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No, essential government deliverables are not “goodies”

For as long as I can remember, some Kenyan editors have insisted on calling essential government deliverables “goodies.” They are fond of telling us that some high-ranking functionary “announced goodies” for a particular region or group of citizens.

What are these “goodies”? Oh, just things like feeder roads, port facilities, schools, clinics, and the like. How on earth can we describe these vital things as goodies—which essentially is a word that describes desirable gifts given to children? When government does the work it is supposed to do, can we call that a gift? Or some sort of freebie? Should it even be in any person’s remit to hold these essentials in their hand, to dangle before the desperate?

Perhaps we shouldn’t blame the editors—they only reflect the society we live in. Why have so many of us accepted the idea of the government as Father Christmas, as some generous creature that occasionally dishes out some bagatelles to a hopeful citizenry? To give the people their essential needs is not an act of generosity—it is the actual mission of government. And it is not paid for from the pockets of the benefactors—it comes from the pockets of taxpayers.

If a plumber comes to your home to repair your water pipes, he has not come with goodies for you. He is coming to complete an essential task, one you or others in your family will pay for. That is obvious to all. Why then does our framing fail when it comes to government?

Have no doubt—the so-called benefactors love it for their work to be framed thus. It suits those giving out purported largesse for voters to regard them as their patrons, donors, and well-wishers. Even though the truth is they are not being generous at all—they are only turning the earnings of the people into collective projects and returning them. They are merely doing the jobs they are paid to do. 

Government should be all about managing and prioritising its finances and directing spending towards the most needy or the most deserving or the most useful. It should be very mindful of what it spends, and it should direct every shilling objectively and thoughtfully to its most productive or most humane use. The money should not flow in certain directions just because some individual wills it, but because a system objectively channels it.

The reality is of course distorted on the ground, and this is a global phenomenon. “We” expect to benefit when “our” people are elected. Even in the so-called advanced countries, tycoons benefit from lower taxes and regulations and patronage when the politicians they back win elections. Regions accelerate their development when their sons and daughters become their leaders. Families prosper if their kinfolk come to power. The reality is ugly.

Jeremy Bentham once pointed out that the way government could help its citizenry is by “being quiet.” The philosopher Diogenes is said to have been addressed by the all-powerful Alexander the Great and asked if he wanted anything. Diogenes’ response was to ask the king to “stand out of my sunshine.” Bentham said we should use the same language when we ask government for anything. In other words, leaders should be humble people whose only work is to serve, not to lord it over others or grant them false favours. Bentham wrote: “We have no need of favour—we require only a secure and open path.”

Perhaps we citizens should also recover our dignity. If our only path to progress is via the goodies of government, then we too are part of the problem. Let’s put aside the most needy—the poorest, those trapped in their circumstances—for they are a special case. Any humane and compassionate society would not begrudge that segment all the succour it can get. For the rest of us, however—those with some education and some health in our favour—we cannot be sitting around awaiting handouts and special favours. We should ask only that our own path to betterment is made secure by government, and made open to all.

Words matter. Language can uplift us or keep us trapped in mental prisons. We should not use infantile terms for serious things. Good governments are about delivery, in the service of the greater good. They should not be in the business of hauling around sacks of favours. Good citizens should know what their entitlements are, and demand them at the ballot box and beyond. They should not be in the business of servile and docile dependency.

More grown-up discourse, please. The economy is not a birthday party; government functionaries are not our munificent uncles; and we are not children awaiting the bags of sweets to go home with. If we continue to see our entitlements as goodies, we shall forever be in the hands of the baddies.

(Sunday Nation, 13 February 2023)

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