What should the government do, and what not?
Theresa May is a welcome exception. In a speech at the Conservative Party conference last autumn, she said that “the state exists to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot”.
This principle will strike few people as contentious. But that is only because, like Mrs May, many forget something important about “the state”: namely, that it is not a special kind of agent. The state can act only through the people who make it up. When the state provides you with healthcare, it is really doctors, nurses, cleaners and other “individual people” who provide it.
If people cannot provide something, the state cannot provide it. There is nothing beyond the people to do the providing. So Mrs May’s principle seems to leave the state with nothing to do.
But there is a difference between state people and non-state people, which means “the state” can indeed do what would otherwise be undoable. State people are allowed to use coercion.
Consider foreign aid. You can donate your own money to a foreign charity but you cannot donate someone else’s money. You might lament your wealthy neighbour’s reluctance to donate to a charity caring for poor children in Congo. But if you do anything to coerce her into donating – such as pilfering her wallet or making her transfer funds at gunpoint – you will be committing a crime.
Politicians are not similarly constrained. They can take your neighbour’s money through taxation and then direct it to the charities they think she ought to donate to.
The state does not exist to provide what people cannot provide. The idea is ridiculous, since anything the state provides will in fact be provided by people. No, the state exists to make people provide what they will not provide voluntarily.
That may sometimes be OK. Perhaps people should be forced to contribute to the cost of national defense, for example. If we weren’t forced to, each of us might try to free-ride on the voluntary contributions of others and, in the end, less would be spent on national defense than even we free-riders would want.
The fact that state provision is simply compelled provision by individual people does not alone show it always to be wrong. But recognizing the fact is an important precursor to deciding what the state should do. The idea that the state can help us by doing what mere people are incapable of is a dangerous absurdity.
Further IEA reading: Classical Liberalism – A Primer; The Paragon Initiative Opening Paper; Foundations of a Free Society