Re-Post: Who you gonna believe, the government or your lyin' eyes?

This post is even more relevant today than it was when we wrote it a year ago…

18 August, 2010

Sipho Hlongwane over at The Daily Maverick was musing the other day over the lack of inherent mistrust of our government among the voting citizens of the country.  His article is in one sense timely (given all the ruling party shenanigans these days) and in another sense highlights what really is a perennial problem in any Democracy: lazy citizens. 

In part I guess the problem stems from a gaping hole in the collective understanding of what democracy is and why it does and doesn’t work.  It is easy to take freedom for granted when you have a measure of it, and while South African’s are far from truly free, we do have a measure of freedom commensurate with a relatively unencumbered life and the ability to pursue economic opportunities and gain prosperity, despite the state doing its level best to hinder such endeavours.  Our constitutional protections are extensive, if often too liberal with the dishing out of ‘rights’, but by and large, in relation the pre-1994 era, South African’s enjoy some good basic freedoms.

This always breeds complacence and ultimately laziness.  The essence of democratic laziness, especially in a so called ‘representative democracy’, is outsourcing your political brain to someone else and your opinion to your political representatives.  The obvious fallacy here is the erroneous belief that the person you’re outsourcing it to has a political brain of their own, or that they have your interests at heart.  But beyond that is the problem created by personally disengaging your brain from the area of governance and the role of the state and civil society in fostering a healthy and peaceful order.

Most people think democracy is the easy option, that freedom and democratic representation require little effort and that basically we can all spend our time focusing on the pleasures and fruits of democratic freedom.  As with most ways of mainstream thinking, the exact opposite is true: democracy is a demanding system.  It demands intellectual engagement from ALL people.  It demands that people question and understand the role of the state.  It demands an inherent mistrust of representatives.  It demands that to some extent we are all watchdogs.

This is not easy.   It requires engagement, and is physically and mentally taxing.  Vigilance is difficult, dropping your guard is easy.

As Hlongwane perceptively points out,

“Democracy is a demanding ideal. It requires an active constituency that keeps the government in check at all times. Democracy demands that the government should be fearful of the people. Totalitarianism on the other hand, requires nothing more than for people to do as they are told, to blindly follow their government wherever it leads and for the people never to question the government.”

What we have in SA, and indeed in democracies the world over, is a population that has either dropped its guard or never bothered to take it up in the first place.  We have a classic shell democracy, replete with all the democratic bells and whistles but devoid of a truly democratic populace.  Carrying a disproportionate weight of that guard is the media, which is why recent attacks on the media by the ANC are well directed by a totalitarian ruling party.  They know if they can knock the media off its perch, there’s very few if any meaningful checks on its power, barring perhaps big business and capital (but let’s not forget the ANC is increasingly infiltrating that space as well).  In fact from my vantage point I would say that the ANC’s power strategy is better than many of us know or want to know, and the conspicuous lack of awareness (or passive support?) of this in the general population  is leaving a wide barn door open for the ANC to drive its leviathan wagon through.

The structuralists will tell you that in a democracy it’s the structures that matter.  That may sound very appealing in its simplicity, but  while some structures may be necessary, they are not sufficient.  No order is held together by structures alone.  People matter, and because South African’s are largely immature in the ways of governance and accountability in leadership, they by and large don’t understand that governments work for people, not people for governments.

This is actually a systemic problem in most of the world, so I’m not having a go at South African’s per se, but as a young democracy it is particularly important in the South African context, especially being a country with a long totalitarian history from Zulu empire-building in the early 1800’s to the British/Boer administrations in the late 1800’s to the fascist-socialist apartheid state in the late 1900’s.  Both white and black alike in this country have shown a healthy penchant for state coercion, and the only change to that embedded paradigm is a maturing people who understand the value of freedom.

Sometimes we only appreciate things when they are gone, and as the ANC whittles away our young freedoms so a generation of people may come to know first hand the meaning of an erosion of hard-won liberties.

In the interim, the old democratic adage holds true, that in a democracy a nation gets the leaders it deserves.  American’s chose King Barack because it felt like disengaging.  Amercian’s dropped their guard.  They had civilisational fatigue and Bamy was promising to make it all go away with a big empty dollop of hopey-changiness.   So while we can rant and rave about the policy sludge emanating from the cesspool that is Washington DC, we should really be pointing to a hopelessly ignorant and lazy electorate.  The current crop of no-hopers in leadership in South Africa too are merely the outworking of the democratic process, and in a sense to get angry with them is to miss the wood for trees, for it is a population of political infants that keeps delivering them into power.

And so we come to the crux of all this which is that we need to foster and build a healthy mistrust of the state.  Not trusting the state should be the default position of all citizens, with smatterings of trust splashed lightly in, not the other way around.  Instead we are told always to trust our leaders for they are making bold and wise decisions for us.  If history is any guide, placing blind trust in a set of politicians always ends badly and we have another wonderful example of it in the global financial crisis that currently rests remorselessly upon us.  Here’s what we said about this issue back in March,

“…while the state has mortgaged our future to pay for a party, Mr. and Mrs. Simms from 8 Dreary Lane in Dullsville, have failed totally to plan for a rocky future.  A world full of trusting citizens has given the reins over to the state.  They entrusted their old age to the state, let the state make all the important decisions for them, and now realise the people driving the juggernaut were playing cards in the cockpit as it careered headlong toward disaster.”

We have become a society so dependent on the state to give us direction that there is a basic view out there that the government has legitimate right to call the shots in our lives.  Below is but one of many examples of a public opinion smothered in statism,

streetkidpoll People don’t get freedom

So here’s my challenge to you: set your default dial to MISTRUST, and disbelieve your leaders until they are proven truthful.  This requires work and effort.  It’s not easy and laziness won’t fly with this mindset.  But if you value your freedom, you’ll do well to heed these words.

  • Government often says it wants to create jobs.  Really?  If so, why does it tax businesses more, the very engines of job creation?
  • The Reserve Bank Act said in 1989 that its mandate is to protect the value of the rand.  Mmmm, then why has the rand lost 90% of its value since then?
  • The ANC says it wants jobs for all.  Ok, then why is there a minimum wage that inherently discriminates against people offering their productive services?
  • Government says it wants to foster more competition.  A lie, because then it wouldn’t be protecting industries with tariffs and subsidies.
  • The state said the world cup would be a major factor in accelerating South Africa’s economic development.  Lot’s of fools were suckered into this one.

No, these stated objectives are often light-years away from the truth.  In reality the inherent and persistent objective of the state is to grow.  Grow in funding, grow in influence, grow in taxation, grow in regulation, grow in control.  Worse than this is that it’s the people who sit back and let it all happen in front of their noses.  As Hlongwane laments,

“The saddest part is that my generation is not equipping itself with the tools necessary to become an active participant in the democratic process. We are not reading up on critical investigative reports that expose corruption and mismanagement of public funds. We are not reading at all. We are woefully ignorant of the erosion of our rights and our freedoms. We stand idly by as the government launches a broadside attack on the media because we don’t grasp how this could possibly affect us.”

First point of order for this disengaging generation is questioning the very role of the state.  What is the legitimate purpose, function and role of government?  That this basic yet profound question is not asked nearly enough in the public discourse reveals just how infantile this democracy actually is.

The proponent of freedom can only create mass change in this state of lethargy through education and awareness.  Anything else would be coercion on our part and inimical to freedom.  If things don’t change soon, the light at the end of the tunnel may be very far off indeed, and we may even find that as we approach it, it’s a train tavelling full-speed towards us rather than a exit out of the blackness.

In “There’s no such thing as capitalism” written last year, we said this:

“Here’s the disturbing part.  Socially we are in the equivalent part of the cycle.  That is, people by and large believe that more economic coercion is required to fix our broken and wilting prosperity and are therefore not yet opposed to seeing power becoming even more centralised, underlying injustices increase, and coercive regulation proliferate.  As long as this remains the case, wealth will diminish not increase, freedom deteriorate not abound, creativity and spontaneous economic solutions will stagnate not flourish, and productivity will be stifled not set free to grow.  How long will this have to go on for and how economically coercive will the state become before people realise they have given up the very freedom that makes them prosperous?  Probably quite a lot longer yet.”

“Who you gonna believe, the government or your lyin’ eyes?”

I’ll take my lyin’ eyes thanks.

Comments are closed.