Something I’ve found, and that has increasingly bothered me, is the lack of reciprocity we encounter in life. In all my recent dealings with potential employers, universities and government departments there has been a fundamental imbalance in the relationship.
Thus, applications frequently require a significant amount of work – including the dreaded, and useless, compentancy questions – but rarely garner even a form letter as a reply. Mistakes on your end can result in severe consequences – imprisonment in the most extreme cases, but a mistake on the part of one of these organisations requires significant effort for them to even fix, nor can you expect even an apology. Hence the difference in treatment if you made a mistake in your taxes (expected to be hounded, at the very least) to what happens if Inland Revenue takes too much (if they get round to paying it back, expect it in 18 months). My own recent experience with the DWP involved multiple phone calls to try and get them to correct their mistake. Each time they promised to call back by a certain time, and except for once failed in that promise. Try that in reverse, however, and the consequences would be unpleasant.
I suspect it is the lack of reciprocity that most people experience that contributes to the feeling of powerlessness that I suspect many feel, and to the disenchantment many feel towards government. No matter what rhetoric there is about responding to people’s needs, such relations are not conducted on the basis of equality.
I suspect part of the problem is simply one of scale. In each of these cases there is one large organisation and one individual. One individual simply isn’t important enough to a large company or government department. It probably doesn’t help that, due to the way call centres and so on work, you rarely deal the same individual again. This is not only aggravating (since you have to explain everything, again and again), but the responsibility to deal with a problem is diminished – since no one person has specific responsibility to deal with a situation, it’s noone’s fault and noone’s to pushed to fix it. Mind you, this lack of recipirocity also seems to manifest with quite small companies.
Turning to the implications for government, this problem is particularly glaring in the light of various political theories regarding the ‘social contract’. I’m somewhat critical of such ideas – try finding a state that was actually established by such a contract – but this concept is further weakened if the state involved does not deal on a reciprocal basis with its citizens. What justification then for the state’s existence? The only justification left then is a straight recourse to power, which in turn leaves citizens on the level of serfs. That said, since this phenomena seems to affect private companies as much as it does government.
In contrast, I find the doctrine of covenants quite liberating in this context – while God sets the terms, he agrees to enter into a relationship of reciprocity with the individual. We take on certain commitments, and He promises certain blessings. This does mean though, that while the eternal Lord and Creator of Heaven and Earth is prepared to deal on a reciprocal basis with individuals, governments and companies really can’t be bothered.
It’s an odd pattern, and not a just one either. Reciprocity is surely an essential part of a fundamentally just society, and political reform in the name of greater accountability without it would surely be fundamentally useless. I do wonder, however, whether the concept of covenant as applied to government could be part of a solution. Were a ‘social covenant’ renewed with each new generation of citizens – with stated terms for each side, and on a reciprocal basis – could government become truly accountable?