Monday, November 08, 2004

Threat perception as the basis of government power 

In his explanation of the political climate in Singapore, Steven McDermott mentioned in a post that the “presence of a despot” is usually taken for granted as a necessary arrangement to build and maintain order and stability. That, of course, is a widely-held view, especially in Asia.

I would take this further and suggest that citizens of a country normally perceive threats as coming broadly from three main sources:

  • Internal, including individuals and groups within society
  • External, that is, foreigners
  • Government

  • In other words, most people are not oblivious to the fact that the government itself is a potential threat to their well-being. That they may grant more power to a government reflects their view that one or two other sources of threat may be greater still and they need a strong government to handle them. In other words, it boils down to relative threat perceptions.

    In a large country like the United States, the first two threats have historically been perceived as minimal. If you don’t like the individuals or groups in one part of the United States, you just move to another part of the country; especially in a federation where different states may have different laws, which part of the country you live in can make a significant difference. External threats, obviously, are not a problem for the world’s most powerful country (except possibly where jobs are concerned).

    Things may have changed somewhat in the United States recently. The threat posed by foreigners — specifically terrorists — have obviously become more evident after the 9/11 attack. But even internally, there appears to be an increase in the perceived threat coming in the form of conflicting values. By many accounts, his willingness to use the federal government to impose restrictions on certain practices like stem-cell research and gay marriages helped George W. Bush gain re-election to the presidency.

    In my opinion, when the government is accorded more power because of a perceived threat from foreigners, there is an incentive for it not to abuse its power because of the need to maintain the support of its citizens; a common foe is a powerful bond. But when the government is given more power to suppress internal elements, especially its own citizens, the lines of interests may become blurred.

    The concept of threat perception provides a basis for determining how much government power citizens are likely to tolerate. However, even as each country accords power to its government to deal with the perceived threats it faces, it must also always face up to the task of erecting effective checks and balances on the government regardless of threat perceptions because the government itself is always a potential threat to the citizen too.


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