It used to be that not that long ago, governments didn’t actually do everything. In fact they didn’t really do much at all. The surprising thing really is just how quickly we have gotten used to government having its fingers in everything. It is all relative I suppose, in OUR lifetimes things have stayed pretty constant, or at least the incremental creep has been so slow as to be overlooked – slowly broiling the frog. But looking back to the start of the 20th Century, governments then were very pale shadows of what they are now. What was considered the legitimate domain of the ruling institutions was surprising limited and pretty loosely defined as well. Which is what makes some of the achievements by the leading powers during the 19th Century all the more remarkable. The British managed to forge a world wide empire upon which the sun never set, with a Foreign Office that was smaller than a middling sized modern embassy.
I will grant a number of points though. What governments basically used to do was look after the interests of the ruling elite and run the military (arguably the same thing). So, not what you would call government of the people – for the people, at all. Looking after the welfare of the nation meant looking after the rich elites and everyone else could go swivel. Hmm… perhaps things haven’t changed that much after all. In any event, the tide of history has steamrollered the old aristocracies and in their place has grown a polity of the proletariat. And in general, a very good thing that is too. Public health, public education, social welfare, the 40 hour week, etc etc etc… were all things that flowed from working class revolutionary activism and universal suffrage. All of these required not just a review of the scope of government, but also a review of the scale. If governments were going to make a point of promoting social welfare and not just military adventures then there is of necessarily a concomitant expansion of means to support the expansion of roles.
One unfortunately aspect of the tide of history though is that it is a rather disjointed and uneven affair. While modern and enlightened things were happening on the one hand, conservative, chauvinistic, partisan politics remained in play as well. Enough so that mobilizing entire nations and directing them towards Total War apparently seemed like a good idea at the time. Not just once but twice, within the space of less than 50 years. Apparently it was such a good idea the first time around, everyone lined up to have a second crack at it. Well, maybe not for the plebs ground up in the carnage, but definitely for the government bureaucracies. Money, power and personnel flowed to them in torrents. In the space of less than half a century, in order to support war efforts, the institutions of government expanded into every sphere of public and private live. Well, you might have expected that sort of domination from totalitarian regimes, but it happened just as surely in democratic countries as well. That such a dramatic transformation could happen so quickly, with the acquiescence and then the continuing acceptance by the population should merit rather more questioning than it has I would have thought. Apparently not, exigencies and blandishments form their own tide of history it seems.
So as the world entered into the second half of the 20th Century it did so comfortable with the concept of big government. Presumably because there wasn’t generally seen to be any particular threat from that direction at all, and in-fact some distinct benefits to be had. Not everyone was so sanguine, President Eisenhower – hero of WWII – left office with the sage warning to beware of the Military/industrial complex. What gets left off of that warning is the piquant point that the Military/Industrial complex is the bastard child of Big Government, and not the only one either by any means. But at the start, these children of the Titan were young, inexperienced and idealistic. Fast forward a few years and Lyndon B. Johnson was still extolling the virtues of the “great society” that could be had from comprehensive social programs. America was not alone, socialism of one flavor or another was definitely the idea de-Jour around the world. What they all had in common, if nothing else, was Great Big government. Big bureaucracies, big budgets and big spheres of authority – big and growing. But by the 1980’s there were signs enough, of the malign potential of big government, that concerted efforts were made to throttle that growth.
The attempts even succeeded… after a fashion… for a while! But the thing about big and complex constructions is that they are ultimately uncontrollable. Unintended consequences creep in, the system evolves in unexpected, unplanned directions. And bureaucracies in particular have their own logic and imperatives that has nothing to do with the will of the managers. Marching orders can be issued until you are blue in the face, and they will sink without a trace into the system. The Titan will do what it is that the Titan does, and like a black hole it will warp the space around it to boot. By now big government has had decades to grow and evolve until it either controls or influences everything, and we accept that as normal. What’s more, our reaction to a problem or a crisis is to call for even more government intervention and control. Even when just a modicum of analysis would indicate that more often than not our problems are self inflicted, what is the response? The systems we employ create the problems in the first place, so apparently the solution to our problems is even more of the same?!!!
Albert Einstein reportedly said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly, and yet expect to get a different result. So, what do we actually want our system of government to do (well, there’s a bun fight in and of itself) and if it isn’t actually achieving our desired objectives, what are we going to do about it. So its not just what we are looking to do that needs critical attention, but also how we go about effecting that. Big government has not been a conspicuous success, the costs end up being grossly disproportionate to any benefits, and in the most insidious ways. Like some sort of existential pollution, the adverse effects are pawned off downstream so that they are somebody (anybody) else’s problems. Any linkages can be denied and yet we all get to suffer amid the swill. At one point automobiles were thought to be the best thing since sliced bread – until there were hundreds of millions of them, our roads became parking lots, the air becomes grey with the fumes and the price of oil rises sky high. Ohh, and as an added twist, burning billions of tons of oil could well fundamentally alter the worlds climate and ecology. You know, the things we rely on to actually survive.
Time, and past time, to wise up on things – how we do something is at least as important as what we do. If we are digging ourselves into a hole, then it is time to stop digging. The road we are on we seriously don’t want to go down. Unfortunately it rather looks like we don’t have much of a choice at present, our past sins have caught up with us and we are going to have to pay the piper on a few outstanding bills. But at the very least we can call time on the more obvious and egregious failures. Specifically, stop enabling those things we do not want to encourage, stop feeding those things we do not want to grow. Stop authorising governments unlimited access to money, they will do things with it that you do not want them doing. Unfortunately it has become a habit, like a drug addiction, but it is one we will have to break before it breaks us. Big government is not the way, rather it is a trap of our own creation. There are other ways of doing things and we need to work them out and apply them sooner rather than later. Our aspirations are worthy and legitimate, so too must be our means. So while governments are here to stay, they need to be right sized, we needs must make them serve us, not us them.