Thursday, 3 June 2010

Tebbit on small government

Today's post from Norman Tebbit was my favourite to date:
These are early days for a government facing numerous problems, the overwhelming majority of which are not of its own making.
Part of the problem is, I believe, that government has grown so big – that it regulates, licenses, forbids, encourages, subsidises, taxes, moralises, employs, delivers services, on such a scale, across such a wide spectrum of society and the economy. It is really hard these days not to be told what to do, or what not to do, by some agency of the State every day of our lives. As ever, those who are sufficiently upset, dissatisfied, or feel short-changed by what government delivers to them are likely to be more vociferous than those left reasonably content.

The result is a near permanent atmosphere of dissatisfaction simply because we all feel bossed around and let down. Mr. Cameron’s plea for “a bigger society and a smaller state” is a rational, even if as yet a shapeless response to this problem.

We need to ask ourselves what are the things which a government must deliver in order for a nation to function effectively because we cannot do them for ourselves, what are the things which it may be able to deliver better than anyone else, and what it should not do.
Initially, Tebbit's prescription sounds a lot like minarchy:
First of all, for a nation to exist and to enjoy the benefits of its homeland territory, its government must be able to defend its borders against any unwelcome intruders. We simply cannot do that for ourselves. It is first the first duty and priority of government. Second, the government must preserve “the Queen’s Peace”. That is more than just law and order. It is the right of the subject to go about his lawful business in peace. That requires a system of criminal law and the means of enforcing it, including the judiciary and the police. Third, the government must provide a system of civil law for the settlement of disputes between individuals or groups.

From here, though, he moves "from the absolutely mandatory towards the highly desirable":

At the top of that list is the provision of a stable currency to be used as a medium of exchange and a store of value. Then there follows a structure of commercial law and regulation, and the provision of infrastructure, or the facilitation of that provision by others.
It is extremely doubtful that the government's involvement our monetary system is beneficial, and regulation of all kinds typically does more harm than good. As for infrastructure, it's easier to justify government involvement here, on our crowded island, than it is in North America or Australia, but I remain sceptical.

Thankfully, it seems Tebbit would draw the line at the services mentioned above:
After those comes a long list of desirables which are increasingly not absolutely necessary for a state to exist. Indeed there was a perfectly viable state and an effective government before they began to be provided by the state.

Universal education is highly desirable, but it does not have to be provided by government. The same is true of health care. Ignorance and disease can both be threats to a society or nation. So too can be poverty and policies to reduce poverty are highly desirable too.

What has happened in recent years is that the state has tended to monopolise the provision of these desirable goods and services in its own hands, freezing out alternative models, even if they may be better or less expensive, on the spurious grounds that uniformity matters more than quality, choice or variety. At its extremes this infantalises the citizen and increasingly baroque, overmanned and high cost structures are designed to give an illusion of choice.

In contrast, in the provision of food, the retail trade and food producers continually extend choice and drive down prices, in a manner adjudged impossible in the state sector. As ever, those who find managing their own responsibilities too difficult turn to displacement activities, principally the bossy intrusion into the rights of free speech and personal responsibility.
Tebbit isn't quite a libertarian, but if we only went as far as he proposes in rolling back the state, that would still be a massive improvement on the status quo.

My main reservation, as noted above, is that nobody is safe while the economy remains in the hands of politicians.

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