Confusing wants and needs

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Last week, Financial Secretary in the Ministry of Finance Whitfield Harris made a call for greater discussion on the size and role of government.

“Nothing is for free; everything has to be paid for by government or private individuals,” he is quoted as saying while speaking at the weekly ABS Media Roundtable programme.

The really telling part of Harris’ comments was a call for regular debate between government and people “so that parties can determine what exactly is it that you want government to do for you.”

What he was trying to bring to our attention was the fact that government’s resources are limited.

This caused us to reflect on a group conversation we were involved in where a similar question was asked: What do Antiguans and Barbudans want? We remember being struck by one comment from a visibly frustrated participant.

What the average person wants, she declared, was for each planeload of tourists to get to the top of the airplane steps, empty their pockets and wallets of all money and valuables and throw them on to the airport tarmac. They would then be expected to return to the aircraft and depart to make way for the next planeload.

Other comments reminded us of our eager anticipation of the free turkey from the politician at election time, to influence our vote, and the ability to get our member of Parliament to get us a job. Never mind that the job required little in the way of work – sometimes nothing more than to show up to collect a pay check.

These are harsh judgements of some of our countrymen but it does show that the “freeness” mentality dictates a lot of what many of us want.

All decisions as to policy and goals for our country have been traditionally left to politicians. This has led, even before independence, to the squandering of the country’s resources by such things as selling or giving away Crown land without regard to the consequences. We can remember raising these questions only to be told “is so we like it”.

Our people have become accustomed to the patronage of politicians. It has probably never occurred to most of us that our politicians are merely trying to survive and have little time or inclination to figure out what the country really needs, instead of merely what it wants.

With the freeing up of the local media, the public is slowly voicing opinions where people shied away before. The task now would seem to be to let these opinions count for something. Because our people have always allowed our politicians to call the shots in the past, this will not be an easy task.

This is where Mr Harris’ call for periodic debates could prove useful. The real question, however, is not what we want but what we need in order to build a vibrant, prosperous and orderly society. These are some of the requirements if we are to improve our quality of life.

Our politicians will have to wean us off the attractions of election turkeys and worthless jobs and instill an awareness of the things we can do for ourselves that will benefit us over the long term.

Our private sector will have to educate us as to the attractions of building our own businesses as one way to help ourselves.

Deciding what we need is not a particularly difficult task. At the most basic, we need adequate food, clothing and shelter for our citizens. To accomplish these things we need to develop a tough, resilient and productive population. Developing our human capital is far more beneficial than any amount of money the government might want to spend on building bureaucracies or attending showy conferences.

The reasoning is straightforward. People create wealth through their innovative and productive skills. They can only do so if they have the support structure of a good education, good training and efficient courts.

To kick off the financial secretary’s call for discussion, we would like to rephrase his statement by asking: “What exactly is it that you need government to do for you?”

If this question is tackled by our citizens it should be a lot easier for the politicians to plan policy.

Our politicians need to guide our people away from wanting short-term monetary gains in favour of what we need to better our lives for the long term.

Mr Harris’ call, with the modification we propose, might be a good place to start.


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