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The Psychology of Big Government


The support of some Canadians for big government arises from their misunderstandings of history, justice, economics, and human nature.


Monte Solberg

 Author Notes

Member of Parliament for Medicine Hat, Alberta and Chief Finance Critic for the Reform Party of Canada.

 Essay - 1/1/1999

As a politician I have often wondered at the thought process that causes so many Canadians to be supporters of big government. To paraphrase Milton Friedman, itís as though they reason the welfare state has been a dismal failure and has left us poorer, the free market has been a roaring success and has made us richer so, letís have more of the welfare state. Of course statists would disagree with this characterization. They would argue that if government has failed it was only because they didnít have their best people working on it, or they ran out of money, and next time theyíll get it right. But the arguments for big government are fatally flawed and reflect a disconnect from reality. I argue this disconnect flows from four basic misunderstandings.

The first is a misunderstanding of history. For example, we are often told Canadians value tolerance and compassion, and it seems the test of oneís commitment to these values is the depth of their support for overweening government. But historically tolerance and compassion have been most evident the smaller the government and the freer the society. The small, limited government of the Netherlands in the 17th century, and itís respect for individual freedom gave rise to the usual admixture of free trade, religious tolerance, ethnic diversity and general prosperity. The same pattern would be seen again in varying degrees in England, the U.S. and Canada. In all these places, where government interference was minimal, the free exchange of goods and services ultimately crossed cultural, linguistic and religious lines and gave rise to new respect for other peoples. In 1720, upon escaping the tyrannical government in his native France, Voltaire observed in Letters On England, "Go into the London Stock Exchange - a more respectable place then many a court - and you will see representatives of all nations gathered there for the service of mankind. There the Jew, the Mohammedan, and the Christian deal with each as if they were of the same religion and give the name of infidel only to those who go bankrupt. There the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Anglican accepts the Quakerís promise. On leaving these peaceful and free assemblies, some go to the synagogue, others go to drinkÖothers go to their church to wait the inspiration of God, their hats on their heads and all are content". [1]

Contrarily history is replete with examples of how freedom sucking big government is characterized by economic decay, nasty nationalism and government repression of anyone who is "different". If history is the standard, then the victory is absolute. Statism has been vanquished. It is small, limited government and personal freedom that encourages the tolerance and compassion that Canadians say they value.

The second misunderstanding is a misunderstanding of justice, which itself must be premised on a clear understanding of the concepts of property and equality. Russell Kirk described justice thus, "True justice secures every man in the possession of what is his own, and provides that he will receive the reward of his talents; but true justice also ensures that no man shall seize the property and the rights that belong to other classes and persons, on the pretext of equality". [2] Social reformers are stung by the inevitable relative differences in wealth that arise out of a society that rewards each according to his due. But they are blind as a stone to the dazzling increase in absolute wealth for even the poorest members in a society so ordered. These people are often described as well intentioned, however I am not so sure. Their "social justice" is too often just a rant against the rich, a mean and petty appeal to base envy. This becomes dangerous when these people find their way into power. Sitting astride the awesome machinery of the state their "redistributive justice" is revealed to be nothing more than the triumph of might over right. That wealth has been justly acquired is irrelevant to socialists whose heightened sense of the new justice tells them that all privilege is theft and it is taken away for the greater good. This casting aside of the traditional morality, handed down over millennia, in favour of rationalismís new moral rules is what Frederich Hayek described as the "Fatal Conceit", and so it is.

The third misunderstanding is of economics. Statists believe that state direction of the economy will allow them to produce socially just outcomes. But they are deceived on two counts. First they are unaware of the unintended consequences of this political allocation of economic resources. Frederic Bastiat described this in the 19th century in the title of his essay What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen. Statists are forever trumpeting the jobs created by a government infrastructure program (what is seen) without acknowledging the jobs lost from the private sector, and the new disincentives to production created due to the higher taxes necessary to fund the government program (what is unseen). Theirs is a theory that proposes to even defy the laws of physics by producing something from nothing, yet it never fails to find many adherents.

Secondly, supporters of big government also mistake the "spontaneous order" of the market for chaos. They view the "creative destruction" of the market as simply destruction. Their pride in their own intelligence wonít permit them to believe that reason canít create a more orderly and "just" system. Thus socialism is daily born again from vainglorious human pride and will forever be with us. Meanwhile the free market doesnít theorize, it simply produces ever more wealth.

The final misunderstanding that statists labour under concerns the immutability of human nature. For instance, statists argue that big business is out to shaft the public and therefore must be heavily regulated. They also argue - as an example - that government social workers exist only to help the public and therefore must be given power and resources. These arguments betray a profound ignorance of human nature. All humans are self interested and we all order our activities in ways that will bring us benefit according to our wants and needs. The difference between big business and social workers isnít their motives- they both act out of self-interest-the difference is that businesspeople fulfill their needs by meeting the needs of others through the voluntary exchange of goods and services. If they get greedy, and try to get something for nothing, competition will soon rein them in or put them out of business. On the other hand the government social worker is not subject to these competitive pressures, and with their appetites left unchecked their bureaucracy grows, their salary increases and our taxes go up. This simple truth has been the inspiration for every check on the size and scope of government since the Magna Carta. Yet in Canada few of these checks exist and government has spread like a weed, itís tendrils now reaching into virtually every aspect of our lives. In a single generation government in Canada has grown by 80%, from 25% of GDP in the early 60s to its present 43%. Can it be any more clear that human nature is immutable, that politicians and bureaucrats are self interested, and therefore that government must be limited.

While government has grown large in Canada the old time fervor for state intervention now seems to be on the wane. The unsustainability of deficit financing, crumbling social programs, global competition and the information technology revolution have all begun to erode public faith in bloated, inflexible government. Fresh options are being sought and those who were previously enamoured with big government are now willing to hear the evidence against it. Conservatives and libertarians should rejoice. There has never been a better time to make the case for limited government and freedom.


1. David Boaz, Libertarianism, A Primer (Free Press, 1997), p. 38

2. Russell Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives (Regnery Gateway, 1989), p. 135

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