Taming leviathan


Daniel Finkelstein had a great article in The Times yesterday, talking about how the "vast jamboree of special interest groups" present at the party conferences demonstrate the "malignant growth" of the state:

"All around the fringe can be found... public sector organisations holding meetings to persuade taxpayers to give them more money, meetings that are - here's the good bit - paid for by the taxpayers that are being lobbied. Paid for by you, in other words, in order to persuade yourself."

He goes on to list some of the organisations that he came across at the Conservative conference. It takes a full four paragraphs, and that's just a start. As he says:

"I am attempting instead to show how big and complicated the State has become, and just how many parts of it are now involved in protecting their own existence..."

The implication of all this, which Finkelstein realizes, is that talk of government 'tightening its belt' will never amount to much. You need to work out what the government is for, and then get rid of surplus functions.

So what should the British government be doing? For me, it's not a long list:

  • Law and order: the state should protect individuals against direct harm from others, and enforce contracts.
  • Defence and security: emphasis on the word defence, as opposed to costly foreign intervention.
  • Public health: i.e. sanitation and preventing the spread of communicable diseases, not telling people they can't smoke, drink, or whatever.
  • Infrastructure: ensuring adequate transport and energy supplies (but leaving provision to the market as much as possible).
  • Funding schools: but not running them.
  • Welfare: get people to contribute as much as they can, but guarantee a basic income and minimum standard of healthcare.
  • Social services: make sure the young, the old and the mad are looked after.
  • Sound money: I've lost faith in central bankers so – short of competing currencies – maybe a return to the gold standard would be a good idea.

Confine government to those activities (which are still more extensive than many would like) and I suspect you could get rid of almost all QUANGOs and regulators, half the government departments, and a very sizeable chunk of public spending.