Moral mission of small government

Greg Lindsay

27 June 2013 | The Australian Financial Review

Regardless of which party wins the election in September, the new government will have much more important issues to deal with than whose turn it is to be leader, and whether to wear a red or blue tie.

One key concern is that our budget is rapidly spinning out of control. Government spending is unsustainable already and future demands on government seem unbounded. This has profound long-term implications for good government.

While the Australian economy has been in better shape than most for two decades, continuing economic disaster in Europe, a possible slowdown in the US and predictions of the end of the mining boom here mean it’s time for some prudence. We cannot continue piling policy upon policy and promise upon promise forever.

Government is increasingly unable to deliver services at a reasonable cost and on time. There are predictions of massive cost blowouts in the national broadband network, the school building program had huge cost and time overruns, and inefficient decision making processes have dogged Australia’s Future Submarine project.

When government moves beyond its core responsibilities into areas which were once personal responsibilities (like preventive health measures targeting obesity) or impinges on fundamental liberties (like freedom of speech) it risks failing its citizens in all areas.

There must be a limit to the sustainable cost of government, one we are fast approaching. In the uncertain future we face either higher taxes or increased debt to pay for government services. In both cases, the burdens that our irresponsible consumption spending is placing on future generations are unconscionable.

Therefore, by necessity, the future of politics will have to focus on efficiency, functions and responsibilities of government. We have the choice to make responsible cuts now when the economy is in good shape or accept that drastic action will be needed later to avoid the looming crisis.

But this is not merely an exercise in number crunching. There is a moral and ethical dimension to smaller government that is often ignored.

In a recent comment piece for the Centre for Independent Studies, the ever logical Peter Saunders said that ‘there are two basic ethics that should drive policy’. While the first ethic of caring and compassion is rightly acknowledged in policy development, the second is just as important: that is the moral requirement for individuals to make a contribution.

This second ethic, the need to contribute to your own wellbeing wherever possible, has been lost from our policy debate.

Without personal responsibility, an activist state will continue to expand to take over more and more functions that individuals could do themselves. Without personal responsibility, compassion can be taken advantage of and caring can become unsustainable. The chaos in southern Europe is a guide to how things could turn out.

On a deeper level, Charles Murray, in his excellent In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government, argues that happiness is the point of life, which he defines as “justified satisfaction with your life”. Justified satisfaction is not the same as passive contentment at how life “turned out”. That is, just being given everything you want is not the path to happiness.

Australians are increasingly dependent on government and are becoming ever more tangled in its web. We need to do things for ourselves and this is undermined by the welfare state and large government that goes with it.

Reform of government spending will require a fundamental change in the way that individuals relate to government. We need to remind ourselves not only of the cost of big government but also of our moral responsibilities to take care of ourselves, so government can take care of those who are unable to do so.

Both the economic and the moral case for smaller government are important in charting a path out of the mire of debt and deficit and towards prosperity and happiness for future generations.

Greg Lindsay is executive director of The Centre for Independent Studies.

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