The second answer is political. The bigger the state becomes, the more power accrues to politicians and bureaucrats, and the greater the threat to individual liberty. This is the key concern of classical liberal thinking from Locke to Hayek, but again, not everybody is convinced. Is a new day care centre really going to push us down the road to serfdom? Is Scandinavia really closer to totalitarianism because of its generous welfare system?
This leaves the third answer, which is moral. Leaving things to the government, rather than doing them for ourselves, is wrong.
This argument is the most difficult to make. Many people assume socialism is ‘moral’ because it aims to make the world better with well-intentioned programs for social reconstruction. Supporting high taxes, radical income redistribution and an expanded welfare state are signs that you ‘care’ about people. Opposing these things indicates selfishness, greed and a reckless disregard for society’s problems. So we have to win hearts as well as minds, and this means arguing on moral grounds, as well as economic and political ones.
Perhaps the best moral argument for small state solutions was developed by Charles Murray in In pursuit of happiness and good government. Murray says policies should be judged by their impact on human happiness, which he defines as ‘justified satisfaction with your life.’ Happiness is not the same as passive contentment. Justified satisfaction with life is only possible when we do things for ourselves.
The welfare state undermines this. Referring to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, Murray shows how increasing reliance on government threatens both self-respect (which is achieved by taking responsibility for things) and self-actualisation (which is achieved by overcoming challenges). Yet both of these are essential for leading a good and happy life.
It is always possible to raise a bit more money so the government can launch another program to tackle some problem. And it is not necessarily true that this threatens personal liberty and pushes us further down the road to serfdom. But to lead good and fulfilling lives, people need to be able to sort out their own problems, individually or in cooperation with others, rather than having the state take this responsibility away from them. A bigger state may be able to make people more contented, but a smaller state is essential if human beings are truly to pursue happiness.
Peter Saunders is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies at www.cis.org.au.