Seven Principles of Sound Governance

Right principles should be backed by right actions. Public policies express the social, ethical and economic principles upon which laws are based. Without both good public policy and good governance — principles backed by action — officials cannot govern well.

Mackinac Center supporter Jim Rodney asked me to set forth principles of governance along the lines of a great essay by President Emeritus Lawrence Reed called “Seven Principles of Sound Public Policy.” I first rolled them out at a “Friends of Liberty” dinner hosted by another supporter, and Jim’s friend, Sheldon Rose of Bloomfield Hills. 

I chose seven governing actions that policymakers must perform if they hope to govern well, no matter what policy they pursue or party they prefer. Here they are in short form.

1. Tell the truth. Be honest in and out of season. Don’t condemn dishonesty in political opponents while conveniently overlooking it among allies. Tell the truth in one’s own dealings and also about the dealings of government, even when the truth is not what people want to hear. Be honest about how much things cost and who will pay. Don’t cherry-pick data to justify pet projects.

2. Be faithful and fair. Start with fidelity to the U.S. and state constitutions and to the oath of office. Don’t appeal to exotic interpretations of those documents to justify ambitious laws. Expect government to call balls and strikes but not to stretch the strike zone for some players and shrink it for others. Protect people’s rights to earn a living, speak their minds, support their causes and worship their God, if they can do so peacefully.

3. Embrace accountability and insist on it. This means accountability of the government to the people, not the other way around. If an audit of a government agency turns up problems, responsible parties are held to account and the problems are fixed. No more toothless laws and no-fault audits. There is no such thing as a violation of government privacy, although some public officials would violate people’s privacy under the banner of “transparency.” Transparency is for government; privacy is for people.

4. Respect the governed and respect the government. Read the bills. Don’t skip votes. Explain why votes are in accord with the constitution and the public interest. Help constituents navigate labyrinthine government programs if the unnecessary ones cannot be eliminated altogether. Make government worthy of respect.

5. Govern with humility. Acknowledge the boundaries government should not cross. Accept the limits of government action. Judge laws by their effects, not their intentions. Do not send government on errands for which it is ill-equipped.

6. Serve the governed, not the systems and people of government. Put principles before politics, before party, before personality and before personal gain. Evaluate policies by their effects on all people, not just those in government and with disproportionate influence over it.

7. Acknowledge the nature of government, and of man. It is the nature of government to grow, and it is the nature of government to use force to accomplish its purposes. It is the nature of man to respond to incentives, and also to misbehave. If men were angels, there would be no need for government. If government were run by angels, we would have no need to limit government. 

We won’t have good government without people who practice these principles. But I also believe we can be well-governed if we do.