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I have written this before and if necessary I shall write it again. It is not the job of government officials to tell us how to live our lives. Carrie Lam continued her career as the all-purpose C.Y. small horse over the weekend, speaking up for the national education plan. The new subject would, she said “nurture our younger generation to have the right attitude to life.” But it is not the job of our officials to identify, nurture, propagate or otherwise foster “the right attitude to life”. They are not selected for their ethical qualties. They are detached from life as most of us know it by their propensity to wallow in lavish perks and luxurious accomodation, not to mention the subtler forms of corruption involved in police escorts, chauffeur-driven limoes and other props to unwarranted self-admiration. One might add that if they were serious about starting a subject on the right attitudes to life then they should not have paid a bunch of lefty loonies millions of dollars to produce the teaching notes. But this is beside the point.

One of the strengths of colonial government was that it had a sensibly limited view of its ability to persuade people to agree with it. Colonial rule, as a 19th century ruler of India put it, was “naturally repugnant to the inhabitants and is maintained by force”.  Hong Kong’s colonial governments in the second half of the 20th century were somewhat better off in the sense that many people had come here voluntarily to get away from a worse alternative. Still, governments need to have a sense of priorities.

To be a government at all you have to provide some internal order and external security. In the 19th century rather more came to be expected, and in the 20th more still, so that governments are now expected to provide a wide range of infrastructure, and also to ensure access – at least for those who would otherwise not get it – to housing, education, health care and some minimum level of income. Governments are also expected to manipulate the economy in a way which produces wealth, or at least something like full employment. On the other hand as a sort of compensation for all these tasks – some of which are quite difficult – they have been let off the chore of negotiating with God on our behalf, and we no longer expect them to choose our religious or otber beliefs, as people once did.  This has allowed us to drop the pretense that our rulers are Gods, or on speaking terms with God, and recognise that they are a pretty sorry bunch. Politics attracts people who like power just as banking attracts people who like money. Both professions are rightly regarded with disdain, even by those who see them as necessary.

In Hong Kong the government has traditionally been a careful observer of the limits on its acceptability as a source of advice on anything but the most practical matters. We are, of course, occasionally bombarded with useful messages on such topics as drugs, stagnant water, sobriety while driving, and so on. This should not lead officials to suppose that they are a plausible source of authority, or even advice, on matters of right and wrong. Ms Lam has neither the duty nor the right to choose the “right attitudes to life” on our behalf. To start with, the right attitudes should include a high degree of scepticism about the utterances of anyone on a large publicly-funded salary. Mrs Lam’s willingness to defend any policy, no matter how disreputable or discredited, is an interesting case study which should be included in any course of civic education worthy of the name .

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