The present government has made a complete hash of the Cabinet. Whereas we talked in terms of a Cabinet based on rational principles, we seem to have adopted the rag-bag approach instead, with ludicrous combinations such as Home Affairs and Fisheries (whereas District and Divisional Secretariats should obviously have been part of Public Administration) or Minister of Policy Planning, Economic Affairs, Child Youth and Cultural Affairs.
This is ridiculous, but it is inevitable when Cabinets are formed with priority given to keeping people happy, or by those with inflated beliefs in the capacity of some individuals. What a country needs rather is a clear vision of what government needs to do, and how this can be done most effectively. The Cabinet should be based on the needs of the people, not the needs or egos or even simply the seniority of particular politicians.
I therefore present here the Second Chapter of ‘Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka’, which scrutinizes what government should do, and why.
In many countries, especially those like Sri Lanka which were under British colonial rule, there is a belief that the powers of government are unlimited and so are its duties. This may be because, under the colonial system, absolute power belonged to a foreign state which did not have any responsibilities towards those whom it governed. Colonialism could not conceive that the people are above the government, and that the functions of government should be limited to those the people want or need.
The state centred view of government was reinforced in modern times by communist goverments. Communist systems emerged in the twentieth century as the main opponents of capitalist systems. Communism and capitalism originally referred to economic ideas rather than political systems. However, communism developed into a political system that gave absolute power to the government. This was perhaps because it emerged in states where absolute monarchies had prevailed previously. Karl Marx, who initially developed communism as a social and economic theory, had believed that the state would eventually wither away. But communist governments, which emerged first in feudal and agricultural societies, merely reinforced the old model that gave absolute power to the government.
In the previous chapter we looked at how, as modern societies emerged with greater emphasis on the setting up of government by the people, measures were taken to limit its powers. Here we should consider the functions of government, that is, what governments alone can do, what they can do in collaboration with other elements in society, and what they should not try to do at all.
Undoubtedly, the most important function of a government is to ensure the security of its people. It can be argued that government emerged for this purpose. When people first began to form themselves into groups that had rules and structures, they chose as their leaders those most capable of ensuring their safety. People were willing to accept the domination of others within their own community, in order to ensure their safety from external threats. In time, as concepts of property developed, people needed security from others within the community as well. They needed laws to govern relations internally, as well as measures to defend against attacks from outside. The laws were largely internal, whereas the measures taken against external threats in those days were not subject to the law.
Among the most essential functions of government then are security (external and internal) and justice. In many countries amongst the most important members of the cabinet are the minister of defence and the minister of justice. The former looks after the armed forces and sometimes the police as well, although in some countries there is a separate Interior or Home Ministry for this purpose. The Ministry of Justice regulates the courts and ensures that those who break the law are brought before the law. In certain exceptional cases, as in the United States, where the doctrine of Separation of Powers is implemented thoroughly, the courts are independent of the cabinet and come under a chief justice. However, there too, there is an attorney general in the cabinet who has to ensure that the laws are implemented and those suspected of criminal acts prosecuted in the courts.
As societies developed, it became clear that physical security alone was not enough. The term ‘security’ was also linked to other words such as food and finance. Although the actual role of government in these areas can be debated, there are emergency situations when it is universally agreed that the government should act. When people are unable to fulfill their essential needs governments need to step in. With regard to food security, for instance, in a time of famine, the government must take necessary steps to maintain supplies. Similarly, health is an area where government involvement is essential to maintain security. There are areas, however, where the government may only have to play a facilitatory or helping role, with the other institutions in society contributing to greater or lesser extents.
An important area where the government must assume full responsibility in maintaining security is finance. Among the most important members of a cabinet is the minister of finance. He or she is responsible for the currency of a country, both its production and value. The finance minister must ensure that the currency remains stable, or at any rate does not depreciate in value so rapidly that people lose faith in it. He also must make sure that the government raises enough money to fulfill its essential functions. Trade and production should be promoted so that income is generated to meet people’s requirements. Increasingly, in the modern world, such needs are also met by borrowing internally or from other states or international financial organisations. But the finance minister must ensure that such borrowing is within limits and does not contribute to massive currency depreciation or bankruptcy.
Another ministry, which plays a key role in maintaining security, is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Every country has a foreign minister, and he or she is responsible for maintaining friendly relations with other countries, so as to avoid external threats. The minister is also required to develop ties that will promote economic cooperation. His or her work involves several areas such as goods, services and labour. It may involve other ministries also, but the overall responsibility for good international relations belongs to the foreign minister who must be a capable person.
To sum up, security is among the most important functions of a government and requires in any cabinet the following portfolios—minister of defence, minister of justice, minister of finance and minister of foreign affairs.