By Sri Murniati. First published in the Edge Magazine on 11 May 2015.
If Frederic Bastiat, the French philosopher who wrote an outstanding essay on the government in 1848, lived today and joined the recently concluded ASEAN People Forum, he would have won his wager on the tone of the forum and of the statement that the civil society organisations issued.
In that essay that was published during the French Revolution, Bastiat wrote: “Sir, I do not have the honour of knowing you, but I wager ten to one that for six months you have been making utopias; and if you have been making them, I wager ten to one that you place upon the government the responsibility of realising them. And you, Madame, I am sure that you desire from the bottom of your heart to cure all the ills of the mankind and that you would be in no way embarrassed if the government would only lend a hand.”
Yes, he would have won the wager because the seven pages of Civil Society Statement of the ASEAN People Forum exactly has that tone. The statement which titled as “Reclaiming the ASEAN Community for the People” contains about 27 recommendations for the ASEAN states and members. Some of the recommendations contain measures that the governments of ASEAN have to take to ensure the principles of human rights and standards are upheld, the problem of inequalities of wealth, power and resources between countries is addressed, and the discrimination and restriction of civil liberties are removed.
Despite the title of the document that champions a greater role of the people in the ASEAN Community, the tone is exactly what Bastiat predicted. The ASEAN civil society organisations “place upon the government the responsibility of realising” the vision of making ASEAN to be more people-centered and they ask the government to “lend a hand” to realise that vision.
The statement has valid reason to put the responsibilities upon the government. Many problems that plagued some ASEAN countries such as corruption, political prosecution, restrictions to civil liberties are caused by government policies. The only way to resolve them is to push for the government to remove them.
But to place upon the government all responsibilities in realising the vision of people-centered ASEAN, especially to ensure the welfare of the people is a futile attempt. Why?
First, ASEAN civil society organisations know better than anybody else that the government is not an entity that can be fully trusted. The first two pages of the statement clearly pointed out the inability of the government to actually deliver the responsibilities that we, as the people, put on them annually. And yet, every year without fail we keep putting in them more responsibilities and asking them to lend hand to cure all the ills that our community has.
Our dependence on the government is quite amazing. Bastiat described it quite aptly in that essay: “the government is mysterious personage and certainly the most solicited, the most tormented, the busiest, the most advised, the most blamed, the most invoked, and the most provoked in the world.”
Second, we sometime forget that the government needs resources to fulfil the responsibilities that we place upon them. For those resources to be available, it will either take more from the people, or to take something from some people and give it to some others. The government, “cannot procure satisfaction for some without adding to the labour of others.”
If we put responsibility on the government to “relieve women of the burden of unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of social care services and infrastructures”, it will demand for citizens to pay more taxes for such provisions to exist. If we put the responsibility on the government to “provide equal pay”, it will force business to increase wages and lay some workers off. If we put the responsibility on the government to nurture and develop certain business, it will have to put all resources in that business and deprive others.
This does not mean, we, as the people of ASEAN should not make demands to our governments, or should not remind them that as the keeper of taxpayers’ money they have responsibilities to be accountable and open, to respect the rights of their citizen to speak, and to provide them security.
However, Bastiat’s essay can serve as a reminder that when we invite the government to have greater role in ensuring the welfare of the people, there will be cost to it. The people-centered ASEAN should be realised not by making the government having greater role in ensuring the people’s welfare, but making sure that the people are actually capable of doing it by themselves.
Sri Murniati is the Manager of the Political Economy and Governance unit of IDEAS