What is the purpose of government? Given the intensity of the arguments on all sides of this question, I suppose that discussion around it has been with us for as long as the institutions, which collectively bear that name have been. Whatever side of the argument you look at this question from, governments are naturally conservative institutions. Oftentimes, this is immediately obvious only through their criminal justice work. Laws and statutes are especially lethargic instruments of governance. Designed to keep societies in their familiar haunts, and their citizens on the “straight and narrow” they have always changed at a glacial (if magisterial) pace. In addition, you find governments straining bone and sinew to ensure adherence to these laws.
Look closely, however, beneath the integuments of any economy, and this penchant to conserve is present everywhere. Fiscal activity, going forward, is referenced on the outcome of the last budget cycle. Talking heads see expansionary themes only because the “proposed budget” is an increase of X% over the “previous one”. Monetary policy types mull over data on yesterday’s activities, declare some of these data “forward looking”, and strive to keep the economy (and those indexes that they have come to associate with its “steady state” growth requirements) ticking. Are we allowed then, to rephrase the old liberal argument against “big government” in the timeless words of The Economist’s mission statement?
No. But only because we have had governments whose uncommon approach to the existential challenges within their jurisdictions have contributed to their respective societies’ remarkable progress. And as with Abraham’s biblical condition for the redemption of Sodom, the acts of these “righteous” governments lend considerable moment to the act of throwing both baby and bath water away. For the most part, though, the exercise of the dark arts that fall under the rubric “government” are typical of the Nigerian experience since independence in 1960: “an unworthy, timid ignorance” that has seriously (fatally, even) obstructed “our progress”.
In the teeth of clear evidence of the resourcefulness of our people (in the face of extreme adversity), successive Nigerian governments insist on inserting themselves into the economic equation at considerable cost, and with no real gain to show for it. The failures of the 1970s’ import-substitution policies notwithstanding, government continues (especially today) to defend “domestic industries” at great cost to the economy. The output of these industries ensure huge welfare losses for the citizenry, as we are expected to pay higher prices for these than other people pay in other countries for goods of (arguably) higher quality. On the other hand, whatever is gained from higher-than-normal tariff and non-tariff barriers to import the materials used in these protected sectors of the economy is given away to the primary movers of enterprises there via a cat’s cradle of waivers and exemptions. Aside this privileged elite, the coffers of the ruling party is the only other net gainer from government’s inverted logic.
Yet, we are living in much changed circumstances. Power increasingly belongs to the people, in more ways than that timeworn phrase ever intended. Some day (and very soon, too) all the information that lent government its uniqueness in the past will be available to a lot more people at the click of a virtual button (if tablet use is any indicator) than was ever the case. Moreover, through this same process, a scary democratisation of the process for the real-time production and consumption of what in the old praxis we once referred to as “material and spiritual” values is underway. This process births two questions. The first concerns itself with defining government and its purpose, looking ahead. With the power of information available to so many people at the same time, government loses its net aggregator role. What remains of it then? This leads to the second question. Under threat from rapid change, most entities revert to familiar processes and practices. Were our government to do this, how serious will the resulting clash be?
Interestingly, one of the more important functions of government threatened by this process is the diplomatic one. Significantly, the diplomatic corps retains its strongest claim to legitimacy in the current environment only in the extent that it helps to prevent governments from engaging in fisticuffs. Does this say anything about the future of government? Methinks that very soon, all that government will have going for it is its monopoly of the means of violence. Even “values” it may no longer be able to allocate, for both the production of these and there consumption will have moved beyond its ken. Is the future therefore of governments ensuring only that all manner of violence are kept to the minimum, while keeping well away from everyone’s backyard?