A Postcript on Big Government
Having posted yesterday on the limits and dangers of the ideological assault on “big government,” I read today with particular interest an op-ed by Tom Flanagan charmingly entitled, “Down with Big Government”. He argues that the Prime Minister’s refusal to shrink government goes a long way to explaining the political problems he has run into. His particular argument is a bit of a stretch and I will leave it to you to read and assess. It’s his general argument that’s more instructive, not that we didn’t already know that Flanagan has been a forceful proponent of limited government but it’s always useful to check out the new ways in which this essentially ideological and tired position is trotted out. This time his examples of “big government” that should be cut down to size are local festivals, grandiose foreign-aid initiatives and uneconomic green projects, none of which, he says, should receive public money.
The arguments against government spending always use these kinds of examples because they don’t hit home like health or education or public safety but those are the areas, along with infrastructure and defense, where the big spending is. Sadly, on aid, we don’t even spend .7 of GDP, a Canadian idea implemented by others and not by us. The examples almost always try to evoke easy agreement about “stupid spending” or at least spending remote from our everyday lives and thus avoid the real and tough issues around services that we value even if we often take them for granted.
In any case, legitimate debates should be had about the costs and benefits of government action but the anti-government proponents don’t generally want to do that. They only talk about costs, never benefits. Do the public benefits of festivals outweigh their costs? Quite possibly we would agree with Flanagan on festivals once the evidence on both benefits and costs was assessed and debated. But we shouldn’t just look at costs. And of course we would agree that foreign aid that doesn’t help, especially grandiose versions, shouldn’t be supported, but that too should follow a discussion of both benefits and costs and debates about how we could help more cost effectively. And as for “uneconomic” green projects, surely the only reason we are pursuing them is because they are in the short term unattractive to the private sector (“uneconomic”) but no less in our collective interest. No one would dispute that government must be prudent in its interventions and that includes looking beyond the immediate and beyond our own neighbourhood. Debates about how government spends are the stuff of democracy so let’s look at benefits and costs and let’s start with the benefits and costs of prisons (of which apparently Flanagan wants more.)
Another piece just came out in the U.S. arguing that government’s admitted incapacity to deal with the oil spill very effectively is proof positive that “big” government doesn’t work. The piece is making the rounds in Canada too. And again the authors cannot move beyond ideology to consider, for example, whether sharp cuts over decades may help explain why government is weaker than we wish. And even if the answer is that we simply don’t have the knowledge and expertise to fix the spill, surely that’s the most telling argument for why we should have listened to those who warned that the risks to “drill, drill” were too great, and that means tougher regulations and regulators with teeth, hardly an argument for reduced government.
While not free of bias, and then again who is, have a read of J. Madrick’s, The Case for Big Government, just as a refreshing counter-balance. He provides a lot of evidence that many today might find counter-intuitive .