What Is the Role of Government?

A day or two ago, a commenter on my “Hoist on their Petards” series on the Federal party leaders suggested that he disagreed with my “theory of government” and “what government is for”. Considering I hadn’t laid one out there, that was a surprising comment! Yet the reality is that each of us comes to the table with some idea of what the role of government ought to be.

This is, for instance, at the core of much of the sheer, unadulterated emotion that surrounds the party leaders. (I wanted to originally type “hatred” but thought better of it.)

If, for instance, you believe that fixing the ills of society is part of the role of government — that, indeed, this is the unique agency that can do so — then you are likely to have a visceral reaction against any politician who goes on the record as saying the role of government should be limited. Thus, we get the “Harper must be defeated” crowd seizing upon every passing day’s news to make their point: the Prime Minister has acted on his beliefs and chained (to some extent) the Federal Government’s ability to meddle in new program areas, any of which could qualify as an ill to be fixed. The belief then drives the reaction.

Some of my own beliefs, of course, leaked out there (just as they do in the rest of my political writing): I don’t believe that every issues requires government intervention, and thus am quite comfortable with the thought of limited government, even if those “ills” are not ameliorated.

It would nice, I suppose, to live in Galt’s Gulch (Ayn Rand’s depiction of a society of purely rational interactions between people in Atlas Shruged — she portrayed it as a situation where a laissez-faire society still protected the commonweal) but the philosopher in me is acutely aware that man is not a rational animal, but a rationalizing one. Far more accurate, then, is Jane Jacobs’ portrayal of the situation in her Systems of Survival, where she teases apart what she calls the “commercial code” (that which is closest to the libertarian ideal) and the “guardian code” (that of government as the guardian of all things). The real world, of course, is a constant tug-of-war between these two codes: even under the darkest days of Stalinism some elements of the commercial code were still in play, and, of course, a purely libertarian code has never been tried, despite the claims that it has.

In the real world, therefore, beyond the basics of a legal code, policing and military protection of the citizens, and a judicial system, it is necessary for government to intervene to deal with matters of the commons. There are many “tragedy of the commons” issues that sometimes require a little carefully focused regulation, or the creation of an apparently commercial yet mandatory system to intervene and redirect behaviour which is advantageous to the individual but destructive of society in general. Recent concerns over pollution, global warming and environmental destruction fall into this camp. Creating and requiring the use of a carbon credit system, or a carbon taxing system, and a set of regulations about discharge (for water, I particularly like the notion that your intake must be downstream from your outflow [now you figure out how clean you want to make it, and how]) are examples of a little guardianship over shared resources. So, too, does the concept of zoning: carried to the suburban extreme it becomes the agent of environmental and societal destruction, but it is appropriate to ensure a rendering plant or mini mill can’t be erected in my neighbour’s back yard on my residential street. These are two examples — there are others we can think of — that protect the commonweal and thus make for reasonable restrictions on free action in society.

Incidentally, to those who say in return that a purely commercial set of alternatives to work this out could be devised, I say “yes, rationally they could, but man is a rationalizing animal, always ready to find an excuse not to do the right thing for all of us if it inconveniences him personally”.

There are other kinds of intervention that may be more problematic. Do we, for instance, benefit from — or lose by — requirements for Canadian ownership of certain industries, Canadian content on our airwaves, and the like? If you believe, as I do, that there is value in Canadian identity, then actions to preserve a space for Canadians to shape that identity culturally make sense, although, as with many things, they ought not to take on a life of their own: we should periodically challenge them if only to ensure they are still a net benefit. This is the challenge of being a smallish nation (by numbers and economic clout) next door to a large and civilisationally-dominant one, where it is almost always easier to simply “buy their choices” than pay the premium for developing our own. But each such intervention in Canadians’ freedom to choose must be carefully examined. Other interventions include the public building of national infrastructure: it may be necessary, with our surfeit of near-empty geography, to give such infrastructure a boost into existence and early operation through the public sector, but, as growth takes over, moving these into the private sector then makes sense: the resulting institutions can stand on their own (and should, say I). Remember, the world’s largest railway is now Canadian National — and it is so via its choices to buy American lines from their former owners and use their expertise to improve the service offered on them.

There are other areas which are almost never (in my view) appropriate for government involvement. Those who believe in government as the saving grace of society will disagree with this position. We should not be creating and fostering dependency in the First Nations. We should not be building a national day care system. We should not be force-feeding “innovation” as a set of market distortions: those that can play the grant and loan application game get funding; those that play by commercial rules fall behind. My reasons are philosophic: the government that governs best does so by focusing its attentions. None of these are essential interventions: they are all in the “pet project” category.

And every one of these restricts Canadians’ choices, limits their horizons, eats into their possibilities, more than it does good. They are, in other words, a net loss — and always will be.

Finally, it is important to remember that we have also established, at the core of our governance, some key rules — we call them our Constitution. In there is a division of labour amongst our governments. It is therefore proper for each government to function only within its domains. Provinces with grand ambitions ought not to simply assume the Federal Government owes them the difference. The Federal Government, in its eternal quest to remain relevant to Canadians (after all, all the interesting things from a citizen’s point of view are municipal or provincial according to our Constitution), needs to avoid meddling in the affairs of the provinces. Will this mean some provinces might have better services than others? Yes. The whole point of provinces, at the end of the day, is to celebrate difference. This one believes in far more government: let it. This one chooses a more libertarian outlook: let it. Citizens will make their own choices about where to live based on their preferred balance between liberty and governance. This is as it should be: the commercial and guardian codes are always tipping out of balance in their engagement and overlap with one another, and no jurisdiction’s current approach remains “right” for long. Yet all can stay within one nation, with all the benefits that provides.

Compared to those who would use government to enforce a particular view of economic life, or of social mores, upon the population, I side with liberty. Compared to pure libertarians, I recognise the imperfection of man (and his inherent imperfectibility) and recognise a need for some government. Add to this the notion that change should be made slowly and with a keen eye on our traditions — what makes us, us — and there you have my Tory political philosophy. Certainly not Conservative (although there is much common cause there), Green (but not to the point of Social Engineering), with the sense of social justice that is the old CCF strain in the NDP (prairie NDP, if you will) but tempered by always challenging guardianship. Not at all opportunistic as the Liberals tend to be, championing interventions for short-term reasons.

The current government has many failings, but, of all the parties on offer as they are today, it is the least worst option. That is my answer to my commenter of a few days ago.

4 responses to “What Is the Role of Government?

  1. Paradox of Government: If one can’t trust others to govern themselves, why trust anyone to govern others?

  2. Well, yes!, 99ppp: a good reason, indeed, for keeping government on a short leash.

    Don’t get me wrong, by the way: my core attitude remains, when in doubt, do no harm, which usually boils down to “don’t act, deliberate longer”.

  3. Fascinating.

  4. Hi, Matt: Welcome to the blog.

    I’d love to know what you found fascinating.

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