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The role of politicians in government
by Bouke S. Nagel
2011-11-14 08:11:43
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Suppose that one day a stranger knocks on your door. He or she shows you a legal document which resembles a novel. You open the booklet and look at legal mumbo jumbo of which you comprehend nothing. Then, the stranger requests your signature in the name of everlasting peace on earth. You take his pen into your hand, but first you ask what will happen if you sign. The stranger answers that he will claim ownership of your house. Will you accept the proposal of the stranger?

Something similar happened during the referendum in Holland in 2005. The EU came to Holland and requested that citizens in this country transferred their sovereignty to Brussels. But fact of the matter was that the EU already had Holland’s sovereignty in its pocket. The referendum in Holland therefore was pointless. But it was the first time in decades that citizens in Holland were asked whether they would like to hand over control to Brussels. A majority of the people said no.

It didn´t matter because the EU relied on back-up in case the referendum turned out otherwise than expected. And politicians within the Dutch government signed the transfer of sovereignty to the EU anyway. As a result many citizens in Holland feel betrayed by their political class and are effectively shut out of the decision making process in the foreseeable future. The same thing can be said of other European countries such as Germany, France or Ireland. Could there be a reason for that?

Within the EU and its member states like Holland, Germany or France, government can be compared with a factory. This factory houses a decision making process. Politicians and bureaucrats within the EU can be compared with engineers who carefully regulate and monitor every step of the decision making process in order to ensure maximum quality. In doing so the EU claims that it can guarantee peace and prosperity on this continent.

There is a problem with this approach. Like engineers in real life, politicians and bureaucrats within the EU regard themselves as experts who are not going to listen to those who are not experts as well. Like engineers in real life, they also seem to believe that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, if you bring an outsider into the complex decision making process that we call government. The EU therefore resembles a factory in which engineers assumed control.

The exception is Switzerland. Within this country the people are the sovereign. That is another way of saying that they own the place. Citizens in Switzerland take care of their own affairs with referenda which are held regularly. The Swiss have no need for a professional caste of politicians for example which I think is remarkable. Furthermore, the political system in Switzerland seems to be based on a high degree of distrust towards those embodied with power.

Switzerland offers a different way of looking at politics since it is possible to regard government as a bank. In it there is a big vault in which the collective wealth of citizens is stored. And with that I mean sovereignty. Politicians therefore have something in common with bankers. And from this point of view it is understandable that the Swiss display a high degree of distrust towards politicians since politicians are able to make bets with our sovereignty in treaties which can be lost.

The banking approach to politics is also applicable to other European countries. But the difference is that political systems in countries like Holland and Germany are based on high-trust relationships between politicians and voters. The law obliges citizens in these countries to give politicians a blank check every four years or so. And over the past decades politicians used these checks to transfer great amounts of sovereignty to (secret) accounts in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Try to look at this from the perspective of a Swiss citizen. It should not be possible for a banker to confiscate your assets and expect you to say thank you for it. And now we are left with the following question. Can one speak of citizenship when people are bereft of sovereignty and therefore limited in influencing the course and direction of society? Not surprisingly, the media in Switzerland are highly critical of the EU.

But there is also criticism to be found outside of Switzerland and populism is on the rise for more than a decade now. The American writer Thomas L. Friedman regards modern day populism as a way to blow off steam for disgruntled voters. He therefore refers to the Tea Party as the Tea Kettle movement. In Europe and America however many voters not only are angry at the political class but also seem to have lost faith in the system as a whole (see also the Occupy movement these days).

Mainstream politicians are making it worse because they seem to operate under the assumption that they are experts who can run our affairs with minimal interference of citizens. In the world of today this is not only perceived as undemocratic but can also be interpreted as a sign of corruption because mainstream politicians often are not clear about their dealings to citizens. And this makes it very easy for populists to offer themselves as an alternative and they are on the rise within the Western world.

So we are faced with two extreme forms of politics these days. On the one hand there are mainstream politicians who act like engineers who believe that they can construct our future. On the other hand there are populist salesmen in politics who claim to recognize the interests of citizens. Switzerland offers us a middle ground between these two extremes because in this country politicians can be compared to bankers who are regulated by sovereign citizens.


Related articles and interview:
- Charlemagne, The end of Monnet, The debt crisis is exposing problems in the basic design of the European Union, In: The Economist, September 3, 2011.
- Marcel van Dam, the right of citizens to participate in government affairs vs. the right of citizens to thwart state policies, In: Buitenhof, September 5, 2010, 19:25-22:25.
- Thomas L. Friedman, The Tea Kettle movement, In: The New York Times, September 28, 2011.
- Titto Tettamanti, Die EU ist sehr wohl eine Fehlkonstruktion, Financier Tito Tettamanti zur Europäischen Union, In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 12. Oktober 2011.

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