The Size of the State

Ayn Rand meme

The idea of ‘small government’, taken at face value, might sound appealing. Nobody much likes the nanny state telling us how to eat, or enjoys trying to fill out bureaucratic government forms.

John Redwood, Conservative MP for Wokingham, certainly set out a fairly decent-seeming vision for the small state in this 2010 blog post:

The Conservative manifesto today points us in a better direction – towards smaller government, towards a world where government is more the servant of the people and less the master.

Under it people will be able to set up their own school with public money diverted from state schools, vote for a Police Chief of their choice, run parts of the public sector as co-ops or employee led private companies, get a share in the state owned banks, vote on the level of Council Tax, see their Council freed from much of the Whitehall regulation that currently controls it, and exercise more choice over access to public services. It offers some lower taxes to create more jobs. It wants to help more people own a home, participate directly in the business or service area they work for and to save for the future.

There will be a Bill to cut regulation and abolish some busybody quangos. Many people want to see an end to too much political correctness, some reversal of the surveillance society, and deployment of the thought police to more useful tasks.

Aside from the ‘PC gone too far’ guff, parts of this sound sort of… vaguely leftist? Co-ops? Employee-led companies? Not bad!

But hold up a second, bucko. We know that what actually ended up happening was austerity. Not a fan of that. There’s something more complicated going on here.

Under the basic folk narrative, the size of the state is like a dial – turn it to the left for a bigger state that taxes you to the gills and watches you sleep through a drone, turn it to the right for a smaller state that lets you get on with your day while quietly catching security threats in the background.

But a state isn’t a singular entity. It includes a wide range of departments and functions. It’s rare to find anyone seriously arguing for making all those things small or big. Even anarchists (leftists who want no state!) are more nuanced on this than you might expect. Anarchists still want some of those necessary functions carried out, but by communities themselves through bottom-up non-hierarchical means. And Chomsky argues that:

In today’s world, I think, the goals of a committed anarchist should be to defend some state institutions from the attack against them, while trying at the same time to pry them open to more meaningful public participation – and ultimately, to dismantle them in a much more free society, if the appropriate circumstances can be achieved.

Similarly, right-wing libertarians sometimes make good points. Here’s an article in libertarian magazine Reason which mentions the hypocrisy of conservatives calling for small government while upholding military interventionism:

Even the record of Ronald Reagan, that eloquent spokesman for limited government, was disappointing. Whatever progress he made in limiting the growth of domestic programs was offset by enormous hikes in the Pentagon’s budget that helped set the stage for the last 30 years of costly American military adventurism.

So, let’s go back to John Redwood and take a gander at his voting record.

  • Social issues: being ambivalent on the smoking ban and against the hunting ban is consistent with a ‘small state’, though I like being able to breathe and not having toffs slaughter foxes for no reason. But why vote against gay marriage and the right for the terminally ill to die as they choose if you don’t want an overbearing big gubbermint telling people what they can and can’t do? Curious, that.
  • Foreign policy: generally voted for UK military intervention and the Iraq war. What! I thought you wanted a small state! The military is a state apparatus!
  • Welfare and benefits: consistent voting against a strong welfare state. Fits with a ‘small state’, but cruel and unnecessary.
  • Taxation: this is very intriguing. Redwood has voted for raising the threshold on paying income tax, which is nice. But by voting against increasing the rate on income over £150,000, against a banker’s bonus tax, for more regulation on trade unions (oh, so you like state-imposed regulation then?), and for increasing the rate of VAT (which tends to raise the tax burden on the poor), it’s clear what angle he’s taking in terms of class, isn’t it?

I won’t go through the entire list; there are things I like and things I don’t. But it’s revealing to look at some of the areas where he voted to shrink the state, and some of the areas where he voted to enlarge the state.

When the right has power, it turns out what the talk of ‘small government’, ‘low taxation’, and ‘cutting red tape’ really means in practice. It means shrinking the welfare state, while not cutting down on military misadventures or the surveillance state (c.f. the Snooper’s Charter). It means cutting taxes for the wealthiest, while raising taxes that impact the poorest most and cutting services on which the poor rely. It often means cutting regulation that hinders corporate power and profits, while enforcing regulation that hinders the power of the workforce.

The concept of small government is appealing on the surface, because everybody likes freedom and nobody likes being told what to do or paying more tax. But we should be cautious. What exactly is getting shrunk, and what ends up getting expanded? Easily digested narratives are very good at concealing more than they reveal. They conceal the ideological project and social goals that are really in play.

In practice, this narrative of freedom is used to con us. It’s more freedom for the sort of people who hunt foxes, and less for the much larger group of people who don’t.

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