How Big Ought a Government to Be?
It is a snowy morning. I get ready for my 8 o’clock-class. It is the first in a series to follow. I know too well that it is going to be a very long day. (Oh, poor boy!). If not a miserable creature, how can a soul endure lecture after lecture from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm with only a few wretched minutes for break? As if to plunder one of one’s meager hope, the daylight lasts only for few hours. And one is rubbed off the delight of seeing the sunshine. The shortness of winter-days is far exacerbated by the nakedness of the trees, flogged by the bitterly cold wind under the unstoppable and unstopping Polish rain. Despite the desire and various temptations to not attend the lecture, and to defy my own misery, I manage to get on the campus in time.
I’m waiting for nearly 15 minutes and the lecturer is yet to come. Though the lecture is supposed to start at 8, he is nowhere to found after some considerable minutes past 8. Should I give in now? Should I go back home? After all, I were to lose nothing but my pitiful contempt. I get pitifully soaked on my way to the campus. Should I go back home and get doubly wet? That is out of question. So I decide to stay. “What will happen will happen”, I console myself.
Luckily, the lecturer comes shortly afterward; that’s, following that inner-deliberation. It is a finance course; more precisely, public finance. As he settles himself, the first line to appear on the slides is “what should be the size of a state?” As if it was a shock, an electronic shock, my sleeping mood suddenly fades. The question was intriguing for two reasons. Taken as it is presented, it implies that a state’s statehood depends on, perhaps amongst others features, its “size”. Yet, my mind could not fail to recall that, in international law, the size of a state is never a determinant factor of its statehood as long as it has a define territory, permanently inhabited by people regardless of their number or “size”, and an “effective” government. The second thing that intrigues me about the question is that we were in finance class, and not in an international law one. Besides, a state, as an abstract “idea”, cannot possibly be evaluated on financial terms; it cannot be monetarized nor can we attribute a monetary value to its “size”.
Only when he starts dwelling on the question could I figure out that he means to ask: what should the size of a government be? Or how big should a government be? Whether it should be as big as the state itself or as minimal as a night watchman. Whether a government ought to be a necessary evil, reduced to enforcing laws and ensuring that businesses are run without any hindrance, or ought it to be as big as to determine what is produced, how it is produced, and at what quantity.
This question, however interesting it may sound, would never be satisfactorily answered, was my answer to myself, of course. Great minds have scrutinized it for years. Yet, it has always remained in its perpetual commencement. Any position (I mean “any” in its broadest possible meaning) on the matter has its supporters, its opponents, and those who couldn’t care less.
After a minute’s talk, I understand that my dear lecturer has a position to which I do not subscribe. It is not that his arguments are incoherent, but that I find them unconvincing. I could not agree more with him when he says “what makes the field of public finance so difficult and so challenging to deal with is that it is not free of politics nor could politics free itself of public finance”. Apart from this, however, anything he says afterwards is diametrically opposed to what I think on the subject; it is on the other side of the spectrum.
For instance, he takes himself to be a liberal (or a “conservative”, as he says), a free market economist. He believes that left-wing governments are almost always irresponsible. They opt for big governments and spend the public money carelessly, crowd out private investment, distort the market mechanism, and bring about market failures and inefficiencies. To support his argument, he cites Greece, communist Russia, etc.
By then, I could barely restrict myself from intervening. As soon as he says “what do you guys think”, I jump in.
My first remark is a general observation about life; the basic principle that governs life. That any exaggeration, any extreme, and any excess is deleterious. The issue concerning the side of the government, says I, ought not to be viewed as the “right” always being right, and the “left” always being wrong. If so, what about the “center”? Are such governments neither right nor wrong, or both? That is not all, I continue. There are many modern countries that have heavily relied on big governments to achieve economic prosperity and progress. Denmark, Japan, Sweden, and many other wealthy countries, have had (and still have) large governments and considerable bureaucracy. Yet, they are amongst the wealthiest nations on earth.
To make the long discussion short, I conclude that a very big and corrupt government is as detrimental as a small and ineffective one. It is not so much the size that matters as the effectiveness, the transparency in the governing body, and its accountability.
By now it is 2:30 and I must feed my rioting stomach. And I’m sure everyone in the classroom has a rioting stomach for we are allow to have a break; a coffee break, the lecturer calls it. After that break, he promises to talk about the never cooling debates surrounding concepts like efficiency vs. equity, private vs. public enterprise, and so on. But I wait not for such a discussion. I would rather watch premiere league matches of the day. As it were, the day ends sooner than expected. So much the better!
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