Thursday, November 22, 2007

The authors of our own misfortunes

As more details emerge of the chaos in HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), diverse commentators have been quick to pose the obvious question – if the government can’t get this department right, what else can it get right?

Considering that there is nothing more fundamental to the very existence of government than its ability to collect taxes, the HMRC affair, however, is more serious than even the torrent of publicity would indicate. A government which cannot even collect its own taxes efficiently is one that has lost the will to live.

That said, there is in fact a broader question, which is not asked. That is: is it possible for government to get anything right? Anyone who has had any dealings with any government department – from DEFRA to the MoD and all points between - will have no end of tales about inefficiency, incompetence and waste.

After any such major example breaks into the public domain, we have endless investigations, inquiries and reviews and promises of reform, improvements and – very much in vogue – assurances of "lessons learned". Yet one is barely able to pause for breath before the next scandal emerges to entertain us all.

What is not recognised, however, is that the general problem of government inefficiency is insoluble. And that lies not within government itself – per se – but in the human condition. Human beings, as a rule, are grossly inefficient creatures and, in any group, it takes a huge effort of will, enormous skill and dedication, to make a joint enterprise work at anything near its optimum capacity. Invariably, a group will tend towards being less than the sum of its parts. When it works efficiently, this is the exception rather than the rule.

There are, though, corrective factors, but these operate on an individual level. One is personal ambition – the determination to better oneself, allied with concern to do likewise for family, friends and close associates. Others are fear of failure, and the consequences of failure (not necessarily the same things) and yet another is competition. Man is by nature a competitive animal, and the ego drive – the need to do better than one's peers - can be a strong motivator.

In public service, however, these factors are often missing or suppressed. Ambition is often stymied, there is little or no penalty for failure and there is no competition – at least between groups. There are not, for instance, two separate revenue collecting departments, in competition with each other, striving to be more efficient in order to secure their funding streams and thus their continued survival.

Since none of these deficiencies can be readily be corrected – or at all – as they are inherent in the very nature of government organisations, the only remedy to government inefficiency is to abolish government. This would be a highly desirable course of action, but for one thing – the consequences of not having a government are worse than having one. And that is the only justification for having a government. It is the lesser of two evils.

On that basis, it follows that the compromise solution is to have as small a government as possible, with it having as limited functions and powers as is possible, compatible with the tolerable functioning of society. Cries for government intervention to deal with our ills should be resisted, simply on the grounds that there are few problems, however bad, that a government cannot – and will not – make worse. Only when it has proved absolutely impossible to manage affairs by other means should government involvement be considered.

Another central part of any solution is that government should be as local as possible and, as far as possible, be accountable to the people it most directly affects. Thus, however "inefficient" in management terms, it might appear to be, local rather than central government should be the prevailing ethos. That does not make government any more efficient, or less corrupt, but at least it is more accessible and the damage it does is contained.

And there, of course, lies the heart of the objections to the European Union. As is our Westminster government grossly inefficient, an even more distant central government in Brussels cannot help but be more inefficient and less accessible.

Thus, it is all very well wailing about the failure of that organisation to manage its accounts, but that is inherent in the nature of the beast. We can listen until the end of time about the need to reform the Common Agricultural Policy but the moment you take out the word "common" and substitute the word "central", the nature of the problem is apparent – likewise the Common Fisheries Policy and any other "common" policy. By their very nature, they are fatally and irredeemably flawed.

At the heart of our malaise, though, lies a bigger problem. Almost the automatic response to any failure in government is "more government" – so often we hear the cry, "why doesn't government do something". When a law fails to work as intended, the response so often is that we need more laws - just as the EU constantly diagnoses its failures as demonstrating the need for "more Europe". People need to wake up to the fact that government – any government – is their enemy. It should be tolerated only because the alternative of not having one is worse. Furthermore, the one we have should be kept tightly restrained, lest it slip its leash and take over our lives.

And until we do that, we are the authors of our own misfortunes.

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