In 2020, the people of the West suddenly discovered they were no longer free to leave their homes and go wherever they pleased. They could no longer choose whom they wanted to meet or how they wanted to spend their evenings. Instead, they had to ‘stay safe’ and contribute to herd immunity, regardless of their own views on the matter.
With each passing year, Western governments become more controlling, behaving like overbearing mothers rather than the aloof arbiters they are supposed to be. This is the nanny state at its worst, deciding its naughty citizens did not know what was good for them and, therefore, needed to be kept away from harm. The latest anti-virus measures were the most tangible, but not the first taken due to this mindset. Financial regulations, corporate requirements, compulsory education―those are just a few examples. Everyone must be protected from risk, weaned off the very habit of accepting danger. Yet taking risks is necessary to achieve both independence and success.
But why would you need those if the state takes care of you? There are unemployment benefits, public schools, often even free healthcare, and other services which, though usually low in quality, are sufficient to survive without ever having to rely on one’s own abilities.
Such micromanagement is impossible without an army of civil servants and professionals of the relevant fields, all receiving their pay from the budget. Inadequate as it usually is for each employee, its overall amount is enormous. The United Kingdom provides an excellent opportunity to evaluate the situation. In 2021-22, social protection will cost the country’s taxpayers £302 billion, while another £230 billion will be spent on health, and education will be worth £124 billion―more than expenditures on defence and public order combined. To compare, the cost of the Parliament, often discussed in the most unfavourable light, amounts to a total of £560.4 million―a tiny fraction of the government’s spending.
Hefty taxes are an obvious drawback of such an approach. Another is an attempt to guide people through their lives, whether they wish it or not. Building a ‘better society’ leads to unnecessary restrictions and limitations. And some rules are not just irritating; they are also prone to decreasing the market’s efficiency.
Among the ridiculous demands the state places upon businesses are quotas. In several European countries, including Germany, France, Italy, Norway, and Spain, publicly listed companies must have female directors, typically twenty to forty per cent. Even in relatively socially conservative countries like Russia, Ukraine, or Turkey, every company with ten or more employees must hire people with disabilities. In the U.S., meanwhile, although imposing quotas is considered a breach of the anti-discrimination law, affirmative action is actively encouraged. As a result, it is not the best person for the job who gets an offer, nor the one who communicates well with the team. It is the candidate who fits the government criteria.
Citizens are subject to constraints as well. Recent mask or vaccine mandates are the most common and widely agreed upon examples, but there are many more. In some European jurisdictions, for example, there is a ban on selling alcohol at night. In others, an offensive tweet may result in a fine. Sometimes, labour legislation would not allow a worker to hold two full-time jobs officially, and the necessity to provide maternity leave makes companies suspicious of young women. There are also controversial issues, such as drugs or euthanasia. It does not seem right for the government to decide upon the individual’s morality and well-being regardless of one’s views on these matters.
Supporters of both the left and the right tend to display a great deal of hypocrisy when it comes to legal prohibitions. In terms of depriving people of personal choice, there is little difference between racist comments and smoking weed. In terms of health autonomy, vaccination and birth control are not dissimilar. Who is to decide which camp is right? In our Western democracies, it is the majority―and so we entrust our neighbours with making decisions on our private lives.
If this reasoning is followed to its logical end, it may be found that there is no need for anyone to be deprived of their preferred ways. Direct, measurable harm done to an unwilling party should be the natural limit to such freedom. As for physical and moral health, those should be left to families, communities, and individuals themselves.
But if the state has no say in its people’s choices, it should not be obligated to sponsor them. If an unemployed woman decides to have three kids, it is her responsibility to feed them, and if a young man wishes to enter a university, his student loans are his problem―unless, of course, someone is willing to lend a helping hand.
However, this is not to say that the state is altogether unnecessary; on the contrary, certain vital functions can only be performed by governments or organisations similar in scale and capabilities―the functions which require the potential or actual application of force.
Violence and coercion are the raison d’être of every government in existence. Without them, there could be no laws, no security, and―counterintuitively, perhaps―no freedom. The difference between a tyrannical and a free state is in the extent of their application. Rights not backed by substantial force are nothing more than wishful thinking. Life dependant on a whim of a stronger neighbour or a foreign invader is hardly free. Thus, the state’s primary domains are war, diplomacy, order, and justice.
But what of economic measures, such as protective tariffs, embargoes, or sanctions? They prove an effective tool in international relations and are sometimes necessary for a nation’s prosperity but interfere with the free market. Maintaining proper balance is key; a wise statesman understands the complexity and delicacy of the matter. Each case must be examined on an individual basis.
The secondary functions of the state are based on encouragement rather than coercion. That includes supporting scientific advancement and promoting national culture; the former is essential to compete with other players in the international arena, while the latter provides ideological background for unity and moral strength. The culture here is interpreted widely: art, history, traditions, entertainment, and even something as trivial as clean pavements.
All these need funding, albeit much less than our current welfare programs. Though taxes remain any state’s main source of income, there are alternative ways to fill the treasury. Public funds can be invested. For example, the United Kingdom has a government-owned company, which, according to the latest report, generates £17 billion annually, managing assets worth £945 billion, while the UK pension funds manage about £2.6 trillion.
Small government does not mean that the state should stand back and let anarchy take hold. It does not mean less authority or less funding for truly important projects. But it does mean that private affairs do not become a public concern and that only a minimum necessary burden of taxes and regulations is placed on the citizens. Each is in charge of his success, however scary it may sound to those who favour collectivism. After all, as George Bernard Shaw once said: “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”
Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.