms anyone who does not adhere to that religion. One example of such harm is legislation that, for religions reasons, forbids people to import certain kinds of food, or forbids certain people from getting married to their loved ones, or forces people to fund (through taxes) certain religious institutions.
There are some religious people who want to enshrine the rules of their particular religion as the law of the state. They wish to thereby forcefully impose their own religion’s rules on everyone. This would violate the personal liberty of each person to choose their own religion or lack of religion. This would also violate the principle of reciprocity in treatment to fellow humans: the same religious people would oppose being forced to adhere to someone else’s religion through the mechanism of the state. For this reason, no religion should be allowed to dictate the state’s laws.
Separation of powers
A state’s government should be divided into distinct branches, each with separate and independent powers and areas of responsibility, and where the separate branches have some abilities to exercise checks and balances on the others. The purpose of this separation is to prevent the concentration of too much power into few hands, and thereby reduce the likelihood of the abuse of power (as was the case under absolute monarchy and dictatorships).
Examples of such branches:
- a legislature: a parliament that legislates laws
- an executive branch, divided into offices or ministries (e.g. finance, security, foreign affairs, etc.), which carry out the laws and manage the state’s affairs
- a judiciary, which interprets the laws to resolve disputes in courts of law
- an auditory branch (state comptroller): responsible for carrying out an external review of the actions of the government, to ensure adherence to the law and to good governance as well as accountability of government officials
Limit on term of service
The law should subscribe a limit on the length of service of each government position. This is because people who remain in power for too long often become more corrupt and more arrogant that their power will continue.
Constitution and constitutional court
The constitution contains fundamental laws that cannot be easily changed by a temporary political whim of a small majority – a supermajority is required in order to amend it. The supreme court has the authority to disqualify newly legislated laws if they contradict the constitution. Human rights should be enshrined in the constitution, so that rules that contradict such rights could not be accepted.