Words To Ponder (Or How Do We Get Small Government?)

Written by Johan on May 26, 2009 – 6:17 pm

They are from Arnold Kling.

A key to averting the loss of civil society is to overcome the progressive ideology championed by Chait. That ideology amounts to an all-out assault on civil society. Picture civil society as a nice lawn, and picture government as a weed. As the weed grows, the lawn gets wiped out. Civil Societarianism is the ideology that tries to grow the lawn. Progressivism is the ideology that tries to grow the weed.

The idea is that strengthening and growing civil society is a plausible way to reduce the scope of government. Kling gives a few examples of how to this, like boosting private schools, charities, and other organisations that compete with government. The hope is that as civil society grows stronger and competition in the welfare service market improves, people become less dependent on government. Presumably this would make it easier to cut government spending and get reelected — something that seems hard to do today.

I like this idea. I’m not sure how optimistic I am, but it does seem more realistic than lobbying for stricter constitutional limits to state power. After all, it’s not likely that politicians will tie their own hands, outside of extra-ordinary events that make it necessary. There are a couple of problems though.

  • The government can fight the growth of private alternatives to public services through regulation. This happens, to some extent, but from my Swedish perspective where reforms have generally gone the other way, I don’t see it as a major threat. People tend to like choices, and once they get used to having them it becomes politically costly to remove them.
  • Setting up and running these alternatives on a larger scale is very hard work. Probably too hard to be done by volunteer ideologues. This is the bigger issue. In the areas where companies can successfully (and profitably) provide what is now government services, there is a greater chance of expanding civil society. Even so, it’s hard to survive competition with government.
  • Heavy taxation makes it difficult to afford private alternatives for many. Inescapable, but not valid for charities.

In Sweden, I believe we do see some of this. There is more of private schools and hospitals than there used to be (although, because of school and health vouchers the government still pays for most of their students/patients); people are more willing to give money to charities than they used to, and so on.

At the same time, populist calls for more spending can still earn a politician valuable votes. It will be a long struggle, with uncertain results.

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