Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Peter Saunders: The moral case for a smaller state

The CIS believes in finding non-government solutions to society’s problems. But why not use government, given the resources and power it has to change things? Three answers are commonly given. The first is economic. Demands on government are potentially infinite, the budget keeps expanding and big projects often go wrong. There has to be a limit. But not everybody agrees. If something really needs doing, they say, government should find the money. Australian public spending is less as a percentage of GDP than in many other developed countries; we could spend more.

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


Kiwiwit said...

Your argument comes down to the greater collective good, which is exactly the argument of those who advocate for a large state, and I think you've missed the most important moral argument against a big state. That is that the state must use its legal monopoly on the initiation of violence to force people to fund it.

Socialists can talk all they like about 'caring and sharing' and 'everyone doing their part' but the moral reality is that the state is simply the biggest neighborhood gang running a protection racket. We pay our taxes because we're afraid of being imprisoned or killed by the state and we would soon see what the true support for a big state was if taxes were voluntary.

Anonymous said...

And an ever more pressing argument is the natural law argument. Most people are mediocre. A very few excel. Communism / redistribution / the welfare state - it's all the same - merely chops those who excel down to the level of the mediocre many.

If if there are moral arguments for communism (the needs of the mediocre many outweigh the needs of the excellent one); economic arguments for communism (it's arguably more efficient to insure everyone through ACC or public spending than to have separate private health arrangements); political arguments for communism (democracy demands the mediocre majority must rule over the excellent minority) --- even if, and frankly in many case it can be show --- that the greatest good of the greatest number will be delivered by communism:

communism is simply wrong and evil

even in cases where it works - and statistically NZ & AU & Norway are places where it's working as well as it ever has

communism is simply wrong and evil