Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Big Government

Another meme that has seeped through from the US to Australia is one of ‘the Left wants big government, the Right wants small government.’ This is a particularly easy one to fall prey to, because when you see Australia’s left wanting to mount big social projects, it looks accurate. There was a lot of focus on the competing National Broadband Network plans for precisely this reason, because they accorded to this narrative: Labor wanted to spend $43 million and get a government-built-and-owned network, the Coalition wanted to spend $6 billion to encourage private investment. Labor big government, Coalition small government.

That’s the small picture, though. It’s also confusing cause and effect. If all the left wanted to do was to expand government, it wouldn’t need the NBN as an excuse. No, the left wants to expand the ability of government to combat social problems. The latter is the cause – the former is the way of dealing with it. Sometimes this leads to an expansion in the bureaucracy. At other times, it means simply becoming more agile, more capable of dealing with problems that exist today instead of those that existed twenty years ago (or, in the middle of a financial crisis, even more rapidly).

This fundamentally comes down to a scare tactic. ‘Big Government’ is scary – it conjures up images of 1984’s police state. When we’re asked if we think more government bureaucracy is a bad thing, we can all remember times (usually in the recent past) where we’ve run afoul of bureaucratic red tape, providing a clear confirmation bias in such a question. Anyone who’s ever dealt with Centrelink knows how this works. It also relies on the confused meanings of ‘bureaucracy’ – a term that can apply to a smooth, well-functioning body but carries connotations of waste, mismanagement and of existing only to serve its own ends.

This of course need not be the case. Nor is it in fact a clear distinction between Labor and Liberal. The NBN aside, comparing proposals side by side, it’s really hard to tell whether either would actually ‘grow’ or ‘shrink’ government.

In short, this is not a meme based in Australian political reality; it’s an imported tactic, one which has found a lot of purchase in the US, where the Left is repeatedly hammered with charges of expanding government power, even though the Republicans were the ones who were pushing a true expansion of Presidential power, giving Bush’s Presidency a near-Royal scope.

Yet another thing I’d like to see squashed before it gains much more purchase on the political landscape here.


  1. Ever since I read that first JRS book (first to me, not first to him), and hey even before that, I've held to the notion that there are certain functions that a government should arrogate to itself, and others that should remain in the private sector.
    Basically if you can call a thing 'infrastructure' in any sense, the government should own it and be responsible to the citizenry for proper handling. Essential resources, transportation, communication, utilities, healthcare, education, defence and security, etc.
    And business should do the rest.

    There's room for overlap. I guess it's okay for private schools or banks, for example... as long as they are correctly monitored by the organs of state.
    Just let's not have any laissez-faire bootstrap dog-eat-dog Dingo-Principle fuckwittery about everyone having to do everything for themselves, and pretending that 'the market' can do everything better. Some things it can, but the medical network? Fuck that noise. Communications? We privatised the whole shebang and now we have internets that are stupider than some third world countries.

  2. The idea that Big Government is bad is somehow also related to the argument that government is less economically efficient than business. So, big government increases taxes and wastes our money.

    Would it not be nice to see an analysis of efficiency in delivering public services comparing, say, the telecommunication industry before and after privatisation. Those of us who live in country areas know how bad our mobile networks are – and the public telephone booths are all gone. When there is a bushfire, as happened last year, we are cut off. If some of us get dividends from Telstra shares but that is little comfort when the phones don’t work.

    It is also worth noting that there is another, competing narrative. Big Business, especially the tobacco, alcohol and junk food industries, stand accused in public health forums of putting profit before the people’s health. We pay for Big Business activities, perhaps more than we pay in tax, but they are somehow not held responsible. Except perhaps to their share holders but shareholder protests have had little impact on the inflated salaries paid to top executives.

  3. That's very true. When Bush came into power, he said he was going to run America like a CEO... looks to me like he succeeded, and people didn't like the result.

    There is one area where the is analysis of costs for public vs private: health care. Given how inherently uncompetetive health insurance is, it's no surprise that the United States paid significantly more per capita for its healthcare than Western European nations (or Australia) and scored lower on outcomes. In terms of efficiency, business loses on that front.

    I wouldn't be surprised if it were different at all for things such as rural telecommunications or services.

  4. Marian again, still thinking. I thought of the protesting mining companies when I read the following paragraph in Charles Dickens' Hard Times (1854). He was having a go at the millowners of "Coketown":

    The wonder was, it was there at all. It had been ruined so often, that it was amazing how it had borne so many shocks. Surely there never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made. Handle them never so lightly, and they fell to pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been flawed before. They were ruined, when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke. Besides Mr. Bounderby's gold spoon which was generally received in Coketown, another prevalent fiction was very popular there. It took the form of a threat. Whenever a Coketowner felt he was ill-used - that is to say, whenever he was not left entirely alone, and it was proposed to hold him accountable for the consequences of any of his acts - he was sure to come out with the awful menace, that he would 'sooner pitch his property into the Atlantic.' This had terrified the Home Secretary within an inch of his life, on several occasions.
    However, the Coketowners were so patriotic after all, that they never had pitched their property into the Atlantic yet, but, on the contrary, had been kind enough to take mighty good care of it. So there it was, in the haze yonder; and it increased and multiplied.