22 December 2006

Biases of big government

The problem with big government is that it is generally remote government. Remoteness means that government is unresponsive to the real needs of real people and has wildly different priorities from real people. Big government has more in common with other big organisations (corporations, trade unions, other governments) than with the people it's supposed to represent. All these institutions have two main things in common:
  • Their over-arching objective is self-perpetuation; and
  • When monitoring their performance, they rely heavily on easily quantifiable data.

Self-perpetuation for most of us, most of the time, is a goal with which we can identify as individuals. Some organisations, brought into being to address genuine grievances can, knowlingly or not, perpetuate or entrench the causes of their grievances: they see the entire world through the prism of the cause that validates their raison d'etre; and that can be problematic.

But the reliance on quantifiable data is, I think, equally dispiriting. A benevolent welfare state cannot discriminate between the deserving poor, and those who would benefit more from being refused (say) unemployment assistance and so more motivated to find work. The criteria for receiving such assistance will be numerical data, mainly wealth and income.

Given that we have big government, one way of solving the sort of mismatch between numerical aggregate measures of wellbeing, and actual wellbeing, would be to have sensible numerical targets. Take the unemployment example: instead of detailed, legalistic criteria for the process of applying for unemployment benefit, a truly benign government could set a broad target for total unemployment, and contract out the achievement of that lower target to the private sector. (Click here for one suggestion.) The private sector would be motivated to encourage those unemployed at the margin - those least unwilling or unable to go to work - to find jobs. This is in contrast to a bureaucracy, which has no such clear motivation. The proliferation if meaningless micro-targets, and the bureaucratic need for self-perpetuation, combine in this and many other instances, to form a vicious circle, or a downward spiral, which cannot respond sensibly to cases of individual human need.

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