From Honiara to Houston: the harmful trend of government dependence
Excessive government reliance is universally corrosive
At a recent dinner in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, a friend commented on the unprecedented and increasing level of government dependence in the idyllic South Pacific nation of half a million. National elections, taking place at the time, were about how much the Solomon Islands could do for you rather than what you could do for the Solomon Islands (to muddle John F. Kennedy’s famous words).
This trend is not just confined to ‘the Happy Islands’ – it’s clearly a discussion taking place among rich and poor at dinner tables around the world. Annual budgets in neighbouring Australia, for example, stir pockets of outrage that the ‘government should do more’ or ‘is not doing enough’ in areas it wishes to ease spending taxpayer money.
Political leaders now spend considerable time preparing citizens for a ‘killer budget’ – as if preparing for major surgery or going to war. In the United States the government routinely plays the role of ‘Santa Claus’, in the words of one commentator, by showering ‘the public with something for nothing in every department – free health care, free retirement security, free protection from hazardous consumer products and workplace accidents.’
Certainly, from crumbling roads to lousy policing, state performance leaves much to be desired in the developing world. But, regardless of where we are, excessive government dependence is a growing and ultimately harmful trend.
Government expectations as we now understand them weren’t always at their current default levels. ‘The Greatest Generation’, for example, enduring a depression and two world wars, would’ve felt embarrassed in having the government pay their medical bills or living a responsibility-free life on the state. Historically, in the South Pacific, government dependence eased with exposure to the outside world, and where commercial and community activity thrived. Strangely, however, state expectations have emerged in an era of free markets where competition, privatisation and less regulation have pushed government to the side.
So what has changed? Many point to a change in cultural attitudes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which not only opened an era of ‘flower power’ and Vietnam moratoriums but coincided with the rise of feminism, multiculturalism and victim politics. In just a few decades we’ve seen increased state expectations combining with government activity, becoming fixed and then incredibly difficult to roll back. ‘A government bureau,’ Ronald Reagan famously said, ‘is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.’ And ‘vested interests,’ wrote Barack Obama in The Audacity of Hope, ‘stifle even the best-intentioned politician.’
In places like the Solomon Islands government departments rarely deliver but will almost never be abolished, while vested interests keep genuine reform at arm’s length. Patronage South Pacific politics – a legacy of rigid tribal attachment – not only increase government expectations but reinforce the corrosive idea of ‘something for nothing.’ Keeping office for many of the Pacific’s leaders means simply servicing the people that brought you to power and recreating dependence over creating scope for individual enterprise. Governing beyond narrow interests is rarely found because, quite simply, it’s unneeded. Large discretionary grants and flimsy financial oversight also make correcting this system very difficult.
The idea of debt-financing has also driven government expansion. The process of ‘tax and spend’ grew considerably in the 1930s under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and, today, remains the pinnacle solution for pro-government advocates in curing social and economic problems. Notably, the majority of spending in Western countries is now in health and social security – areas that the government rarely used to be involved in.
Why, after all, is government growth a problem? Clearly not all government activity is obstructive to progress. ‘Peace, easy taxes and the tolerable administration of justice’, to borrow from Adam Smith, greatly benefits society and deserves proactive government administration.
But big government ultimately has two costs. First, it subtracts rather than enhances liberty. In the US, for example, government intervention can range from the absurd to simply bad business, from literally putting people in prison for making their own home renovations through to limiting energy exploration. In the developing world economic liberty is crushed by government-sheltered industries, the thwarting of competition and the failure to streamline business processes.
Second, big government undermines ideals like responsibility and duty. Although welfare dependence isn’t possible in the Solomon Islands – there is no state welfare system – the ill effects of dependence can be seen in the political process and, in particular, the political leadership. Vote-buying aside, I have been in rooms with some political leaders refusing to fulfil their elective duties unless they receive some additional form of payment.
Perhaps the most useful question to ask, then, is how to limit government? Here there are no new answers but simple ideas found by re-visiting core democratic principles. First, political leaders must ask themselves, does government action enhance choice, give room for the private sector or strengthen the family? This is critical for new or existing initiatives and is not so much about cutting government for the sake of it but making government more effective, which helps reduce waste and is a practical compromise for political leaders interested in reducing government dependence.
Making space for community and commercial activity are also effective ways to reduce state demand. James Tedder, a post-World War Two colonial official in the Solomon Islands, interestingly observed that the presence of European traders and planters ‘together with the strong role of the Church, tended to reduce Government almost to irrelevancy.’ This observation is entirely consistent with liberty’s core idea – limiting government but increasing private and individual action.
Many people in both the Solomon Islands and developed countries live tough and difficult lives. Limiting government reliance is not about completely pushing government to the side but creating the settings for individuals to do well. A future where individual freedoms and responsibilities are properly respected is worth defending in any democracy. Ultimately, however, it will mean less and not more government.