What Independence Really Means — Some Reflections on Independence Day

An independent individual possesses the capacity to decide and behave according to their own volition without undue pressure or limitations from others.

5 mins read
Sri Lanka national flag

Independence is no substitute for good government. ~ Sir Ivor Jennings

The 4th  of February marks the 76th anniversary of “independence” of Ceylon from British rule.  Simplistically put, independence means freedom from external control.  In expanded terms, independence typically denotes freedom from external dominance or sway that could pertain to individuals, collectives, or countries. An independent individual possesses the capacity to decide and behave according to their own volition without undue pressure or limitations from others. Likewise, when a collective or country attains independence, it signifies their ability to self-govern and control their own affairs without external intervention.

Independence may materialize in diverse areas, including political, economic, or personal realms. It is commonly regarded as an essential human entitlement and a crucial element of self-rule. 

From the perspective of the 4th of February and its significance to Sri Lanka, the statement of Sir Ivor Jennings – first Vice Chancellor of the University of Ceylon – that independence is no substitute for good government,  is linked to the fact that he frequently highlighted the importance of legal structures in creating and upholding organization, consistency, and administration in liberated countries. He understood that while legal frameworks offer a sense of order and direction, they might also encroach upon independence if not meticulously formulated or if excessively shaped by external pressures.

It’s evident that Jennings accepted that laws, when applied suitably, serve to protect personal liberties and entitlements, thereby fostering autonomy and sovereignty. Nonetheless, he also believed  that laws could be exploited or distorted to curtail autonomy.

It can be assumed that every citizen of a country celebrating independence could inevitably ask the question “ Do I, as an individual, have independence in a system of governance that has not given me the unfettered right and freedom to meet my needs?” 

This brings to bear the question of what those needs might be.

Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow introduced his theory of human motivation, known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in 1943. This theory proposes that individuals have a hierarchical structure of needs that must be fulfilled in a specific order, beginning with basic physiological needs and progressing to more complex psychological needs. Maslow depicted these needs in a pyramid with five tiers: Physiological needs: fundamental needs for survival including food, water, medicine, shelter, sleep, and warmth; Safety needs: once physiological needs are met, individuals seek safety and security, encompassing physical safety, financial stability, health, and environmental stability; Love and belongingness needs: following the fulfillment of safety needs, individuals desire social connections, love, and a sense of belonging, which involve relationships with family, friends, romantic partners, and community engagement. Esteem needs: With social needs satisfied, individuals pursue self-esteem and the esteem of others, which entail feelings of achievement, recognition, respect, and confidence; Self-actualization needs: At the pinnacle of the hierarchy are self-actualization needs, focusing on realizing one’s full potential, pursuing personal growth, creativity, and fulfilling unique talents and aspirations.

Maslow posited that individuals are driven to fulfill each level of needs sequentially, with lower-level needs serving as motivators until satisfied, enabling progression to higher-level needs. Once a need is met, it no longer serves as a primary motivator, prompting individuals to ascend the hierarchy in pursuit of the next level of needs. Maslow’s hierarchy continues to wield significant influence in psychology and other fields, shaping our comprehension of human motivation and behavior.

The philosophy of Sir Ivor Jennings can be taken to mean that these needs can be subject to good governance but they must not be suppressed. In other words, the first two in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: basic physiological needs which ensures good health; and personal security take primacy in good governance and independence from outside control.  Firstly, on the right to good health and sustenance,  it can be said that throughout the course of human history, a fundamental truth has become evident: the prosperity of a nation hinges on the well-being of its population. This sentiment has been expressed by various thinkers across different eras.

Virgil emphasized the primacy of health, asserting that true wealth lies in one’s physical well-being. Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed this sentiment, stating that health is the foremost form of wealth. Li Keqiang conveyed a similar message, underscoring the vital role of a healthy populace in fostering national prosperity and happiness. Benjamin Disraeli linked good health with happiness, recognizing it as the cornerstone of a thriving society. Mahatma Gandhi contrasted the value of health with material wealth, emphasizing its true significance in comparison to material riches.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  emphasizes the entitlement of every individual to a decent standard of living, encompassing essential needs such as food, clothing, housing, medical care, and social services. It underscores the importance of healthcare in promoting health and well-being, highlighting the responsibility of nations to ensure universal access to medical services.

Similarly, Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), ratified in 1966, acknowledges the right to the highest attainable level of physical and mental health. This provision obligates countries to implement measures aimed at enhancing public health, preventing diseases, and controlling health-related challenges.

The second need – security – calls for public safety and freedom from punishment from exercising the freedom of speech, assembly, and protest.

My Take

Often corruption is the foremost restriction to a person’s independent demand and need for food, water, medicine and shelter. At its essence, corruption entails the misuse of power or authority by individuals, organizations, or governing bodies for personal gain. Typically, this exploitation comes at the expense of the common good or the welfare of others. Corruption encompasses deceitful, unethical, or illegal behaviors such as bribery, fraud, nepotism, favoritism, and other forms of abusing entrusted positions.

It is widely acknowledged that corruption can manifest in various ways and is pervasive across both public and private sectors, impacting governments, businesses, institutions, and society as a whole. This phenomenon undermines fundamental values like fairness, transparency, and accountability, eroding public trust in institutions and impeding social and economic progress. Recognizing corruption as a significant obstacle, many nations and global entities are actively engaged in combating it through legal reforms, enhancing transparency, fortifying institutional frameworks, and fostering public awareness. The battle against corruption is crucial for nurturing a society that upholds principles of justice and equality, ensuring that resources are utilized for the collective benefit of all.

True independence ultimately means good governance that provides the individual with the autonomy to meet his needs. Good governance is no longer confined to scholars and practitioners but has become a widespread concern among the general population. This increased interest can be attributed to higher levels of education and awareness, often referred to as “civic literacy,” as well as the emergence of complex global issues and a heightened international consciousness that transcends national borders.

As a result, there is now a pressing need for empirical evidence of good governance to equip the public with the tools necessary to shape governance models that meet their expectations. This in turn reflects the independence of a country and its citizens. While local methodologies exist for assessing quality of life and global review processes like those conducted by the World Bank evaluate governance on a national scale, there is a lack of general indicators to gauge whether governance is improving. Moreover, there is ongoing debate on  whether evaluating governance can actually contribute to its improvement.

Finally, the education system of a country must promote autonomy of thinking and creativity that would provide the child with independence to grow, unfettered by parochial teaching methods.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog