When the American republic was just a kid, before there was even a US Constitution, Thomas Jefferson sailed for France to become ambassador to the court of Louis XVI. He loved the place. He even thought highly of the king. It was the system that bothered him. “It is difficult,” he wrote to a friend back home, “to conceive how so good a people, with so good a king, so well-disposed rulers in general, so genial a climate, so fertile a soil, should be rendered so ineffectual for producing human happiness by one single curse – that of a bad form of government.”
That was pre-deluge France. Its form of government was about to change. Jefferson supported that change, though what it brought about – the era of the guillotine – was not especially good at delivering human happiness either.
Getting government right has been humanity’s never-ending quest. All of us can agree that there might be better ways to live and work and smarter ideas about how to manage our homes. We’re generally open to experimenting with them. It’s when we talk about government that the conversations get a little tense.
Government is a loaded term. Some people see it as an almost sacred idea, etched on holy parchment and carried to us on angels’ wings. For others, it is the butt of jokes. Comedians from Will Rogers to Jerry Seinfeld (he has a particular thing about the Postal Service) have gotten laughs at its expense.
Everyone agrees that government can be improved. But that’s where agreement ends. Even if you are a libertarian, you have to acknowledge at least a minimal need for defense against outside threats, deterrence of criminals, and settlement of civil disputes. You may want government to do much more than that – to promote certain behaviors and discourage others, to level wealth and boost people from poverty. From Aristotle to Thomas Paine to French economist Thomas Piketty, whose book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” is stirring current debate, thinkers have been asking, Is there a better way of organizing ourselves, a more effective way of producing human happiness?
At northern edge of Europe – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland – the economies are dynamic, innovation is celebrated, quality of life ranks high on every index, and government plays a fairly large role in people’s lives. Is that model applicable elsewhere? One crucial fact about Nordic governments: They rank high for transparency and honesty.
When government is hijacked by person, clique, or interest group, it ceases to be “of the people.” (That is Mr. Piketty’s concern when it comes to the use of wealth to gain political advantage to build further wealth and further advantage.) It is easier to keep governments honest and efficient in relatively homogeneous societies such as Sweden because most citizens feel a kinship with each other. Swedes call that folkhemmet. But what about a multiethnic place like the United States or Brazil – or even Sweden as it, too, becomes more diverse?
Government isn’t a joke, even if there are good jokes about it. The right level of government will always be argued about, especially in election years. The need for honesty and transparency are crucial. And the best metric for measuring how government is doing is still Jefferson’s: Is it effective at producing human happiness?
John Yemma is editor at large of the Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.