Government: how much is too much?


What incentive hath the farmer, while following his plough, to go to war with the farmer of another country? Tom Paine.


Governments take us, the people, to war. Governments provide the coordinating mechanism that makes wars possible. Without entering into the pros and cons of any particular war, this fact remains, and so the question in the title is of interest to KPN readers.

Minimalist government has been put forward as an ideal.  It is standard rightwing theory, a belief that too much governmental interference is bad for economic prosperity, bad for personal dignity as we allow the ‘nanny’ State too much meddling in our lives, and, what is perhaps even worse, too much political control results in practice in a dangerous centralisation of power, and so is deeply undemocratic. That is the way Hitler was able to destroy democracy completely in his country. 

Yet the political right are not alone - minimalist government has support from across the whole political spectrum, if not from politicians themselves.  Anarchists disbelieve in government altogether, asserting that we ought to be able to get along perfectly well as a society without an additional controlling layer on top, to take our taxes and perhaps finance wars with the money.  And writers who could not be described as rightwing have stressed the need to minimalise government’s power. Thoreau saw the need for government, but wanted it to interfere as little as possible with people’s lives (‘government governs best that governs least’), and Tom Paine, he who backed inheritance tax as a way of undermining the power of the aristocracy at the same time as funding the provision of pensions for all citizens, who argued that all citizens be given a lump sum on attaining the age of 21 to give them a good start in life, was also a powerful advocate of minimal government.  Paine saw no contradiction, yet is there in fact something illogical in both advocating State support for the weak and disadvantaged, and at the same time campaigning for reduction in government’s power?  Are socialism and minimal government incompatible?

To begin to look for an answer to this question, we must first decide what government is for.  For this I can find no better guide than Tom Paine himself.   He wrote at a critical time, when a new style of government was being formed in the New World, a style of government that he saw as being greatly superior to that existing in the Old World, where corruption, kingly power, and a token democracy that enfranchised only one citizen in a hundred stifled any attempt at a true government of the people, for the people, by the people themselves via their elected representatives.  He had a hand in the formation of this new and hopeful system in the United States of America, and his view of the purposes of government is compelling.

‘Society is produced by our wants, government by our wickedness.’  Thus Paine neatly distinguishes between our need to form a society for mutual benefit and companionship, and our need for a government to protect us from ourselves.  We get along for most of the time without the need for a policeman, but nevertheless we need the reassurance and support of a policeman to see that the tiny criminal minority amongst us does not ruin society.  The laws that our representatives have passed must be enforceable, and government is needed both for passing the laws and arranging that they are enforced.

‘Were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver, but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest, and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least.’

Out of this arises the concept of government being a necessary evil, an institution that ought to have sufficient power to make and enforce laws, but no more than that. 

Now the question arises:  How much governmental power is necessary?  If your idea of society extends not only to law enforcement but also to the ideals of equal rights, and a view that disproportionate power and wealth in individuals is unstabilising, being productive of economic tyrants, inequalities and privilege, then your conception of the duty of a minimalist government will extend much further than simple non-interference.  Without being inherently contradictory, the duty of government could thus even be extended to the State ownership of the means of production.  The basic criterion is the free and fair society, and to government is to be delegated the means to ensure that the will of society to freedom and fairness is enforced.

In this way I have felt able to believe both in minimal government as a guarantee that no war is undertaken in my name, and socialism.

Harry Davis