A while back, I wrote an editorial piece that appeared on the web platform of a major Estonian newspaper, Postimees. It created a bit of a stir, and prompted a rebuttal pieced from the Minister of the Environment.
The content of that piece was legal, but there is an underlying political issue as well. I have now written a second article that appears today on the same Postimees platform. It addresses that underlying political concern, and links the discussion back to the Estonian Constitution. In English, the title is “Whose State is This Anyway?”
Check out the above link if you want to read the Estonian text. Below is a slightly earlier version of the article in English.
I have noticed in the Estonian media a lament that state interests are being trumped by public interests. That idea is expressly stated in paragraph 3.4 of the Finance Ministry’s draft statement for ending the state planning process for a proposed wood pulp mill that was issued in September, It says this quite. bluntly. Poor state! That lament echoed something I heard a while back from a very highly educated Estonian who had advised a government ministry. She said that the public should stop interfering with what experts in ministries were trying to accomplish. The long and short of it — the Estonian public should stay out of the way of the state.
This idea lurks behind the recent decision of the state to extend the time for consideration of the wood pulp mill project for another 30 days. Why is an extension needed? It is not for more input from the public. It is exclusively for the project proponents. Because the state sees its state interests aligned with the project proponents, the state is giving them another chance to come up with new places to put the mill. Forgotten are the arguments why the project is against the public interest no matter where it is put. And once again, the public is faced with tactics based on the notion that the state will get what it wants regardless of what the public may think
One gets the same feeling from watching the state’s recent use of PR and slogans in attempts to sell certain already made big project decisions to the public. Public efforts to discuss the ideas were not encouraged. And opposition to those decisions has been seen by the state as a problem to be overcome, not something to be taken seriously. Some even suggested that opposition was interference in state decision making. Not quite criminal, but not value adding either. And since the state was paying for its own PR, some wondered who was paying the opponents. They found it difficult to imagine that people were prepared to expend their own time and efforts without compensation in order to to try to engage in a dialog with the state on issues that they found to be important. What a strange idea!
Is this Normal?
Is this way of doing government tenable? If one believes that state decision making is “enlightened” and public opinion is significantly less so, one might be tempted to think that it is. Those who are not able to comprehend higher levels of thinking and acting might make a mess of things when they interfere in the higher realm of the gods. That is, btw, the gist of the highly entertaining Chinese mythological take, “Monkey”. In the story, Monkey is a being with incredible cravings, cunning and energy — but no enlightened thoughts. Through his exploits, he gains incredible powers and immortality, but still no enlightenment. As you can imagine, monkey makes a huge mess of things until the wise Buddha imprisons him in a box.. It is the only way to prevent him from making even a bigger mess of things.
But should that type of story have anything to do with the reality of governance in the world today, and more particularly in Estonia? Is the Estonian government the wise Buddha? Are we, the people, the Estonian “monkeys”? The answer to these questions is “no”. And the reason why we need to say “no” to this is starkly simple. Over time, no government can maintain its legitimacy in the eyes of the governed without an ongoing dialog with the governed. And when government loses its legitimacy, it loses its ability to empower citizens through law. That debases the law and poisons the relationship on both sides. Government resorts to coercive tactics to force compliance with its wishes, and the coercion creates ever more resentment on the part of the “governed”. It is a downward spiral.
Have We Seen This Problem Before?
We have seen this scenario play out many times in history. I was reminded of it, for example, when some years ago, I was on a tour of the great law library in St. Petersburg State University. As we meandered through the stacks of old Russian constitutional law volumes, the Russian tour guide solemnly proclaimed that Tzarist Russia had the most advanced constitution of its day! “At least, on paper.” I muttered.
In fact, no matter how cleverly worded or advanced the thinking was in the Tzarist Russian constitution, the words were not part of a governmental dialog with the public, and hence were not implemented based on that dialog. As a result, the words did not save the Tzar or his government from revolution. They were just empty words. More recently, a strangely similar lack of dialog between government and governed was a factor in the demise of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, for example, was baffled when he encountered hostility from Lithuanians in Vilnius when he asked them to not agitate for independence. He had no idea of how the Lithuanians or anyone else, for that matter, were thinking, because he had never thought to ask them. And going forward to 1991, Estonians knew intuitively at that moment of our history that we could do better if we just had the chance.
Is There Another Way to Look at the Problem?
Perhaps that is why Article 1 of the Estonian Constitution is written as it is. It sets forth the profound idea that in the Estonian Republic, supreme power lies with the Estonian people — and no one else. It is profound because it clarifies who is accountable to whom in matters of Estonian governance. While the state seems to have lots of powers, it may only exercise them as agent of the people. It can have no independent purposes. And as agent, the state has an implied obligation to develop and maintain a healthy dialog with the Estonian people in order to insure that it understands and executes the will of the people. Not for the state to impose its will on the people, or to use PR firms as advocates to present half truths and bullet points, but to enable the people to express their will. The is government by facilitation, not coercion.
Applying this, to the extent that there is any gap between governed and governing in this country, you could argue that we have a constitutional crisis. A crisis because the existence of a gap suggests that the state could somehow exercise its will independently from the people’s will. This goes in the opposite direction that Article 1 tells us we should go — enabling the people to use the power that the Constitution gives us.
So, How Should Things Actually Work?
In this light, we might go back to the lament in the media that the interests of the state have been trumped by public interests. And we might go back to the suggestion that the Estonian people should stay out of the way of the state. And we might go back to the use of PR tactics to sell pre-packaged decisions without openly discussing them. In light of Article 1, these reduce to absurdities.
So how did we reach the point where they are seriously considered and spoken? The sobering reality is that ideas and values mean little if they are not the basis for actually getting things done. One does not just say that “I will respect you in the morning” and expect to be taken seriously. One has to show respect in how one acts on an ongoing basis to earn trust.
The same is true when we say that the ultimate power in Estonia resides with the people. The words mean nothing unless real world institutions enable people to use their power. Not just as a formality (like voting), but as part of the regular business of governance. And the most fundamental enabling tool is by developing and maintaining active channels of communication for a two way, ongoing dialog between those holding the power (the people) and those exercising that power on their behalf (the state). In other words, the quality of dialog between people and state is a measuring stick to see how well our state institutions are working. And measuring sticks are useful only if they are used to take measurements. Or as Peter Drucker famously said, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”
Is It Important?
This might sound like a lot of hot air until we take a look around us. Over the last twenty years or so, folks in a number of nearby states have given up on this core idea . One party states have popped up, and in those states, coercion rather than dialog is the norm. All that is needed to achieve this is to (1) debase the rule of law, and (2) restrict the free press. The strange thing is that those steps may even look reasonable when the dialog that legitimizes law is broken. And once it is broken, it is difficult to fix.
So could it happen here? In fact it did happen in Estonia in 1929 when the Vaps argued that parliament was broken. The Vaps had lost trust in the dialog the state had with the Estonian people. And while the Vaps did not come to power, the threat that they posed meant the end of democratic rule in the first Estonian republic. In other words, we have been down this road before.
There is another factor to consider before deciding how seriously one might take the above. It is argued that the 21st century will be “knowledge based”, as opposed to “capital based”. If this is so, we need to understand where knowledge comes from. Research tells us the answer. It comes out of social interaction – dialog. It does not arise from smart folks sitting alone in a ministry offices, or even less so from coercion. More open and creative dialog at a higher level is an essential factor for Estonians to maximize opportunities for our children.
And you cannot have great dialog in schools and universities and no where else in society. That doesn’t work. Dialog is a value in itself that enhances prosperity — If we take care to make it worth the effort.
What Should Be Done?
So how are we doing here in Estonia? The above comments from Estonians and recent deviations by the government from “dialog facilitator” to “project advocate” suggest that there is room for improvement. And the first step to improve is to stop lamenting that the public has interests that the state does not want to hear about. It is instead to recognize that the power of our state institutions is based on the public will, and that it is the responsibility of the state to nurture an open, broad and ongoing dialog with the public about the public interest. Why is it the responsibility of government? Because only government can do that job. Individuals cannot force government to come to the table and talk.
One more thing. Estonia makes much of its “e governance” solution. And it is true that technology can unleash more rapid high value added exchanges and shared knowledge. For that reason, tech has a role in making government more efficient. But, as we already see around the world, that same tech also can lead to a “post-truth” society that is constantly at war with itself. The current political melodrama in the US gives a glimpse of that. rather unattractive state of affairs. That result is more likely if government is not committed to raising the level of dialog with the public on an ongoing basis.
So, we face a decision that has historical consequence. Do we implement Article 1 of our Constitution in the fullest sense, or do we cross our fingers and hope that our leaders are Buddha-like — smarter than we are, and give up our constitutionally granted power to them? That choice is pressing upon us now. And how we choose will have long term consequences for how our children describe who we were, as well as who they are as Estonians.