What is Good Governance?
By R.M.B Senanayake
The term 'good governance' has become in our current parlance a label applied to the present government, which is even referred to in the Sinhala radio talks as the 'good governance government'. This is however, a totally irrelevant use of the term 'good governance'. What constitutes 'good governance'? There could be good governance as well as bad governance. Nor is it necessary that a government which is classified as good is always good. It may act against the canons of good governance at times while its actions at other times may be considered as good. Whether an action of the government is good or bad will therefore depend on some other criteria.
Unlike thinkers like Plato, modern political scientists and thinkers assume that democracy or the participation of the people in governance is a sine qua non of good governance. So can there be good governance in a dictatorship? They would say no since the people do not have a say in such a dictatorship. But the Communist Party argues that in a socialist State good governance requires a party committed to socialism and could not accommodate any party that stood for the preservation of Capitalism where the means of production and distribution were entirely owned by the owners of capital with a proletariat of workers who owned nothing but only had their labour power to sell. The workers therefore, had no say in the decisions of production lacked economic and political power. But the modern view is that since the actions of the government affect the people at large either benefiting or suffering there from; they should decide on who should govern them. The case for democracy then rests not upon the superior wisdom of the people but on the fact that they are the possible sufferers of bad governance. This view coupled with the fact that the 19th century political thinkers assumed that all power corrupts and that people are not inherently good drove them to the view that a monopoly of power in one or a few persons could lead to abuse of power however, good they may be initially before they are given power. The nature of power is such that it is dangerous to vest it in one or a few men. So the case for democracy or governance by all the people was considered the only safeguard of liberty.
Liberty of the subject
Liberty of the subject came to be considered as the most important value in a society. The earlier arguments that the philosopher should govern also came to be displaced by the view that those who generally suffer from the actions of a government, should decide on who should govern them.
This is the modern case for democracy. People could benefit or suffer from the actions of the government. For example, a government requires to tax the people to raise revenue for itself. A government can also decide what actions of individuals should be prohibited or curbed or
regulated in a society and these actions could adversely affect the people. A government requires to tax people to carry out its activities and the people suffer from the levy of taxes by the government. The only justification for taxation is that it is necessary for the government to provide services essential to the people. During the feudal times, the people were taxed by the State taking a part of their produce by way of rent and taxes since the land was said to belong to the State. In the modern market economy the
government obtains its revenue through taxes collected in the form of money. Taxation is required to meet the expenses to run the government. It is considered fair to tax the rich or those better off more than the others who obtain the average income although the cost of the services provided to both groups may be the same. So taxes are not directly linked to the services provided by the government.
Instead those who are richer and better off economically are taxed more than the others who get only the average income or less.
What about democracy meaning government by the people for the people? But the task of government cannot be undertaken by a whole mass of people. Only a few can govern. So these few should be chosen by the people at large. So instead of direct democracy where all the people themselves govern ( as it was during the days of ancient Athens where the city state was small).
We have representative government where the people elect their representatives and they select who should govern.
This is necessary since it is not possible for all the people to govern since the modern State is larger than the small communities they constituted in the past. So the people have to confine their role to electing their representatives who will decide among themselves who will govern. But human beings what they are, no one can be entirely devoid of self interest in the pursuit of his actions.
Where the actions on behalf of the State coincide with his own interest the representative of the people who are chosen to govern, will have no difficulty in serving both himself and the people he represents. But, where his interests clash with those of the community, the representative of the people, is faced with a difficult choice.
Should be sacrifice his personal interest for the good of the community? Human beings are naturally prone to pursue their self interest and this goes against the grain. Where their self interest accord with the interest of the community the representative could accommodate both with ease. But where his self interest goes against the interest of the community or where the interest of the community goes against his own self interest he has a hard decision to make. Should he sacrifice his self interest to that of the community? Or should he water down the proposal to accommodate his interest while also accommodating the interest, of the community? He is faced with a
difficult decision for man is inherently self interested and seeks to protect his interest first, even while functioning in a community.
So those exercising power and who are placed in such circumstances make various compromises. But in the process the original purpose or rationale may become diluted. But in a democracy this is inevitable.
Various interests have to be accommodated. So compromise is the inevitable outcome in decision-making in a democracy.
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