How to control politicians and their exercise of political power


Aristotle writes at his work “Politics”:

and they (state officials) will govern righteously by being held accountable for their actions by others than themselves. Thus, it is beneficial to the state to be in a state of suspense and not being able to do everything as it seems good to one, for the power to do whatever one likes cannot guard against the evil that is in every man’s character”.

καὶ ἄρξουσι δικαίως διὰ τὸ τῶν εὐθυνῶν εἶναι κυρίους ἑτέρους. τὸ γὰρ ἐπανακρέμασθαι, καὶ μὴ πᾶν ἐξεῖναι ποιεῖν τι ἂν δόξῃ, συμφέρον ἐστίν: γὰρ ἐξουσία [40] τοῦ πράττειν τι ἂν ἐθέλῃ τις οὐ δύναται φυλάττειν τὸ ἐν ἑκάστῳ τῶν ἀνθρώπων φαῦλον», Aristotle, Politics 1318b 38-41]

When it comes down to ensuring that political power is exercised for the common good of the people and not of those who hold the offices of state, there is one particular practice that sticks out from the rest. This practice is to ensure that all State officials are held accountable for their actions during their term in office. This is what can make the difference between just and unjust politics, good and bad governance.

According to the legal definition of the term,

“Political accountability refers to the responsibility or obligation of government officials to act in the best interests of society or face consequences. Public officials should be held responsible for their actions”.

The term “consequences” in this case can only have the meaning of some sort of punishment. Thus political accountability is intrinsically associated with the punishment of those officials who govern against the best interests of society.

However, this alone is not enough to secure the exercise of power for the common good, because the ruling classes can always attempt to manipulate the way in which political accountability is performed to their advantage. To this end there may be an exclusion of some serious political crimes from the auditing processes or the overall auditing jurisdiction may be attributed to members of the political class (members of government or parliament) to avoid punishment. In this second case, if the deceipt behind been scrutinised for political crimes by fellow political criminals becomes too obvious, then it will somehow have to be covered. The most often soltution in this case is handing matters over to the judiciary; politicians are then been held accountable for their actions by judges who have either been appointed by them or by fellow politicians before them, securing absolution of their crimes or a minor punishment at the worst case scenario.

Therefore, what this teaches us and certainly taught Aristotle, is that in order for political accountability to work there is one tiny but extremely important condition; those to whom officials give accounts for their actions must not in any form relate to the political class or to those whom they are expected to audit.

The auditors who examine whether government officials execrised their power justly for the common good or injustly for their own gain, must be independent from politicians. They cannot be members of government or parliament nor can they be members of the judiciary who have been appointed to their positions by the government officials who are under audit.

Thus these are the two necessary steps to ensure that government and other state officials will do the right thing in politics (for more on that see my book “How to make your Government do the Right Thing” ).

First – Ensure there is a practical and efficient process of holding state officials accountable for their actions

Second – Ensure that the audits of state officials are not performed by individuals of the political class but by independent individuals  who are in no way related to the people they are auditing and have not got any sort of direct or indirect bonds and ties with them.

Aristotle then goes on to explain the reason why political accountability is so important. He says that it is to the best interest of the city to put state officials in a state of uncertainty regarding their performance and whether they will be punished for their actions or not, because allowing them the power to do what they want without control will leave them forever defenseless against the innate wickedness that lives within every man.

There you have it then. All State officials must be checked and examined for their performance during their service and be punished for any actions that have not been to the best interests of the people.

When doing that, however, the State must be careful to not attribute the jurisdiction of auditing its officials to institutions or individuals who by nature or by personal interest are likely to exonerate the actions that have opposed the common good of the people.

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