It is commonly assumed that people on the left of the political spectrum support big government whilst those on the right do not. This assumption is not entirely true. In reality both sides of the political spectrum support strong government. The difference lies only in which particular contexts a strong government is considered to be beneficial.
Conservatives generally support a strong and powerful military (as a matter of interest America’s annual military expenditure exceeds that of the next 10 highest countries combined). They also tend to endorse a criminal justice system that is relatively hard-line, and designed to proactively discourage the committing of crimes by members of the general public. Undeniably both of these policies are manifestations of a strong, powerful, and interventionist government. In other words big government.
People on the left however generally feel that governmental power should also be used to mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism, and the ensuing inequalities created from such an economic system. Capitalism is viewed as a system that by its very nature is exploitative (Marx) and left to its own devices will always result in the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
Other people argue (perhaps with some merit) that capitalism is still better in pragmatic terms than many of the alternatives, but nonetheless should be accompanied with appropriate checks and balances, primarily in the form of such things as regulatory legislation and appropriate redistribution policies. It is suggested that this then helps to assist in the partial alleviation of some of the gross inequalities resulting from the operation of an otherwise purely capitalist system. (This kind of thinking is generally known as social democracy, and is essentially synonymous with social justice).
Governments in Western democracies have a tendency to pander to the whims and prejudices of the electorate with the express purpose of either gaining power or remaining in power. They play on (often with great effect) the various misconceptions that exist in society regarding certain issues. For instance, it is commonly assumed that the major recipients of government welfare programs are the needy and poor. This is a complete fallacy. In reality government programs benefit corporations far more than they do poor people (certainly in America they do). Federal and state governments understandably welcome the presence of big business and major corporations within their frontiers. But this has a number of unintended consequences. Invariably if a company announces a willingness to relocate, government welfare and support comes flooding in. This takes the form of huge tax reliefs, free utilities, ridiculously low-interest loans, and many other benefits to boot. It could of course be argued that due to the prosperity businesses typically generate within the region they operate, this government intervention benefits everyone. But I am simply addressing the widely held misconception that government programs and benefits are generally targeted at poor people. This is patently not true. By any reasonable level of thinking the government benefits listed above all constitute forms of government welfare (semantic arguments aside) and of course comes directly from the tax payer’s wallet. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that the wealth generated by such companies and corporations has a tendency to stay disproportionately at the top, and does not ‘trickle down’ in the manner suggested by Thatcher, Reagan and various other right-wing politicians and economists.
The UK is not much better. UK politicians are in the habit of perpetuating and reinforcing the generally held misconceptions in society similar to the ones detailed above. And they do so for similar political reasons. Their favourite strategy at the moment is to furnish the public with a seamless flow of sound-bites and political rhetoric that both relies on and reinforces the prevailing prejudices and misconceptions that exists in British society at this time. For instance, there has been a very strong anti-immigration mood within certain quarters of the British public in recent years. This stems from the false belief (or at least highly exaggerated belief) that the UK has been flooded with immigrants who are basically out to exploit our welfare system. The corresponding myth is that this flood of immigrants from abroad has placed an unbearable and unjustified burden on the services and infrastructure of the UK. Interestingly, in relation to this, it was announced on today’s national news bulletins that the net financial effect of UK immigration has been a positive one, with immigrants paying more in tax and claiming fewer benefits on average than Britons. Strikingly, according to this report (produced by the University College London) immigrants are 45% less likely to receive handouts than those born in the UK and 3% less likely to live in social housing. They have contributed £25 bn to the country in tax and by all objective measures have made a significant contribution to the UK public finances. (I think it would also be instructive for some people to acknowledge the fact that much of Britain’s wealth was derived from exploiting the colonies of its former empire, which at the beginning of the 20th century covered something in the region of a fifth of the land mass of the world).
Whilst we are on this subject, another interesting announcement made recently in the news was concerning Home Secretary Theresa May and the policy regarding illegal immigrants. She has now (thankfully) done a U-turn on the vans carrying the posters with the deliberately intimidating, provocative, and frankly inhumane “Go Home” posters. Days later she also announced that the plan for “high-risk” foreigners to pay a £3000 security bond when entering the UK would also be scrapped.
The UK has to some degree a similar distorted picture regarding the primary recipients of welfare expenditure and notions of where a lot of the tax payers money goes. It is a matter of objective fact that the amount of money lost through corporate tax evasion/avoidance dwarfs the amount of money lost through welfare fraud. I am not of course condoning welfare fraud, and welcome any appropriate measures that can be put in place to either prevent or reduce it. But this issue has been highly distorted for political reasons in order to justify a series of disproportionate welfare policies supposedly linked to this, and that in reality are nothing more than part of the government’s strategy to reduce the budget deficit and score points with voters. The real injustice here is that the government has been targeting the vulnerable simply because they are an easy target compared to their corporate counterparts, who have defrauded the British public out of immeasurably more money. Also, most welfare expenditure, despite common beliefs, does not go on the unemployed. Underpaid and/or part-time workers constitute a significant percentage of the welfare expenditure and pensions constitute almost half of total UK welfare expenditure. In contrast the unemployed receive a mere 2.58% of welfare, starkly different to commonly held views of where most of the welfare money goes.
I personally have no vested interest in misrepresenting the facts and figures relating to UK welfare expenditure, and have no personal grievance that causes me to feel strongly about such issues. I am well educated, having gone to university after completing a National Diploma in Electrical & Electronic Engineering at college in my early twenties, and going on to successfully complete a HND in Electronic Communication Engineering, a BEng (Hons) in Computer Engineering, and a BSc (Hons) in Pure Mathematics at Plymouth University. I currently support myself with part-time jobs and additionally work as a freelance software developer. I am exactly where I want to be in life. I do not seek great wealth but only desire financial stability and security. And these things I have achieved to a very reasonable degree I believe. The probability of me ever becoming homeless or going starving is very slim indeed. And that is pretty much all I care about. All told, I would neatly conform to Mr. Cameron’s idea of a ‘striver and not a skiver.’ But being a ‘striver’ does not in any way take away from my sense of social justice. And it is this sense of justice that compels me to write blog posts such as these. But I guess the most direct motivation for me writing this blog post today (other than the fact I am not working today due to having the flu, so having a bit of spare time on my hands) is partly due to today’s news item which neatly dispels the long standing myth regarding UK immigration, and partly due to hearing an American online radio show this morning which discussed the topic of Obamacare, and made extensive use of what I consider to be fallacious reasoning. It is partly this fallacious reasoning which I have attempted to address in this blog post I have written today.
One final point. A number of very well respected studies have been conducted which have been designed to investigate the aggregate societal effects of economic inequality. The underlying data has not been conjured up by people with an agenda but is actually the same data that is used by the UN and World Bank. These studies show a clear and strong correlation between economic inequality and such things as national rates of crime, life expectancy, frequency of mental illness, drug addiction, obesity, social mobility and overall levels of happiness within society. The graph depicted below illustrates the results of one such study.
It is not in my view misguided thinking to encourage people to take responsibility for their own financial welfare, just as it is not misguided thinking to encourage people to take responsibility for their own personal safety by taking appropriate measures to minimize the risk of them becoming victims of crime. But it is certainly misguided thinking to suggest that personal responsibility is a viable substitute for government intervention.
Not many people would disagree with the above statement within the context of law enforcement and crime prevention. But there are still many who would disagree with the above statement within the context of social democracy (or social justice).
In the final analysis left wing and right wing folks do not differ markedly in their support for “big government.” That is because both sides of the political spectrum acknowledge the fact that government power is the only viable means of addressing certain social problems. The only difference between the two sides is in what areas of society they believe that government intervention should take place.
Perhaps someday we will live in a global utopia where both law enforcement and social policies are no longer needed. But today I think it is a matter of objective truth that both are required.
“Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty, which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate.” – Bertrand Russell, 1928