Thursday, 8 November 2012

What is government for?

During a BBC TV news item about the US presidential election, after the result so a bit reflective, a Republican voter, interviewed, said, more or less:

"If you believe that government's about helping people, then Obama's OK, but if you believe government's about helping people to help themselves, you worry...". This sounded quite thoughtful and the idea that government's main role is enabling (helping people to help themselves) appeals a lot to a British Liberal.

But first of all, even by Abraham Lincoln's quite narrow definition of the role of government (doing what people can't do for themselves) by any realistic analysis there is a substantial role for government, especially if you admit things that are clearly, in the best interests of people in general, done by government at some level (policing, for example: many people could instead protect themselves, but the cost in violent deaths would be horrendous and the weak and poor would be least able to protect themselves).

The idea that everybody can pull himself or herself up by his/her own bootstraps is traditionally American, but flourished when the constantly moving Frontier made such self-improvement much more achievable for people who started with nothing. If you really want to enable everyone, then some people need a help up until they're in a position to make choices and help themselves. In Britain, for example, the last Labour government laid down a minimum wage by law. It was and is pretty low, but some people were being paid below it and at that level their choices and ability to help themselves were extremely limited. Some business organisations warned that the minimum wage would drive down employment, but that didn't seem to happen. The minimum wage would look to some Americans like classic socialism; but from a libertarian point of view, what individual liberty was reduced by it? The individual liberty of those paid a bit more was increased.

Undoubtedly there is a trap of coming to rely on government to fix everything. It can't, and if it could, it shouldn't. But a trap on the opposite side is to see the alternative purely in terms of individual (or at most family) initiative. Some things can't be fixed by any individual and may not be best left to government, but are fixable by relatively small numbers of people freely banding together - a community, a society, an action group. So one of the key questions for government at any level should be, "How can government encourage and assist community and other free collective action?"

Obama was a community organiser. I suspect he understands that. Our Prime Minister David Cameron did understand that, but his "Big Society" has vanished under pressure from the economic slump, the defecit reduction programme and unimaginative civil servants who saw his agenda purely in terms of getting former public services provided by charities (which themselves might be more top-down and no better at involving volunteers than the statutory organisations).

We shouldn't give up that easily.

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