Sunday, September 24, 2006

Against which all governments are measured

There's been a lot of discussion over forms of government, which is the best, and which are better than others. A more interesting question, however, is what makes one form of government better or worse than another. With so many vast differences between various forms, it can be difficult to pin down the single factor that most closely ties to "goodness". Many would argue that the factor is freedom, equality, or accurate representation of the beliefs of the populace, but these values represent an obvious bias toward democracy and the enlightenment values from which it derives. I submit that the "best" form of government is defined not by freedom or representation, but by its inherent level of susceptibility to corruption.

The values behind a form of government may determine its agreeability to a particular individual or group, but its corruptibility determines how likely it is to adhere to those values in the real world, when subjected to the rigors of human nature. Dictatorships are generally reviled as the worst form of government, but an incorruptible, benevolent dictatorship could easily create a far better society than the best democracy. The problem with dictatorships is that they endow an individual with absolute power, and as Lord Acton famously stated, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

But if all power corrupts, why give it to anyone? It would seem that anarchy, which does not grant anyone power over anyone else, would be the least corruptible. Anarchy, though, is not truly an absence of government, but rather is individual self-rule for every individual. It's a billion tiny dictatorships struggling for resources. Now, while this would preclude all but the most masochistic from being abused by their own government, human nature desires power, and alliances would begin to form among the micro-nations creating gangs and eventually leading to mob rule, a de facto government born of the corruption of the ideal of anarchism. In this way, anarchism is like laissez faire capitalism with power as capital -- the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Similarly, alliances and power blocs can form within a direct democracy, and groups can be influenced through propaganda and strong-arm tactics as well as mutual protection schemes like the alliances on Survivor. This decentralization of power does, however, have the advantage over representative democracy that corruption requires direct support from a plurality of voters, rather than simply a few politicians with the ability to conceal their corruption.

A theocracy is arguably the most corruptible, because while it claims to be under the rule of a deity, power is actually concentrated with the leaders of the religion who purport to speak for that deity, but who are as susceptible to human nature as anyone else. In a society fanatical to install a theocracy, this would mean unchecked power for those leaders, and the ability to put down any dissent without reproach. This fact, more than their inherent conservatism and rejection of enlightenment values like freedom of religion, makes theocracy a bad form of government.

An interesting means of discouraging corruption is illustrated in one of the multiple story arcs in Ambrosia Software's Escape Velocity: Nova. In this game, there is a race known as the Polarans, who have a strict caste system in which the Mu'hari caste, who among other duties serve as judges, juries and prosecutors, are considered the most disgraceful of all castes and must render assistance to any other Polaran in any way asked. Passing judgement on ones peers is considered the ultimate punishment. This also parallels my own experience as moderator in internet forums, where moderators were encouraged to think of themselves more as janitors than as police officers.

If corruption is what makes a government bad, and government by definition has a level of power that promotes corruption, then it is the ability to keep corruption in check that makes a system of government good. This means that a good government must provide a framework for the public, possibly in addition to the government itself, to limit the government's power and keep its members accountable for their actions. Government transparency and freedom of speech, and particularly of the press, create accountability. If the government is corrupt, it will lose support and, in the absence of a means of replacing officials as provided by democracy, will ultimately be overthrown. Likewise, religious freedom is beneficial to prevent the use of fanaticism to mask corruption. Concepts like term limits and separation of powers with checks and balances are also designed to limit the effectiveness of corruption. The less centralized power is, the more obstacles it must overcome.

What is the best form of government that exists today? Probably some flavor of democracy, but it will never be perfect until corruption can be prevented entirely.

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