"My fellow Americans, ask not for what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country".
These important and immortal words by President Kennedy were an iconic moment in political history. It pointed out that the seed of democracy only thrived if we exercised personal and individual responsbility for our state of affairs; we could only truly affect change if we recognized our role in the making and formation of our society. These valuable lessons are not obsolete, but these words have been uttered for so long and with such force, that we have begun to take the first part of this statement much too seriously. We make costly assumptions about the state of the world.
We revel in our history, our longevity, and our victories and we accept the "rights" and roles that those give our governments in relation to others. We have a complex system of governance that is based on full and fundamental democracy and so we become complacent about its outcomes. We hold a state of power, and because that power lends us security, hope, and resources, we can utilize those to affect change on issues we care about (arms, marriage, and drugs being the three most popular issues of today). And it is through the lens of this power, that we see the rest of the world.
We establish a social contract with our countries and states, we accept our systems of government and justice, and we intervene when our instinct tells us that something is much too amiss. But other than this instinct, we have forgotten what exactly is it that our country is supposed to do for us. We are still quite unclear about what we are owed, what responsibility we have delegated to the higher powers in government, and why that is.
Our world is in a crucial state; civilian journalism, surveillance, instant information and whistleblowers have made our lives a little bit more complicated. Our view of the world, and of our own countries became more transparent, and also more opaque. This has made the future of democracy much more obscure. We are responsible for our country and our society, but do we remember what it is we are owed, what belongs to us, and what we have the ability to change? What is it exactly that our country can and should do for us and why is it important to know?
What responsibility does a country bear?
Education, instinct and our sense of justice has ensured that if our personal rights are infringed upon in a big way, we react. We have learned through years of history and beliefs what we should endure, and what we should not. But while we are very good at recognizing a violation of our rights, we might not be all that great at identifying just what our rights are. We know when something is wrong (mostly) but do we know what it means or looks like when something is right?
Typically this is where people quote the constitution. The American people have a right to vote and play a part in the government, have a fair and just trial, be free in their religious practices, carry arms, be subject to reasonable scrutiny, and be safe from exploitation.
Except, that doesn't tell us a whole lot about the social contract between a nation and its citizens.
How about the Declaration of Independence?
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Are we any clearer about what should we expect from the government? What do we expect from our country? If we look to our founding charters, there isn't a lot of clarity. We have certain rights about defense, freedom, speech, and civil duty that are quite clearly laid out, but what about things like: education, healthcare, opportunities for mobility, choices, sanitation, privacy, tolerance, resources, and power?
Do we demand power from our country? Resources? Do we demand access to education and healthcare? Is that our right? What about privacy? Or abundance? Is it important that we don't ever feel scarcity as citizens? These are "rights" and roles that we have developed some value around over time and we sense that they are important, but they are not all that explicit.
Not only do we vary in our opinion of the issues listed above, their very existence is a relatively recent phenomenon. These newer issues have integrated themselves over the years into our expectations from our country, and also into the country's expectations of us, but without the full consent of either party.
For example, a country could go to war in order to become powerful or attain resources, but are power and resources a right that a country is responsible to procure for its citizens? On the flip side, citizens could demand employment and happiness as they feel is their right, but is it really the country's responsibility to give it to them?
Is it the fault of a citizen that we go to war? Is it the fault of the country that a citizen is unhappy?
There are rights and responsibilities that both the country and the citizen burden themselves with, and we do not quite agree on what they are.
Is this responsibility the same for all countries?
We have taken a quick and cursory look at the founding and governing documents of the United States of America, but what about the rest of the world? Is America a blueprint for the ideal democracy and system of governance?
Can we apply the architecture of America to nations in Europe with a total population of under 50,000 people? What about to Japan, a country polarized between cultures of stoic tradition and equally extreme flamboyance? Or Oman, drafted fairly recently with its constituents being made up of former gypsies and Bedouin tribes? Or the close-by UAE that imports its working class?
At first glance, it can seem very reasonable to do so.
If a country is extremely powerful, operates and functions fairly well with rights and responsibilities that are universally recognized as being distributed to all its citizens, and also has a fair amount of economic clout, we can assume that it got that way because whatever system of governance it utilized, was the right one. If we have achieved some sort of state of supremacy, we must have done something to earn it or deserve it. We must have done something right.
However, "might" is not the same as "right". States of supremacy owe themselves largely to extremely complicated historical, contextual, and natural forces. The elements that turn a good nation into a great one, or a bad nation into an extinct one, are the same forces that turn even good nations extinct, and bad nations supreme. Of course, we are probably doing a lot of things right, but we are doing them right for us, right for our times, right for the circumstances in which we exist. Are they "ultimate" in their righteousness? Probably not.
What are some rights and responsibilities of government in international constitutions that are unique or different from that of the American?
The Polish constitution has a preamble that emphasizes international cooperation and good relations with all countries "for the good of the Human family". The constitution of the Netherlands protects its citizens' rights to secrecy of communication which means that sealed, personal or encrypted information cannot be accessed by the government and protects the privacy of communication of all its citizens. It also talks about freedom of education, and of education as a right it owes its citizens. The constitution of the UAE places much emphasis on family being the basis of society and that "the law shall guarantee its existence, safeguard and protect it from corruption". Other constitutions restrict rights that are provided to us in America; the constitution of Singapore actually restricts freedom of religion in favor of "the sovereignty, integrity and unity of Singapore", China restricts the freedom of the press and freedom of speech in order to promote national interests.
Clearly, we do not have a universal system of rights that seeps into our government. We have one that is separate from our government, and it's called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Now, unfortunately, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not one that governments tend to enforce in their workings very much. We don't even have to go very far down the list to see this negligence in action. Article 2 states:
[...] no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty
So we cannot dismiss these rights and freedoms for people that belong to a non-democratic country, if they are part of a disputed territory, or if they have a conflicted international status.
What's the third article of the UDHR?
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Let's look at a few more really quick:
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him
We violate these articles all the time in the name of war. The drone program which is justified by our War on Terror, for example, has resulted in the deaths of at least 253 people just last year, none of whom were granted a trial, and a lot of whom were not the intended target. In Pakistan alone, the drone program is said to have killed between 2,000 and 3,500 people to date, including accidental child and female casualties. This has led to several efforts towards humanizing the drone victims and increasing accountability for the program.
The point is this: we do not have an internationally accepted and utilized system for measuring the rights of a citizen, and the responsibility of its governing body.
How do we measure our success?
So if we don't use the standards set forth by the United Nations, what do we use to measure our success as a nation? Oft we use productivity in the form of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) which measures our production of goods and services within a year, sometimes normalized against things like region, expenditure, income.
GDP is pretty useful, it helps us understand how much useful production and service our country generates which is largely correlated with a higher standard of living, which is in turn correlated with higher citizen satisfaction and happiness. Because GDP on its own doesn't give us a whole lot of information, we divide it by the population of the country in order to get its GDP Per Capita which helps us visualize its productivity at a more reasonable magnitude. Without it, larger countries would show a much higher GDP than smaller countries, even if the smaller countries are much more productive relative to their size.
However, GDP per capita doesn't measure our success as a country as much as it measures our ability. Countries with higher GDP tend to have more resources and ability to:
- Pay off their debts,
- Provide greater benefits to their citizens,
- Improve the strength of their currency,
- Purchase goods,
- Provide loans,
- And enforce taxation.
What the GDP is not very good at though, is measuring whether country actually does the kinds of things mentioned above, whether it fulfills its duties and obligations to its citizens, whether it is stable and secure, and finally, whether it uses its freshly minted resources for good or evil.
Just because something has the capacity to do something, doesn't mean it has the tendency to do it (More applications of capacity vs. tendency here), and GDP is all about only capacity.
How should we measure our success?
Now that we've established that we really shouldn't be so quick to applaud a country by its GDP, what should we use as a measure of success? What is it that makes a country great? What is it that makes a country, not only powerful, but also responsible.
What makes a country good for its people?
There are a lot of extremely smart people out there who are working extensively to answer this question, but in the meantime a group of extremely smart people have come up with the best alternative I've seen so far, called The Social Progress Index.
The index doesn't dismiss GDP completely, in fact, it uses GDP to categorize countries and group similarly productive ones together. It uses GDP the way it was intended (the only way it is good for, really), which is as a measure of capacity. It puts countries with similar capacities together to create a comparison of their relative tendencies and outcomes.
It analyzes countries on social, cultural and resource-based dimensions. These are:
- Nutrition and basic medical care
- Water and sanitation
- Personal Safety
- Access to basic knowledge (Education)
- Access to information and Communication
- Health and Wellness
- Ecosystem sustainability
- Personal rights
- Personal freedom and choice
- Tolerance and Inclusion
- Access to advanced education
The social progress index does a remarkable job of mapping a country's relative tendency for success using an approach that is comprehensive and appropriate, but as importantly, it also makes clear an expectation of what a country is responsible for, and what is reasonable for a citizen to expect from its government.
Using this in collaboration with economic metrics, we can feel the true pulse of a government-citizen system.
What are we accountable for, as citizens?
Let's get back to Kennedy's request for a minute. What do we want to stand for as citizens and what burden do we want to accept? How much are we in-charge of managing our governments in order to get the returns we need? What is our responsibility?
I am going to stray away from the "love thy neighbor" type of accountability and focus on a higher-level systemic awareness that we must have.
The first thing to realize is that we cannot ignore our role as citizens. Whether active or passive, we are shaping the reality of our republics by our participation or lack thereof. We have abilities and powers that we can exercise, or choose not to exercise, but both do not take away the identity that we carry.
Another thing to recognize is that we should (and have a right to) know how and why our system of governance operates the way it does. But the effort to extract such levels of transparency from our sources is a burden that we must bear alone. Much of our structures and systems are disclosable but do not disclose easily.
And the most important of these is that we must learn to differentiate good information from bad. This implies that as citizens we must utilize resources in order to become literate in the art of seeing through false information, detecting the limitations of true information, and understanding and caring about the consequences of all information. This takes a different kind of literacy, one beyond just the literal "being able to read and write your own name", it takes a cultural and analytical literacy, one that we not only bear a responsibility to develop personally, but also in those we tend to influence.
It is these tasks that we cannot delegate, refuse, or reject. They must be accepted and fulfilled as a prerequisite to any accountability we can hope to obtain from our systems of governance. Without these duties fulfilled, our country is under little to no obligation to service our requests and expectations.
We cannot receive that which we are unwilling to give. Power is earned, as is change.
How does this impact our form of democracy?
The combination of (A) citizens with an incomplete sense of duty, and (B) a country whose obligations are not defined, is a dangerous situation for a democracy.
It implies that the power of the citizen is severely diluted against the order of governing bodies and political groups, because not only are citizens ill-equipped to manage and respond to information, there is also no consensus on what information we actually want, which means that those bodies don't need to publicly supply information that isn't explicitly asked for.
A democratic and successful nation is at odds with these circumstances, the "power of the people" is dependent on factors that we have not learned to identify or correct. Upon accepting the privilege and responsibility of citizenship, we have to find these factors. We need to determine what it is we want our country to procure for us, and what we think it needs explicit permission from "the people" to do. We need to understand what we are owed, why, and whether that is too much, or too little. Once we know what information to expect, we can seek it. Once we know what we call success, we can measure it.
Why should we care about how we perceive the rest of the world?
In order to further our domestic happiness, we cannot afford to have a shallow or cursory understanding of the rest of the world either. This is for a few different reasons:
We exercise not just domestic citizenship, but also global citizenship. If our country is not meeting its clear obligations towards our goals, we do have a right to live in another one. The factors that are most important to a particular person can be much more readily available and much more temptingly incentivized in a global economy. Countries with lax responsibility to societal obligations end up with their largest export being their bright and educated populace. The United States is not exempt from the global marketplace, and although at the moment it is a bigger importer of global talent than exporter, this is likely to not always be the case.
Any system of government is much more intricate and layered than the one-word descriptor we use to identify and judge them. No two democratic nations are the same, and even if a country falls into a category that implies the "correct" or "popular" form of governance, it might be doing greater disservice to its populace than other less popular forms of government. No one country tends to have it right, but every country has some interesting insight to offer. We cannot apply broad categorization or stereotype towards our interpretation of international policy. Our role in the world is largely determined by the roles of those around us, and we cannot afford to even be negligent, let alone wrong. Culture can trump technology, and the slides of power can shift suddently in its favor. When it does, we cannot afford to be sitting on the wrong side of cultural literacy and sensitivity.
History is rarely kind to the unaware, and makes it a point to school the oblivious.
There is much to be learned and much to be gained in the quest to perfect the Democracy, but our evolution has led us into a place that is inefficient, egoistic, and unclear. Our structure is time-tested through the past, but it is certainly not future-tested. We are beginning to feel the strain of uncertainty and fragility in our governing relationships due to our misaligned expectations. In order to create the perfect Democracy, we must evolve again, and in order to select our finest traits, we must never be afraid to ask what they are.