The roles of government in a modern society

By B. William Alexander

What are the roles of government in the modern society in which we find ourselves? Well depending on who you ask, will depend on what kind of answer you receive, but as far as I am concerned, my fellow Scotsman Adam Smith hit the nail on the head all the way back in the 18th century. His perspicuous answer is still of much validity and is as essential today as it was when he first proclaimed it. Smith said that government has three main roles that they should seek to carry out in the service of the nation’s public. Firstly, to protect them from external threats such as foreign foes. This in a practical sense means the upkeep of a fervent military in order to deter attacks as well as invasion attempts and therefore provide a stable and protected homeland for the people of the nation to cultivate their garden, to paraphrase Voltaire. Secondly, a government must provide the required protection and insurance against internal threats and corruptions by way of a respected police force and an unprejudiced court and legal system; and finally, to put in place public works that one, would benefit the whole of society if brought into existence and two, only if the institution has proved unattainable through means of private enterprise. Despite these two conditions or qualifications if you would prefer, it is this third role in which is most often accidently or intentionally misread and then redistributed in a knave composition to support the paradox of what Smith was preaching. That being any of the various sects of collectivism such as socialism, communism and fascism.


However, it is not just the socialists who can be found guilty of misreading Smith and indeed of allowing government to grow to the bulbous size it is now. Those of the supposed ‘left’ and the ‘right’ are both guilty, just not in equal measure of course. None the less the explanation to me seems simple enough. As Lord Acton famously said: “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


I would suggest this is the rather benign reason why certain people have disregarded conservative and libertarian ideas on minimal or limited government. Broken campaign promises to bring government back down to size and have even failed to maintain it at the size they received it, is probably another arguable reason. For example, a critique of the Reagan administration is that despite his promise to curb government expenditure it near tripled during his time in office. Sitting at $998 billion when he took power in 1981, by 1989 it was at $2.857 trillion. This increase was largely in the defence sector (to be fair to Reagan) but none the less it is a criticism of his time in office.


Now of course the third rule, even when abiding to the two accompanying conditions, does leave room open for the expansion of the government’s role in society. Smith was not impractical. Thus, he would not have been surprised to hear that since his death governments have enlarged, nor would he necessarily have been apprehensive about it. However, once seeing the scale of said expansion and in which areas, he likely would have drowned himself in the nearest loch. Smith is rightfully hailed as a proto-conservative and never would have endorsed the government expenditure that exists among many first world countries today nor would he have stood for the disgusting extent to which centralisation of power and authority has been taken. Now with the appropriate context set I can state my case for conservatives to get fully behind our NHS and thus in America for the Republicans to swoop in and put in place an actual, comprehensive national health service in the US, on turn doing away with the shambles of Medicare, Medicaid and Obama Care.


Now with Smith’s third role of government in mind and its two conjoining conditions. Those being that the public work being instituted must benefit all and all attempts to provide the work through private enterprise have been exhausted. The first condition, I would suggest our NHS meets with flying colours. Even though there are a minority who pay for private health insurance (11%) this rarely covers expenditure for maternity or mental health care. Do not misunderstand my attitudes regarding private health insurance. I would like to see the day when 25% of the British population have private health insurance of some kind, it would lighten the proverbial load of the NHS and in turn allow it to prosper instead of constantly being surrounded by unproductive critique and a nauseating sense of underachievement. My point is that the NHS does benefit all, one way or another. As for the second criterion, William Beveridge and his researchers compiled the evidence to nullify that condition when they published the Beveridge Report in 1942. The NHS Act was passed through parliament four years later under Clement Atlee’s Labour Government. The NHS was established by July 1948. Since then however, the fear has arose that the Tories are going to privatise it. I have heard this be said hundreds of times and indeed Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s first Chancellor did hold this view. Paradoxically however Enoch Powell was a great defender of the NHS, much to Howe’s dismay. During his time as the Minister of Health between 1960-1963 he drew up two plans, one of which; a white paper, was one of the most extensive hospital building projects ever proposed. George Godber who was the Chief Medical Officer in England between 1960-1973, later confessed to Powell ‘I have no doubt that your four years at the Ministry of Health did more for the service than any other period.’ Powell was a conservative who embraced the idea of a national health service, believing there is in existence a ‘general public interest in seeing that medical care is provided for the members of society in a wide range of situations’. Alike Powell I agree that conservatives need not be apprehensive when defending our NHS because to me it meets Smith’s criterion. It is much of what has come after the establishment of the NHS that need worry conservatives… that demands our opposition. We should be in unanimous opposition of the universal credit scheme and other insidious benefits like it, but not our NHS.


In a time when COVID powers have been extended and vaccine passports have not been ruled out, we should remember Smiths three roles of government more than ever. Maybe then we would not have a supposedly ‘conservative’ Prime Minister, who thinks it’s acceptable to downsize military numbers by 72,500 over the next half a decade in favour of building more nuclear weapons. Never did I think I would see the day when Labour are warning the supposed Conservatives about the importance of large military numbers, but this is the state in which we find ourselves.  


Image credit: Diego Sideburns

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