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Thursday, March 26, 2015

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Accountability of the Governing Class

Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Accountability of the Governing Class

At a time when "crisis and austerity" have replaced "progress and
ambition" we feel justified in wanting an explanation to what happened.
We want an explanation why we can save banks and not lives. We want an
explanation why planes fall from the sky yet flying is still a safe
industry and service to use.

So is the governing class being held accountable and more importantly
can these elite few be held accountable? These are some of the key
issues in my essay. In the meantime Ruel has sent us the link to his essay:

Hello Lawrence,
Here is the link to the essay I wrote on Sunday's topic:

https://ruelfpepa.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/accountability-of-the-governing-class/
Thank you and see you on Sunday.
Best,
Ruel



----my essay

Accountability of the Governing Class

Who are the governing class? There is no doubt that at the top are those
who form the government, but this is just the tip of the iceberg
although I would rather think that it was the tip of the sword. In
British politics we would include the Establishment that involves top
civil servants, the church, although today with diminished influence,
the judiciary, and many influential institutions such as the police and
the armed forces. Business, especially old business, such as banking and
insurance also play a leading role in the running of the state.

The key features of the Governing Class is that they are supposed to act
in the interest of the state, and by default they have authority and
power through legislation or through accepted conventions. The second
key feature of this class is that they have the direct or influencing
power to tell people what to do. Many of the people who hold office in
these institutions are responsible for the day to day running of the
state and the country. They are responsible to put into action
government policies, legislation and statutory duties.

A key feature of the governing class is that they are responsible for
the constitution of the land. It is said that the UK does not have a
constitution because there is no recognised document that says this is
the constitution of the UK. Of course, this is not the case there is a
constitution because there are statutes and conventions that spell out
the relationship between the different powers of the state and the
citizens. And these rules and conventions are generally agreed by all
until someone disagrees with them, like any written constitution, and
then they can be changed when someone else has enough power in
parliament to change them. Thus written or unwritten constitutions have
the same biding force as any manmade agreement.

Accountability itself, as a concept, is associated with a number of
other concepts and meaning. The general neutral term of accountability
is to justify ones actions after the event. This might be to explain why
things went wrong or just simply have the duty to tell others what one
is doing, why and the justification for having to do such actions.

However, in normal use of the term, especially in a political context,
it means having those who exercise power to explain their actions when
things (usually policy or actions) go wrong. Although some might
interpret accountability to include judicial accountability (see for
example the website
http://www.transparency-initiative.org/about/definitions for an in depth
meaning of the term) I would argue that political accountability, even
when things go wrong, does not necessarily imply legal accountability or
even legal culpability. My reasons are very simple; if political
accountability implied or meant legal accountability then people need
only show that they followed the law meticulously for a defence. Whereas
having to account politically for policies and actions implies that
these actions are judged politically and then if a law has been broken
the same actions are also judged judicially. So we have political checks
and legal checks. Moreover, legal accountability implies that the
judiciary are excluded from the political process of the state and thus
the principle of separation of powers is maintained as far as possible.

Some might even interpret accountability to include the participation of
individuals (see link above) in policy making apart from holding those
who govern to account. This might seem as a democratic process within a
democratic process. We first participate in electing the government then
we participate in the policy making process. It is true that being part
of the solution to a problem is better than being a detractor or worse,
the problem, but this democracy process within a democracy leaves a lot
to be desired. Least of which we cannot all be participants in policy
making and therefore some people will always be outside the governing class.

The traditional inbuilt safeguards to hold those in power accountable
have been: separation of powers, a constitution, an elected parliament,
an independent judiciary, ministerial responsibility, an independent
media and most important of all free people to practice and exercise
their right to engage in politics and opposition politics.

In theory this structure of checks and balances should work well and
generally holds those in power to account. Except that there is a major
flaw with this model and theory: those who exercise power and authority
are first and foremost individual people. Thus the idea or feeling we
might have that state institutions are somehow non human structures is
obviously false. The most we can say is that institutions are micro
structures of the population that function on group dynamics. But at the
heart of the governing class there are only individuals.

In other words the idea that the government and those who hold power are
somehow benevolent super beings who are there to protect us and look
after us is just false; a fiction of the social contract as much as the
social contract is a fiction.

Machiavelli understood the political individual very well as exemplified
by this quote from The Prince "Because this is to be asserted in general
of men that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and
as long as you succeed they are yours entirely....."
(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1232/1232-h/1232-h.htm Title: The Prince
Author: Nicolo Machiavell) And although this might be too hard on those
who actually do a good job this reflection is as true today as in
Machiavelli's time.

In modern times it was Margaret Thatcher who, when she was the British
PM, firmly introduced the individual to the centre of politics. Speaking
about people who rely on the welfare state she rejected the idea that
there was such a thing as society to support individuals, saying that
"... There is no such thing! There are individual men and women....."
Adding that before we can depend on the state we have to perform our
duty and contribute first. (Margaret Thatcher Interview for Woman's Own
(1987 Sep 23) http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689)

Few can disagree with the sentiment of Thatcher: we don't like people
who cheat or defraud, that's obvious. And most accept that we have to
contribute as much as we can to be entitled to receive from the state.
The devil, of course, is in the details.

And yes there are only individuals, but Thatcher was wrong in her
arguments, thinking and her policies based on such principles. To begin
with she conveniently forgot the implied promise that the welfare state
was a commitment by the state to the people for the sacrifices of the
Second World War. Hence there was an established right for the state to
help when needed. And because the British constitution does not function
of a single fixed documents, that implied commitment had the force of
law given the circumstances; a gentleman word is his bond (no women at
the time)! How many written constitutions commit the state to operate a
welfare state?

Secondly, sometimes we have to carry with us those who are weaker than
us because it's necessary for the state and the nation to progress. In a
well run family, which was so important for Thatcher, the weak members
are looked after by the strong ones and more importantly, all members of
the family are relevant to the family. And if people are cheating it's
because the state mechanism is flawed and people are not performing
their duty to hold those who cheat to account. But to dismantle the
welfare state just because a few people defraud the system is absurd and
dangerous; with the same logic we should dismantle parliament because
some members are corrupt.

Thirdly sometimes it's more profitable and efficient to have an economic
model to supply certain goods and services at a cheap price than having
to pay market prices for them. Indeed the founders of the welfare state
recognised education and health care as such key services. I would add
transport and accommodation as equally important sectors. In any event
it's unreasonable to suppose that everyone has the earning capacity as
everyone else. Thus based on the family principle, provisions should be
made for those who cannot keep up.

At the end, the welfare state is collapsing and has collapsed not
because people cheated the system or did not contribute to the system
but rather because the governing class was not held accountable to the
mismanagement of the economy. After all economic institutions such as
companies don't go bust because they have to pay a decent wage to the
receptionist! A modern day 'Machiavellian' would suggest that the
welfare state is being dismantled to replace it by profit making companies.

It is this absence of accountability about the mismanagement of the
economy that has directly caused the economic crisis in Europe. And
modern politics, as in past politics, it's all about the economy!
Thatcher did not want to suggest that "there are only individuals" to be
interpreted to mean "free for all, greed and enrichment." Indeed in the
Woman's Own interview she did suggest that welfare should be an income
of the last resort and that we have to support our way. Except that this
vision is betrayed by reality: in 1979 when Thatcher was elected as PM
the GINI coefficient for the UK was just over 25% reaching 35% when she
left office in 1990 and in 2009 the coefficient was around the 40% mark.
This is what the Poverty.org.uk website has to say: The GINI coefficient
measure of overall income inequality in the UK is now higher than at any
previous time in the last thirty years.
(http://www.poverty.org.uk/09/index.shtml (PDF
http://www.poverty.org.uk/09/f.pdf)

By any standards the collapse of the British income parity can only mean
that the safeguards to hold the governing class accountable for their
policies have not worked. Machiavelli was right, people are "covetous"
and I was right, not everyone can achieve the same earning capacity. The
disparities we find today in society do not reflect, a democracy based
on merit, although some deserve to be rewarded handsomely for their
efforts (but are not), nor a capitalist society given economies now
function by destroying and devaluing capital (boom bust economies), but
more like a plutocracy. Today, if a person is worth millions they have
ready access to all the media in the world to express their political or
non political opinions, but a budding young politician has to abide by
the rules of the party, the rules of access to the media for political
representation and the limitations imposed by the electoral commission.
Money it seems no longer talks, but shouts and it only shouts orders and
dictates for the rest to follow.

If there are only individuals and no benevolent super beings to protect
us then the concept of the individual takes central place in our
discussion. The fragility of the mechanisms of accountability stems from
two basic factors: those mechanisms are designed by the very same
individuals who make up the mechanisms that hold power. Members of
Parliament enact laws but they also write the constitution; the judges
interpret laws but they also create judicial precedent, the central bank
manages money in the economy and also supervise the other bankers etc
etc. And secondly, human beings can only be human they cannot be super
beings, and certainly not super benevolent human beings; very few people
are or have the means to be benevolent. And of course, not to mention
the well accepted fact that: he who pays the piper calls the tunes!

Some might object to my arguments on the grounds that my view of the
political situation is too negative; most times the system works. People
do get justice for example when someone enters their house and robs them
of their possessions; or many people manage to move from job to job or
pay for their education. Yes, but as Machiavelli pointed out, everyone
is happy when things are going well, it's when things don't go well that
we need protection. We need accountability and redress when our house
loses so much of its value because of a property bust that the mortgage
is more than the new value of the house. We need accountability and
redress when the bank interest rate is so manipulated that legitimate
businesses become bankrupt leading to people becoming unemployed.

If Machiavelli identified for us the root of the problem about
accountability, then Plato (Socrates) has pointed us towards a possible
solution: 'Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of
this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political
greatness and wisdom meet in one, ... cities will never have rest from
their evils...." The Republic by Plato Book V
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm#link2H_INTR .

Thatcher was no Philosopher King since, as I have demonstrated, here
policies led to greater inequalities, and as Machiavelli pointed out
people are good subjects as long as their kings do not create enormous
hardships. But as Plato implied, and transparency-initiative.org
reaffirm, what is regal is information and knowledge and by implication
the basis of accountability. We can hold people accountable when we have
the right information about their actions. And by implication the
governing class is being accountable by the amount of information they
make available to their citizens.

Does everyone have access to education and learning? Are citizens able
to gather information freely about the state? Do we have access to the
relevant information about the functions of the state? Is the state
protecting our right to know? Is the press reporting the facts and only
the facts? If the answer to these questions and many more is "yes" then
the governing class is being and can be held accountable.

But the tell tale signs that things are not right is when Machiavelli's
Prince or Plato's King talk to their citizens from a house of mirrors in
a funfair, or from a TV set to avoid questions from the press. These are
sufficient conditions that tell us that the governing class is not being
and cannot be held accountable.

Best Lawrence


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from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Accountability of
the Governing Class

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