We all know the story about Alice, who follows the Rabbit down a hole and finds herself falling into a world unlike the real one. Especially after she drinks a potion and has her perspective distorted. Well, a similar effect is trying to be created here and by Conservative Free Market Capitalist politicians the world over, as they attempt to get the citizens to drink their Kool Aid and submit to their concept of ‘Small Government Good, Big Government Bad’.
But the reality is that it’s as bad a fit for this, or any other nation, as the small rooms were for Alice.
Let’s just take a look at why we shouldn’t follow the Rabbott down this particular hole.
The venerable Ross Gittins pointed out in a column on May 14, 2012 that the current Conservative enthusiasm for ‘Small Government’, which Tony Abbott is attempting to promulgate, can be traced back to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.’
He sensibly points out:
Smaller government is an idea that appeals at every level. It’s attractive to libertarians, economists and business people, who remain suspicious of government. And it appeals to every voter who doesn’t like paying more tax.
However, what I’d like to do is explore the concepts of ‘Small Government’ and ‘Big Government’ in a little more detail, and from a fresh Progressive perspective, as the debate seems to be bogged down at the moment in a contest along the lines of Small Government Bad versus Big Government Good, or vice versa.
When, actually, I think the more sophisticated 21st century observer would have to admit that there are benefits in aspects of both ‘types’ of government, and so, shouldn’t it be the case that it is a Progressive perspective that needs to be laid over whatever function of government we are talking about, taking them one by one?
Let us consider an ideal case of “small” government. It is a democracy. It interferes as little as possible in the lives of its citizens. It doesn’t spend a lot; therefore it doesn’t tax a lot. It provides few services. Fire protection is left to individual volunteer fire brigades whose members drop what they’re doing and rush to the fire to put it out or, at least, to prevent it from spreading. Police protection is provided by private security firms that provide services for a price. The government does provide an army, mostly of volunteer reservists, who would gather to fight off a foreign invader. The government issues money, keeps records and statistics, provides courts to deal with civil and criminal suits, and provides some regulation of large enterprises, such as dams, for coastal navigation, irrigation, and power.
Would you be happy living with such a government? You might be if you lived two hundred years ago when you were a squatter clearing land you had just occupied. All you needed from the government then was an army or a police force to protect you from the indigenous people who formerly occupied the land you now claim.
However I think that today you would want government to provide more than the minimum of services it provided two centuries ago, would you not? You would certainly want effective police protection and effective response to a fire, or the ambulance to come when you needed it. You would want government, at whatever level, to provide, or cause to be provided, clean drinking water. Other desirable services are adequate electric power, gas for heating and cooking, sewers for draining away waste, and maintained roads and highways. You would want the air you breathe to be as clean as the air you would have breathed 200 years ago. I think that if you thought carefully about the issue of “small” vs. “large,” you would incline toward “large” government.
Though that is not to say that we can’t improve on ‘Big Government’.
So let’s address what has been the dominant question asked about government over the last few years:
What is government for?
Yet so few leaders have offered coherent answers.
The Far Right offer lots of heat but little light, with their constant reprise of unworkable ideas and worn rhetoric about ‘limited government’. The Left, meanwhile, has been in a defensive crouch unable to clearly articulate an alternative that appeals to the general populace. Defending ‘government’ is not enough. We need to articulate, during this time of flux in the general opinion of government per se, a credible Progressive alternative theory of government for our times.
What should we expect government to do? How should government be doing it? And when we say “government”, just whom do we mean?
The current dissatisfaction with government is not a mere perception or marketing problem, as too many on the left still believe. It is a product problem. Government has for too many people become unresponsive, dehumanizing, and inefficient. Not at all able to relate to them in their everyday lives with policies that solve their existential problems.
Only when we improve and modernise the functions of government itself will our satisfaction with it improve. Unfortunately, the discourse on government has long been frozen in two dimensions: more vs. less, big vs. small. How about arguing for this approach: more government when it comes to setting great goals and investing to achieve them; less government when it comes to how we collectively meet those goals? This has to be a progressive project. Because progressives remain the only group willing to advocate FOR government, we have a special responsibility to imagine its role anew.
The Right’s philosophy, if we can call it that, fails on three levels: theoretical, empirical, and political. On the level of theory, limited-government conservatives misapprehend both the meaning and value of freedom, and the essential role of government in democratic capitalist societies. Conservatives thunder about totalitarianism and socialism, but well short of those extremes is a broad sweet spot where government actually enhances freedom and promotes wealth creation. Empirically, there is not a single example to be found of a nation that practices “limited government” and is wealthy, secure, and stable. Not one. And for all their preaching about the size of government, conservatives have never been able to practice what they preach and shrink the state when they’ve been in power. Just cast your minds back to the Howard era.
Not that the Left fares much better, but for different reasons. It’s about time to put forth some positive reforms that seek to reimagine progressive governance.
For all the self-doubt and hand-wringing among progressives today, the reality is that we still live in a nation where the social safety net template is dominant. Witness the progressive hand-wringing over the Gillard government’s attempt to make single mothers with children older than 8 a bit more self-sufficient. Far too many of us, even in this season of discontent generally, accept a substantial state role in every sector of the economy, in which Big Government is meant to counter Big Business. We all seem to expect government to provide a cushion against all manner of risk and misfortune, and to right all manner of social wrongs.
Which is where the Right are getting a lot of their support from nowadays, people who believe that we should stand on our own two feet more than a lot of us presently do.
That’s not to say that we should go to the policy extremes for prescriptions, that Tony Abbott seems to be advocating as a solution. Let’s instead look for a sweet spot between the two extremes.
Now, voters enjoy getting benefits from the state but also like hearing that they shouldn’t have to pay so much for it.
In a 21st century society as dynamic as ours, problems come along fast, and institutions are too slow generally to respond effectively. Bigness is not tolerated anymore. Not since the atomisation of our global society. And people don’t like to pay the price for bigness.
The story plays out in our public schools, our mental-health system, our child-welfare system. Progressives should be outraged by this sclerosis. This is where real ‘flexibility’, of government, and dynamism, should be informing government action. I think the Gillard government gets this and is attempting to deal with it and implement it.
Another negative consequence of the big-government bargain is that we’ve stopped noticing all the ways that state action crowds out community and citizen ownership of problems and solutions.
Tony Abbott has noticed this problem. However his solution is to remove government from the equation almost entirely.
When citizens come to think of government as a vending machine – drop in the coins and expect a great society to come out – t hen good citizenship shrivels. Citizens start to think their role is to pay, consume, and kick the machine when they’re unsatisfied. Witness the behaviour of those people ripped off by Trio Financial Management spivs, who turned straight around and blamed the federal government for their woes because their belief was that as the federal government had carriage of superannuation, they should be able to fix their problems. It’s a dangerous attitude for a society to have.
Progressives say “it takes a village,” but then too often rely on an agency. Instead of being self-reliant more.
However, it is generally progressives who are blamed for this state of affairs, not conservatives.
When one side of politics is expected to do little more than rail against the government, its own failures at actual governance, even as ‘only’ an Opposition, are not punished. The other side ends up bearing the full responsibility for making government work, and the full blame when it doesn’t. For all their flaws, the Labor Party remain the only grown-up party in Australia, so it’s up to them to make government more responsive, adaptive, and effective–in practice, and not only in vague promises, such as it appears the Abbott Opposition are doing.
Now, government, it seems, as it has developed, too often drains first the incentive and then the capacity of groups of people to address problems on a human scale. Economist and Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom has written powerfully about groups of citizens, all around the world, who have created nongovernmental networks to allocate resources, police an area of local turmoil, and sustain high norms of local community mutual obligation and strong reciprocity.
How Government Should Do It
The federal government should nationalize goals. Which it has done. Then it needs also to radically relocalize the means – and, in contrast to the “devolution” model that Abbott espouses, actually provide robust funding for those local means. This is a good example of combining leverage at a higher level of government in an area of strategic national interest with responsibility and creativity at lower levels.
For example, the parents at each public school should take far more ownership of the quality of the education within the building. That means having more choice about how to staff and run the school, and the style of pedagogy, but it also means taking more responsibility for the results. Creating high and common standards. Funding them fully. Pushing authority ever downward. Setting off waves of experimentation. This is network thinking–or, to use a more old-fashioned term, self-government. Doesn’t that sound better than Abbott’s model of creating ‘Boards’ of local burghers to run the schools, more likely than not having as their goal to run them ‘profitably’.
Next, government should be a smarter Prime Contractor.
Progressives too often see government as a service provider of first resort. That outlook is inadequate to the times. Government bureaucracies are generally incapable of providing high-quality, low-cost services that adapt to the changing requirements of citizens. Even though they try hard.
How about, the progressive imperative should be to shift responsibility for executing what are now government services to private competitive organizations? This can and should include non-profits, particularly where profit motives in the delivery of social services would be harmful.
Government must become a highly disciplined contracting agent with the ability to set standards, create transparency, and hold accountable those who do the work. Wherever possible it should get out of lines of business that it can’t do better than others. The postal service, for instance, no longer needs to be a public function, and is already functioning as a quasi-private one. Nor does government printing. The licensing of drivers or boaters should be franchised. As with any franchise model, there ought to be uniform standards of product and service and even branding – but local owners of the actual organization will deliver the service. How’s that for a ‘Small Government’ idea? However, one which retains ‘Big Government’ Quality Control.
Create and Amplify Positive Feedback Loops
One of the central features of open complex systems like our economy is feedback loops, both good and bad. Government plays a central role in setting both kinds in motion. Governing to anticipate socially destructive feedback loops like financial bubbles is a central role. But a modern government should seek also to create pro-social activity as well. The national government can and should create prosperity and positive feedback loops by using its capacity to birth new markets through basic research, via bodies such as the CSIRO, and to create demand through its enormous buying power and leverage (as should be happening in alternative energy).
Deploy Heaps of Prevention
An effective epidemiologist invests more in prevention than in cure, nipping epidemics in the bud rather than trying to contain them after the fact. Every part of government needs to think more like a public health officer: to be mindful always of desired outcomes, track closely trends in behavior, look at the world like a network of networks, identify the key nodes of virulence, and focus energy and effort on those nodes to foster contagions of good and to contain contagions of bad. To put it simply, focus on prevention rather than cure.
Government is in a unique, bird’s-eye position to map the network and set off the epidemics it wants. It can and should make networked collaboration and early intervention – things that most public entities are not incentivized today to pursue – actual conditions for continued public funding. Government should scale up proven, evidence-based pilot projects, as the Gillard government is already doing with the NDIS, since investment early in the pipeline yields far more dividends than investment at the end. This methodology should therefore be made a whole of government, department by department, aim.
Tax More Strategically–and Progressively
We should use the tax code like a personal trainer: to get us in shape by reinforcing good habits and punishing bad ones. A strong carbon tax moving to an Emissions Trading Scheme, to reduce energy consumption. Junk Food taxes, to attack obesity.Capital gains taxes, to correct for unearned advantage and to stave off aristocracy.
But the most strategic tax is a progressive income tax, the cornerstone of every prosperous nation. Income and wealth are a society’s lifeblood, and letting a nation’s wealth “clot” among just 1 percent of our citizens is suicide. Redistribution of wealth is essential. Progressive taxation is the only way for a society to create the virtuous circle of ever-increasing shared prosperity.
Evidence-based practice and funding sound obvious but aren’t routinely practiced. It must be the actual method of government. When the experimentation we champion has yielded successful models–they should be replicated. When the evidence says a program has failed or outlived its usefulness, it should end. And government should be looking continuously to end things – indeed, it should have a goal of ending a percentage of programs every year – so that those resources can be deployed, in an adaptive way, to new challenges.
The point, therefore, is not to end government, but to end the way we do government. Government should be living, organic, evolving – not inert, inanimate, and unchanging.
So, more “bold, persistent experimentation” in government. We have to be far more disciplined in our experimenter’s mindset: We have to be ambitious in our goals, imaginative in our means, ruthless in our evaluations, and aggressive in funding successes and starving failures. Constantly assessing and re-evaluating.
To be very clear, not Abbott-style devolution that pushes responsibility down without providing the resources to do the job. When I say citizens should be doing more of the how, I mean they should get the tools to do it. The idea that states or communities should be laboratories for democracy is meaningful only if the labs are funded sufficiently to run good experiments.
This new theory of government cannot be put in a ‘Small’, or ‘Big’, box. It’s not left or right or in-between. It’s “conservative” in that it is for localism and it wants to put markets and competition to good use to radically increase adaptability and accountability. It’s “liberal” in that it proposes a strong meliorist role for the national government to set ambitious goals, level the playing field, equip everyone to compete fairly and fully, and identify great failures of the commons that need to be addressed by shared action. It’s about national identity AND local power.
The more what/less how approach to almost governing ourselves is not an excuse to slash public spending. It is not a call for a bossier ‘Nanny State’. It is, quite simply, a framework for owning government in every sense: taking title to it, but also taking responsibility for it. Therefore having every citizen ‘invested’ in THEIR government.
Government is what a society creates to solve common problems that each of us alone could not solve.
So I agree with the Right that the job of government is to maximize individual autonomy. I just believe that the way to do that is to maximize the trust, cooperation, and equal opportunity that frames up each individual’s starting prospects.
I also agree with the Left that the job of government is to ensure fairness and justice.
By binding us together to pursue broad national ends and equipping us to develop our own means, the more what/less how approach can fundamentally reorient how most people see government: not as them, but as us.
Will this new theory of government, if implemented, create new problems? Of course. It will create its own unintended consequences and its own patterns of turf, faction, and short-termism. But those problems are not likely to be terminal. And it addresses the underlying problems of our politics today, and it does so by making government fundamentally more adaptive and accountable than it is today. A practice of continuous and cold-eyed evolution can replace the passionate rhetoric for political revolution.
It is time, therefore, for all of us to engage in sincerity the debate that the Right opened in cynicism. It is time to set in motion a repurposing and a rebalancing of the roles that State and citizen play in the quest for true flexibility and enduring justice. For all.
In the end, the question should not be whether government is too big, or too small, but whether it is fit for purpose.