Nguyen Dinh Nguyen 28/10 Is the main responsibility of the state to provide material well-being for its people


The state can be a humble servant of its people or a ruthless tyrant that rules with an iron fist. Whatever the case, most governments recognize the importance of satisfying at least some of the most basic needs of the people lest they lose their legitimacy. Among these needs, material well-being, in the form of job, income, housing, or food, stands out as the most fundamental and it is thus the state’s main responsibility to provide this to its people. At its crudest form, material well-being concerns the bare minimum required by the people for subsistence. Without basic necessities such as shelters, food, or rudimentary healthcare, not only would the people’s health and quality of life drastically deteriorate but their lives would also be put in grave danger from starvation and diseases. A case in point is the destitute country of North Korea. Under the Communist regime led by dictator Kim Jong Il, the country’s production of food falls far from meeting the needs of the people and the government frequently has to rely on foreign food aids to feed the hungry population. According to the United Nations World Food Program (UNWFP), North Korea currently faces the risk of widespread famine as the country’s food stock is expected to run out in May this year. Should such an event materialized, 24 million North Koreans would suffer from malnutrition and starvation, which would amount to a serious humanitarian crisis. As seen from this example, the failure of Kim Jong Il’s government to provide sufficient food to the people would lead to immense suffering, thus highlighting the crucial role of basic material well-being. As people’ lives are at stake, the provision of material well-being is arguably the state’s main responsibility. Even when the people are well fed and their basic needs met, the aspiration for a prosperous and comfortable life still weighs heavily and the people may expect the government to prioritize the pursuit of ever higher material standard of living. It is difficult to gauge how much the people value improvement in standard of living and thus how important the provision of higher material well-being is as a responsibility of the state. However, in many cases when people are willing to forgo other needs, such as political freedom, in exchange for job and better pay, it can be said that material wellbeing should be give precedence. Witness ho the Communist Party of China embraced market capitalism and transformed the Middle Kingdom into an economic miracle, thereby winning over a population of 1.3 billion. Now the second largest economy in the world after overtaking Japan, China boasts of modern metropolises such as Shanghai or Beijing where material standard of living is at levels comparable to those in many developed countries. Since the Chinese government is a repressive one, the fact that protests and political dissent against the state remain largely isolated shows that economic success has worked wonders to sweeten the pill of political intolerance and oppression. This means that material well-being indeed matters significantly to the people and is therefore the state’s priority.

However, the role of the government is by no means limited to solely the provision of material well-being. Apart from job or income, an average citizen may also demand for benefits and rights, such as the right to vote and to be protected from violence or harm. Under certain circumstances in which the tipping point is reached, the state may not be able to make up for the lack of these rights merely with increasing material wealth and may thus be forced to take up the responsibility of ensuring political freedom and respecting human rights. One very good example of this, and a valuable lesson for the Communist Party of China at the same time, is how people in the Arab countries are revolting against their governments to demand for more freedom as well as the right to choose their leaders. Started in Tunisia, the wave of protest and revolution has spread out to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and many other countries. Seeing the downfall of dictators like Ben Ali of Tunisia or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Arab monarchs and authoritarian leaders have resorted to either extreme violence, as in the case of Qaddafi in Libya, or throwing out money and gifts to buy the people’s loyalty. According to The Economist, Arab governments, endowed with ample money from oil, have promised or even started to increase handouts, food and fuel subsidies, or even direct cash grants to the people in exchange for their submission to their rule. For instance, the Kuwaiti government has promised to give each citizen US$4000 as well as to provide completely free food for the next 14 months. However, despite such excesses of material wealth being offered, the people’s voice calling for reform is only getting louder, as can be seen in escalating conflicts between the police and protesters. Apparently, material well-being alone has ceased to be enough to satisfy the people as they now yearn for more freedom. Consequently, this means that the task of ensuring democracy and respecting citizens’ basic rights may be just as important, if not more than in some cases, as the provision of material well-being. Nevertheless, the people who marched into Tahrir Square in Egypt or overthrew Ben Ali in Tunisia may in fact have one common goal in mind: a better material standard of living. The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia was sparked off by a young man who set himself on fire in protest against unemployment and police’s harassment which prevented him from making a living. The streets of Cairo and now Tripoli are filled with young undergraduates and professionals unable to find job. On the surface, it seems, these revolutions are fueled by the desire for democracy and freedom. However, the underlying driving force is in fact the wish for job and income, or in other words, better material well-being. The people only see freedom and democracy as a means to achieve such a goal but not an end in itself. Again, this highlights the importance of material well-being to the people and the state should thus make the provision of material well-being its priority to ensure peace and stability. A hungry population is an angry population. An angry population is one that will not vote for you in the next election or may even revolt against you should you deny them the ballot box. Here is the lesson for politicians the world over: keep your people’s pockets filled and their stomachs full and the country is yours to keep.

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