I think that some form of government is a good idea, even though, at times, anarchy does sound like an attractive (and much cheaper) option. But I do occasionally wonder exactly what government is for. It sometimes seems that their primary function is to take lots of my money and spend it on things that I do not approve of. Seriously though, it is worth giving some thought to what you expect from your government…
There is enormous variation around the world in terms of what goverrnments do and what services they provide. Broadly, the range extends from total anarchy (i.e. no government) to a totalitarian system (i.e. every aspect of citizens’ lives is controlled by the state). I am sure that most people wold agree that there must be a happy medium somewhere between these two. I suppose that we each have a “sweet spot” somewhere and its location on the continuum is determined by our politics.
Personally, I like the idea of minimalist goverrnment, with civilized overrtones – broadly I’m a libertarian. I think there is quite a short list of ways that I would like them to spend my taxes:
- Infrastructure – essentially roads/rail and the distribution of utility services.
- Helping the disadvantaged – healthcare and some kind of welfare state.
- Education – formal (schools etc.) and informal (public information).
- Security – emergency services and military.
If it does not comfortably fit under one of these headings, please do not spend my money on it.
This all sounds simple enough, but it can have some interesting consequences, not all of which are bad. I will consider a couple of examples.
In most countries there is a law that requires drivers and passengers in cars to wear seatbelts. It seems to make sense, but laws are expensive to enact and, in this case, almost impossible to enforce. Surely the government should simply use their responsibility to provide education to make sure that the information, that not wearing a seatbelt is stupid, is available to everyone and leave it at that. If someone chooses to ignore the advice, that is their responsibility and they have to accept the consequences. The result is that more stupid people get killed in car crashes, raising the net IQ of society. This is just Darwinian evolution in action. Is that so bad? My friend who waited for a very long time for a kidney transplant has clear views on this.
What about smoking? This is quite subtle. It is undoubtedly a stupid activity. It is unattractive and unhealthy in minor and major ways. But I know a surprising number of smart people who do it. Governments give advice and try to reduce smoking using restrictions and tax. I suspect they would try harder, but tobacco sales are a significant revenue generator. In a country with social healthcare (which obviously I support 100%), I wonder whether, having provided clear information, the goverrnment should perhaps just allow people to kill themselves, if that is what they want, instead of loading the healthcare system.
I do not really think that I can fix the government or design a new one. Unfortunately, the Law of Unintended Consequences means that such an endeavor is probably doomed to failure. But, as I sit at a French airport (waiting around, as one does at airports) with a glass of Christmas Beer in front of me, it does seem worth a try …