Bill Carmichael: Bigger government does not mean better

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ACCORDING to the late Ronald Reagan, former president of the United States, the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

What Reagan expressed in his brilliantly accessible homespun way is that more often than not government doesn’t so much as solve problems as contribute to them.

And it is fair to add that the bigger the government, the bigger the chance that it will be wasteful and inefficient.

I’m sure the soggy residents of southern England, their homes deluged by floodwaters and their communities inundated by welly-wearing politicians seeking photo opportunities, would agree.

The Environment Agency, charged with protecting their homes and livelihoods, failed to do either – despite an enormous budget of more than £1bn a year.

But it is not just in the UK where Big Government has proved a lamentable failure. In the US the government spent an estimated £300m and three years on Barack Obama’s signature health care reforms – and all they got for their money is a website that doesn’t work.

Even worse, the number of Americans kicked off their health care plans outstrips the number recruited to new insurance policies – exactly the opposite of the intended impact of the policy.

The problem is that the bigger the government becomes, the more remote and less responsive it is to the needs of its citizens, and the more likely it is to fall prey to fraud, inefficiency and waste.

For example a report produced by TaxPayers’ Alliance this week suggests that the UK government wastes £1 for every £6 it spends – a total of £120bn, enough to wipe out the deficit or send every taxpayer on a trip to the World Cup in Brazil later this year.

Among the waste identified is the big – the £300m cost of unused and destroyed medicines in the NHS; the even bigger – £22bn overpaid on public sector pay and pensions compared with the private sector; right down to the downright ridiculous – £70 spent by the Forestry Commission on a bunny outfit.

Okay, so perhaps it is unrealistic to imagine that every penny of waste can be stopped. But if politicians and civil servants were forced to spend public money with the same care that they spend their own, much of the problem would be solved. It is always easy to be generous, not to say positively spendthrift, when you are spending someone else’s money.

But this will only happen when politicians come under proper democratic scrutiny from electors and the taxpayers who pay the bills. And this becomes increasingly unlikely as governments become bigger and more out of touch with the people, and important powers are handed out to unaccountable quangos like the Environment Agency.

What we need is more local decision making, smaller, more responsive government and an active citizenry empowered to bring politicians and officials to account.

Nanny knows best?

While the country battled with the worse winter storms for many years our elected representatives dedicated themselves to more pressing matters – banning smoking in cars.

Don’t get me wrong – I think anyone who lights up in the car with children present is stupid and irresponsible. But really is this the best our MPs can do? Are their constituents clamouring for a new law to ban smoking in cars? I doubt it.

And where will it all end? Feckless parents do all kinds of things to harm their children, from stuffing their faces with junk food to letting them watch X-rated films. Is the nanny state going to start kicking down front doors across the land: “Stop, armed police! Slowly put down that bag of chips.”