What are governments for?
The traditional areas of government have been defence, foreign affairs, policing, the provision of justice, the execution of legal judgements including criminal sentences, the collection of taxes and the allocation of those taxes to the public enterprises mentioned above. But long before the rise of the modern industrialised state, the more organised and effective governments recognised that something
beyond this minimalist role of government was desirable, not least because underlying any society is a fear of civil disorder (which might overthrow the status quo) and crime if there are too many have-nots (this was one of the primary reasons for Imperial Rome providing a daily dole of bread to its citizens.)
England has had a legally enforceable national welfare system since 1601. In the sixteenth century, enclosure of mediaeval open fields and the dissolution of the monasteries drove many from the land and removed most of the informal welfare system which had long existed through the charitable works of monasteries. The consequence was the creation of a large number of “sturdy beggars” (a substantial rise in the population of England at the time was a considerable aggravating factor). This drove the Tudors to introduce various Acts which attempted to both restrict the movement of the poor and to provide for them. These efforts culminated in the 1597 and 1601 Poor Laws. These Acts, for the first time anywhere in the world, created legally enforceable provision for the poor for an entire nation (although it took half a century or more to get the Poor Law generally enforced).
Along with the fear of social disorder ran the natural feelings of pity and moral obligation, feelings bolstered by the custom of hospitality and of a religion which enjoined a duty of alms-giving to the poor. Such sentiments were gradually assimilated into public policy.
Of course, the national and political desire to provide for the poor and the unfortunate has been massively enlarged in the centuries since the Elizabethan Poor Law was passed. In Britain, we think that everyone in our society should have the necessities of life – food,shelter, warmth, clothing, preferably from their own efforts in part or whole, but where necessary from the taxpayer. The vast majority of Britons believe that these things are desirable, although there are differences of opinion over the extent and nature of the provision.
But most Britons – both at the political level and as a large majority of the population - also think that a good deal of other state provision should exist, not merely for the poor or unfortunate but for every citizen. We recognise that there are other things which the state should do beyond maintaining the integrity of the state and providing the basic means of subsistence. These are enterprises which are deemed to be both for the public good and in need of public action because private provision will not do them at all or only do them inadequately.
We expect the roads to be maintained by the state because that increases the efficiency of commerce and industry and enhances private life (most of the population probably think the same of railways.) We believe that no one should be left without medical treatment within the limits of what can be reasonably afforded. We think it necessary that the population should be educated to a certain level because that is essential for the individual’s chances in life and because a modern industrial society requires educated people. The more thoughtful see education as a civilising process which has general value for a society.
Equality before the law, or even justice itself, is a special case of social provision because it requires social provision for it to exist. Unless the state provides the means for each individual to have equal
access to the law to remedy a wrong and to have equal access to professional legal assistance when they are a defendant in either a criminal or civil case, there is no equality before the law. All legal assistance must be free, because otherwise there is no equality for an individual will either not be able to afford the assistance or be deterred from seeking it because of the cost.
Law exists to provide a peaceful alternative to private action to right hurts and no defendant has a choice of whether they are defendant. Those two facts should be remembered by those who balk at the idea of universal legal aid. Sadly, legal aid in Britain, although still generous compared with many countries, is inadequate and is being reduced.
All social provision, from the supplying of basic needs such as food and shelter to education, has a further role. In a reputed democracy, each person is supposed to be an autonomous human being capable of both existing and of making decisions about who shall govern and what shall be done. A person constantly wracked with the uncertainty of poverty and the fear of ill-health or insecure employment will have little time to devote to anything other than surviving. A person denied a formal education will probably be illiterate and have a poorly developed intellect. To possess such disadvantages in our world is effectively to be excluded both from the more comfortable and influential parts of society and, consequently, from politics. And such disadvantage follows down the generations, with the children of the poor taking on the privations of the parents.
If we are to have a meaningful democracy, or more exactly a representative system (elective oligarchy) which allows the masses to exercise meaningful democratic control over the elite through their votes, every member of the electorate has, ideally, to be in a condition whereby they both have the time to consider matters beyond the everyday and the education to understand matters of public policy. The ideal is of course unobtainable, but many more will be brought closer to such a condition if supported and encouraged by public provision than if left solely to the vagaries of private provision. It is worth noting that historically elites have generally been opposed to expanding the intellectual world and material standing of the masses. There is a good if immoral reason for this: the poorer and less educated a population, the easier it is for the elite to control it.
Why do we need public provision?
Why do we need public provision? Why cannot we live in the type of world envisaged by extreme libertarians, who imagine that everything could be supplied through private arrangements and charity? The short answer is that private provision never provides universality of provision or anything approaching it. We know this because all the experience of history shows no case where private provision has met the general need.
Most societies at most times have had no state provision for welfare. In those societies private charity has invariably fallen not merely short but far short of meeting need. Periodic famine, illiteracy, untreated illness and poverty have been the all too common lot of the masses throughout history. Unless a society is willing to allowpeople to starve, suffer and remain uneducated – and no politician in a modern western country would openly espouse such an idea – the only answer is state provision to assist those who cannot afford to pay or who are unable to find charity. Consequently, it is pointless asking the question could private charity and individual effort provide a better general service in he provision of this or that vital service than public enterprise because private charity and individual enterprise will and can never provide comprehensive provision.
The extreme ideologues who advocate private action as the only legitimate means of providing social goods invariably fail to meaningfully acknowledge the elephant in the room, namely, what happens to those who are unable to buy what they need or who cannot obtain charity? When pressed they claim that the abolition of tax, or at least its reduction to the low levels needed to maintain a minimalist state, would allow charity to rise to a sufficient level to meet all demands for social provision. The fact that this has never happened in the entire history of the world does not concern them. Like Marxists who still claim that communism only requires the right circumstances to be realised, the supporters of private provision remain convinced that their utopia is just waiting to be realised if only society was ordered by their rules (It is worth noting that a utopian libertarian society could only exist if all other political ideas were suppressed).
What can we say to these vaulting optimists who appear to be oblivious to the facts of human psychology and sociology? These extreme disciples of the free market, civil society and private charity should remember that even the Messiah of laissez faire economics, Adam Smith, allowed that there were things of purely economic concern which could not be left to private provision because it was inadequate, for example the maintenance of the roads. Smith also recognised that there was more to life than economic relationships and that the social consequences of economic decisions sometimes mean that unfettered economic arrangements are unacceptable, for example, in the provision of war materials which have a strategic value as well as an economic one. In more modern times, one of the creators of neo-liberalism, F. A. Hayek, acknowledged the need for public support of the needy, for example, “We shall again take for granted the availability of a system of public relief which provides a minimum for all instances of proved need, so that no member of the community need be in want of food or shelter” (The Constitution of Liberty Routledge pp 300-301).
It is difficult going on impossible to envisage a time when the poor (relatively speaking) will not be with us. In the most benign social circumstances, there will always be substantial numbers who through illness, injury, age, bad luck or general incapacity will need and deserve taxpayer provision. To take but one example of a widespread
and unalterable disadvantage: approximately 10% of the population of Britain have IQs of 80 or less. An IQ of 80 is the point at which most psychologists consider an individual begins to struggle to live an independent life in an advanced modern state such as Britain. Because of the way IQ is distributed – more or less as a Bell Curve – most of that 10% will always be drawn from the poorer sections of society (attempts to boost IQ with enhanced environments, for example Headstart in the USA, have persistently failed to do so by more than a few points and often the gain is not permanent. The implication is that IQ is to a large extent genetically determined). The low IQ poor will be likely to need substantial social provision because their families and friends will not have the resources commonly available to the low IQ individuals within better-off families. If substantial public provision is not available to them, the likely outcome will be increased anti-social behaviour from those unable to cope or earn a living capable of supporting them. The moral to be drawn is that any society should, simply as a matter of prudence let alone morality, provide a viable life for all of its people, not merely the fortunate or able.
There is a further consideration: the responsibility of governments for the general conditions in which people live. For example, the position of low IQ individuals in poor families is considerably worse now than it used to be. British Governments over the past 25 years have changed, primarily through a commitment to free markets and free trade and increasingly uncontrolled immigration, have removed many of the circumstances which previously gave Britons with a low IQ the chance of living an adult life largely independent of the state.
Manual jobs, especially in heavy industry, long-established working-class communities, cheap housing and a tight labour market have all been greatly diminished or have vanished altogether.
Mass immigration, especially from the new EU members, is especially disadvantageous for the low IQ, low skill Briton. The immigrants, even the well-qualified, are happy to take the low paid unskilled jobs which would be suitable for those Britons with low IQs. They do this because the money they can earn in Britain doing a menial job is considerably more than the average wage in their own countries. For example, £3,000 a year in Poland is a good professional salary. A Pole earning even the minimum wage in Britain can often save that in a year because his money will probably not be taxed and he will be living either in squats or in very overcrowded conditions which cost him little. (Give native Britons the chance to save the equivalent of a doctor’s salary in Britain by working in a menial job in a foreign country and watch them flock there.)
The consequence for the low IQ, low skilled Briton is not only competition for the sort of jobs he or she has traditionally filled but reduced wages and even exclusion from part of the British job market altogether, because certain types of job become effectively reserved for immigrants of a particular ethnicity - this is particularly the case where foreign gangmasters operate for they commonly employ only people of their own ethnicity.
Of course, the effects of the actions of governments go far beyond the low IQ individuals in a population. To take another example which affects most, if governments engineer, as has happened in Britain, a decline in the state education system through demands that the same formal school exams must be sat by all pupils or that 50% of school-leavers should go onto higher education, then the politicians who introduce the policies take upon themselves the responsibility for any inability of the ill-educated to lead productive and socially useful lives.