As a keen believer in representative democracy, I all too aware of its weaknesses. I think it is the best type of government on offer, but we need to use the freedom of speech it allows to try to keep it honest.
One of the biggest weaknesses of western democracy is it favours the “something must be done about it approach”, whether the government can and should do something or not. All too many elected Councillors and MPs will feel local or national government has to come up with an answer if a limited number of people put to them a problem.
Many elected officials find it difficult to reply that government is not able to help or could hinder in any particular case. There is a reluctance to point out that for everyone wanting something to be done there may be three or four not wanting anything to be done. Sometimes government blunders into fixing the perceived problem, only to find the solution for that problem creates more problems of a different nature for other people and interest groups.
The something must be done culture is partly created by and reinforced by pressure groups. In the UK the pressure groups that want government to regulate, legislate and punish people more are stronger and more numerous than the groups that want government to do these things less. The pressure groups that want the government to collect more in tax or borrow more to spend more are more numerous and usually better organised than the pressure groups who want the state to take less of our money in tax and do less. Occasionally a spending promise triggers a lot of protest- like HS2 or some overseas aid – but more normally the email box is full of people who want extra spending on particular areas they favour or benefit from. Lobbyists specialise in trying to create pressure from the public, and in turn from groups of MPs, to force the governemnt to spend more. The BBC is also a keen participant in this auction. The BBC rarely grills a Minister for presiding over wasteful or undesirable or not very important spending, but regularly takes them to task for not spending enough.
Most elected officials agree that they would like to provide public services at less cost and to higher quality, something that should be possible. After all, it happens year after year in the private sector in most areas. The basis of debate, however, is often framed by lobbyists who regard more spending as good and less spending as bad. This simplified debate makes it difficult to take the third way of better and cheaper provision, and squeezes out serious consideration of why some elements of public service are so expensive. As we saw yesterday, the railways are a great example of how you can spend collosal sums, because our Net work Rail on its own admission is 20% inefficient.
The BBC rushes to find examples of individuals who have suffered because public spending is not high enough. I have not heard an interview following the publication of the £38 billion railway plan asking why it costs so much and why it takes so long to weed out the inefficiencies they have identified. We need more voices who speak up for the taxpayers, who want there to be a sensible limit on how much they have to pay. We need more voices for freedom, who remind us there are limits to how much government can do well.