UK Prime Minister Theresa May has just announced a “minister for loneliness”.

With millions having no friends and seeing nobody for weeks, loneliness is unquestionably a serious problem, but is government the answer?

Government and its evil twin, tax, grow constantly because we increasingly outsource our problems and responsibilities to them. Once a service is established it becomes an expectation, it is extremely rare to remove one, but commonplace to see calls for more services and thus greater expenditure.

As national debt surges toward half a trillion dollars, and government spending continues at around $100 million more that it collects through tax every day, perhaps it is time to reconsider the role and scope of government, and our expectations of it. Government has three jobs: to establish and implement rule to encourage people to be fair to one another; to manage greed so we play nicely together; and to provide essential services.

If you believe that rights belong to individuals rather than being the gift of governments, then you’ll readily accept that people should be able to do what they want as long as they don’t hurt others. But if I want to practice archery in the city it may put you at risk, so we need government as referee to set rules, and manage them through the police and an independent judiciary. While often imperfect, our system is pretty good at this: government largely sells what we want to buy

Greed management is trickier. Human behaviour generally drives the species to get as much as we can, for as little as possible. Wealth creators and business owners often want to keep the prosperity they create, loafers want to sit on the beach and have others pay, and there are thousands of positions on the grey scale between these extremes. We use elections and governments to sort out how much to take from one, and how much to give to the other. History is littered with bloody revolutions or flights of capital when that balance is improperly calibrated.

A broad rule might be that the fortunate and capable many should provide adequate support to the unfortunate and incapable few. This would seem to imply that nine out of ten people should contribute more tax than the benefits they receive, in order that someone else is supported, but the reality in Australia today is that only two in ten contribute more than they get, while the other eight get more than they kick in.

This seems way out of whack.

The reason this give and take seems unbalanced lies in the third job of government: provision of essential services and more specifically the scope creep of what is done.

Expectations of what governments must provide have not just seen federal taxes and debt grow like a toddler on steroids, state and local bureaucracies are at it too. When someone sells an average house their state government puts its hand out for around $50,000. It’s got no relationship with service provided, it’s a straightforward mugging to fund other promises we vote for.

Essential services are commonly thought of as things like health, law and order, education and rubbish collection, but governments are also in the business of giving grants to businesses, first home buyers, and community puppet theatre troupes.  

Government pays for infertile people to have children, spends billions on overpriced submarine building in marginal electorates, props up collapsing manufacturing plants, squirts fortunes at inefficient energy schemes, pays organisers to arrange conferences here, appeases squeaky-wheel protest groups that endanger political tenures, and endows vast subsidies to filmmaking, transport, solar installations, opera, breeding, and much, much more.

We increasingly outsource our problems and responsibilities to government, and correspondingly their price goes up and up, the evident link being frequently ignored when we vote.

Disengagement from the cost consequences of democratic decisions has created a system that charges processing fees for bribing us with our own money.

Doctors have been lobbying for obese people without health insurance to have free lap band surgery, implying that society should take collective responsibility for individuals who are fat.

Now fixing loneliness has joined the list of potential “essentials”.

When government takes on a problem like loneliness, committees are set up, policies drafted, laws created, services costed, departments funded, staff engaged, and tax or debt raised. Lonely people are identified as victims, unwanted solitude becomes abuse, and social interaction a basic right.

Do we really want to increasingly abrogate personal responsibilities and choices, and pay more for government to provide the social infrastructure of our lives?

What will we see next? A Minister for Lovelorn Teens, a Ministry of Anger, or Inappropriate Sexual Desires? Are Fun or Happiness basic rights? Should we have a Department of Angst?

How about a Minister for Government Overreach instead?

*Toby Ralph is a marketing consultant. If you don’t know what that means send money to [email protected] and he might send half of it back.

Peter Fray

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