Are you keen on making your own decisions, or would you rather somebody else made them for you? Do you think you should take responsibility for yourself and the environment around you, or do you think somebody else should bear that responsibility? Do you think you should look after others? Or do you think other people should do that? Some of these questions may seem instinctively straightforward, but, in fact, they are not all that easy to answer when you start thinking about them. They go to the heart of the way we want to live. They also seem relevant today in the light of the pandemic. Some people would prefer to just know the risks and be allowed to manage their lives accordingly, others would prefer the Government to take a hard line and effectively do all it can to get rid of coronavirus for us. Whether you feel the Government should take complete control (and therefore, presumably, bear all the responsibility), or whether the people should be able to decide its actions (and therefore bear collective responsibility for them), highlights a fundamental distinction in politics between State and Society. The State represents what is done for us by the machinery of government, through laws, courts, taxation and public spending. Society is what we do for one another through families, friendships, communities and welfare organisations.
Over half term, I came across an article about a man called Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who wrote, after visiting in the mid-1830s, a book called Democracy in America. He warned that democracies were at risk of a completely new form of oppression. It will happen, he said, when people exist solely in and for themselves, leaving the pursuit of the common good to the Government. He wrote the following about the relationship between people and government:
“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labours, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”
Isn’t that interesting? He is saying that even the mildest, kindest, most caring of governments, something which he hints can also be the case for parents, or presumably for bosses of any sort, guided solely by the principles of helping people to be happy, can, in fact, become oppressive because they spare the people of all their thinking and all the trouble of living. Despite the leaders’ desire for all to be happy, by taking all the decisions, however benevolently, they take away one of the key joys of being human – or learning about personal responsibility, of making decisions, of being both right and wrong, of having free will, of failing and of being unhappy as well as of being happy. By helping too much, leaders can, in fact, render individuals helpless.
It is an interesting way to look at something which today instinctively makes sense. Governments, leaders, parents must all balance that tricky line between making decisions for the good of the people and allowing for personal autonomy and responsibility. A pandemic might call for greater centralised decision-making; so might climate change, but none of it is likely to be helpful to mankind without people taking personal responsibility too. To do so, they need to feel part of that decision-making.
It must be incredibly difficult to run a country – it is hard enough being a parent or running a school! – but it seems to me that, almost 200 years ago, de Toqueville was right. We are at a moment, even in one of the world’s freest democracies, when we are coming worryingly close to blaming all of our issues on the Government, rather than taking any responsibility ourselves. There is no easy answer to this, but I am happy to leave you with the problem. If, as I hope we all do, one sees the link between decision-making and bearing responsibility, I come back to my opening question: would you prefer to make your own decisions or have somebody else make them for you?