Big Government, Welfare States and freedom

July 9th, 2019
by Chris

An “Evonomics” article asks if Big Government actually reduces personal freedom, as is often argued by conservatives – and comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t, and not only doesn’t do that, but doesn’t reduce freedom for ordinary individuals (though it clearly does for the 1%), doesn’t undermine ther family or societal organisations, doesn’t reduce people’s willingness to have children, doesn’t reduce people’s willingness to work, and generally has no discernible effect on any of these things valued by conservatives.

It will come as absolutely no surprise to any regular reader of this blog that I find all these conclusions pretty obvious. From my point of view, my freedom is actually massively enhanced if someone else is doing a large number of things I don’t want to be bothered doing myself. I don’t, for instance, want to go back to the mediaeval manorial system in which the peasants (and I’d probably be a peasant in that system, which had no middle class to speak of) had to do some regular work for the lord of the manor maintaining the roads and bridges on the manor. A road or bridge which I had a hand in mending would probably not be one you wanted to drive on – road mending is not among my areas of competence (and the shared drive to my house bears witness not only to the fact that none of the five housholds which use it have any particular skill in road repair but also that getting as few as five people to agree to do the job is significantly difficult).

There are parts of Central America where government basically funds no roads at all, and motorists are used to people along the roadside asking them for money to mend potholes – and the roads are utterly appalling. Possibly, by reports I hear, even worse than our driveway…

Of course, those who cavil at paying taxes to support initiatives which benefit the community as a whole probably share my view that a lot of these things are not ones which the actual individuals using them can usefully work at providing. They don’t, after all, do all those things themselves – they pay other people to do it for them. Those with a really high income also pay people to engage and pay the people who actually do the work, and to make many of the decisions about what is actually done – an acquaintance of mine, for instance, employs a butler, a chef and an estate manager (no, I don’t usually move in those kinds of circles – we just happened to be involved with the same charity a few years ago).

Roads are, perhaps, an extreme case; not even my most conservative, libertarian friends seem to think that road building and maintenance should not be performed communally (although some of them think they should be contracted out to the lowest bidder like much of local government’s responsibilities have been forced to, an arrangement which seems to involve all the costs of democratic control and in addition all those of the requirement to make a profit, without any improvement in actual performance – actually, with a sneaking reduction in that, no doubt from “cost savings”). Consider, however, my acquaintance who employs a chef – and how many of us are too tired after work to cook properly, and use a labour-saving device ( a microwave) to heat up a meal cooked for us by professionals using all the advantages of the mass production system (OK, and with all its drawbacks, too), or send for a take-out. We are, in principle, employing chefs ourselves…

Are we really “free” if all the money we can earn (and the earning of which makes us too tired to cook, so all our productive time as well) goes on the necessities of life, with precious little left over? OK, a lucky few of us actually enjoy our jobs, and would do them even if we were paid nothing for them, (which is the position I now find myself in), but for most, what occupies almost all our usable time is something which we suffer having to do in order to live (and, for younger generations than mine, service the considerable debts accrued in trying to get enough education to land a job in the first place). In very many cases, the jobs have no capacity to be satisfying in any event – statistics indicate that a surprising number of us consider some or all of what we do at work to be pointless, i.e. that we have “bullshit jobs”.

Freedom, it seems to me, rests in being able to do what you actually want to do, rather than what you must, or what you’re not really very good at and which could be done far better and quicker by someone who is actually skilled at doing it (or, of course, increasingly by a labour-saving device – which may very soon even involve driving ones-self around from place to place…). Most of us, however, don’t individually have the money to pay people to do all these things for us.

However, as a society, we do have the money to pay for a lot of things to be done communally. Roads, yes, but also rail, bus and possibly also freight transport (and some local councils have managed to provide free bus transport for residents in the past); in my country, obviously medicine (the National Health Service) which, despite the fact that it is permanently short of money and staff, is something which the vast majority of Britons would prefer not to be taken away. Education was for a while mainly a state responsibility here – I am of a generation which expected to be educated (if capable enough) to first degree level at state expense, and I deeply regret the fact that governments from the 80s onwards have removed this form of communal investment in our country’s future.

It doesn’t escape me that Libertarians and Existentialists are likely to accuse me of not stepping up to the responsibility of making choices, and decry the idea that anyone else should make those choices for me. Sartre had the concept of “bad faith” for those who accept the decisions of others, particularly if those are internalised. Does not putting the responsibility for some of these decisions onto the community (which may be the State) represent this kind of “bad faith”? More seriously, does it not actually restrict my ability to choose, as the Libertarian would claim?

The Libertarian does have a point, though a rather weak one. Were I shuffling off that responsibility to a king or feudal lord, I might well agree. But I live in a representative democracy, where I have the ability to vote for someone to make those decisions for me. Indeed, for many years, I not only voted but stood as a candidate and got elected (at a local level), being willing to make such decisions on behalf of those I represented. Now, some 40 years after I first took up elected office, I don’t want to continue making those decisions. I’m tired, for one thing, and also now have an anxiety disorder, which means that I really want to keep decision making down to those things I really consider important. Sartre did suggest that anxiety was the inevitable result of having the widest possible freedom to choose, and my response to any allegation of bad faith would be to ask why he considers we are obliged to self-harm when it is unnecessary.

As I’ve indicated above, though, you don’t have to have an anxiety disorder to want to have someone else make decisions which you don’t want to bother making yourself. None of the rich people I know make all those decisions themselves, after all…

Another aspect of shifting some functions onto the community rather than the individual is the issue of fear. For this, let me use an example in which my own country, the UK, contrasts hugely with the USA. That is healthcare. I am fortunate enough to live in a country with broadly socialised healthcare in the form of the NHS (and I might add, the NHS is supported by a massive majority of the population). The USA doesn’t really have socialised healthcare, and every week I read of someone whose financial security has been devastated by a sudden, unexpected healthcare bill. The late Rachel Held Evans’ family were hit not only by her untimely death, but also with a stratospheric hospital bill; Mike McHargue, of the Liturgists podcast, had his own heart scare recently, and his family finances were also demolished. In both cases, an internet-based campaign quickly raised the money to fix these problems – but they were massively well-known and well-loved public figures, and the less well-known go bankrupt on an appalling scale. The popular TV series “Breaking Bad” was based on a similar situation, in which the main character turned to making crystal meth in order to meet medical expenses…

In the UK, none of us need fear that kind of disaster – and it can strike almost anyone. Even some in the States who thought of themselves as well-insured have found that deductibles and quibbling insurance companies have wiped them out.

Another Evonomics article notes “the possibility that the welfare state is an efficiency-enhancing institution that helps maintain popular support for relatively free markets by ensuring they more or less benefit everyone.” I’d actually suggest that the welfare state enhances efficiency by reducing the level of fear (as with the NHS), by freeing up mental capacity to make decisions which people are actually good at making, because they are interested in them, and by, to some extent, forcing businesses to negotiate wages on a slightly more level playing field. The fear issue comes in again there – if the alternative to taking a bullshit job at minimum wage is to starve and/or to be put on the street, while an employer has a ready supply of other terrified people to take the bullshit job, there isn’t anything remotely like a free market.

As might be apparent from my last paragraph, I am not against free markets as such. I don’t like command economies as a general rule, as they tend to be inefficient, though I note that anywhere where a monopoly or cartel exists and the market is dominated by very large companies, there might as well be a command economy – many large companies have budgets larger than (for instance) the near-command economy of Cuba and put more money into preserving their monopoly or cartel status, or their handouts from governments, than they do to improving their efficiency. The NHS is to some extent a command economy in respect of healthcare in the UK, but healthcare costs are massively lower in the UK than the US without a corresponding reduction in quality of care (indeed, by many standards the NHS provides better healthcare than does the USA). Granted, there is also private medicine in the UK, but it doesn’t compete in many fields – it is superior (if you can afford it) for regular medical checkups and for elective procedures, but not, in general, for much of the rest of medicine.

I think the balance in the UK has tipped too far away from the Welfare State, and that should be redressed. In the States – well, I look at some of the statements of Democratic contenders for president, and wonder whether we may see a shift towards a social-democratic mixed economy there. I hope so, for the sake of – well – about 99% of Americans.

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