Our government is too big

Andrew Kenny | Jun 02, 2019
Small governments, interfering least in people’s lives, have delivered the most prosperity and the highest economic growth.

It is instructive to look at the size of the cabinet in the most important, most successful government in British history. It was formed in May 1940. It probably saved most of the world for democracy. Without it, Hitler may have won the Second World War. 

In early May 1940, Germany had invaded France and other West European countries and had crushed them with frightening speed. Germany had routed the British Army. There were good reasons why Britain should make peace with Hitler, which is what he wanted. He would leave Britain and her Empire alone, and they would leave him alone on the continent, to conquer Eastern Europe and Russia. America would not have been drawn into the war, and Japan would have attacked Russia not America. Without Western help, Russia would have fallen before Germany and Japan. All of Eurasia, from Calais to Vladivostok, would have been fascist (National Socialist). 

One man stopped this happening: Winston Churchill. He gathered around him a small band to take on the terrifying might of Nazi Germany. It did so. It was brave and, significantly for this argument, it was effective.

The total number of Cabinet ministers in Churchill’s first government was five. This included himself as Prime Minister. Churchill wanted his ministers to lead and manage, not to philosophise or address public meetings or go on fact-finding tours to five-star hotels abroad. Of course, war simplifies priorities and unites opponents, which made Churchill’s job easier. Even so, his cabinet was remarkably small, and later only expanded to eight, including Ernie Bevin, the trade union leader, who was highly productive. 

On Wednesday, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced his cabinet of 28 Ministers and 34 Deputy Ministers. We were invited to applaud him for reducing the total from President Zuma’s 35 Ministers and 37 Deputy Ministers. Improvement must always be welcomed. But 28 ministers is still a huge number – far too big, much bigger than the Cabinet in the USA. 

What is the purpose of government? In successful economies the purpose is to govern, and to achieve clear ends such as winning a war or producing prosperity. In unsuccessful economies, of which Africa has the largest number, there are other purposes, all harmful. In many African countries, including South Africa, a purpose of government, perhaps the main purpose, is to serve as an employment agent, providing a vast number of highly paid jobs for family and friends and political allies, most unqualified and incompetent.

‘Jobs, jobs, jobs’ was an ANC election slogan. Jacob Zuma certainly delivered on it as far as jobs in his own government and his massive civil service were concerned. Unemployment and poverty grew among the great mass of ordinary people, but employment and wealth grew among the large, lucky minority who enjoyed his patronage, not just in his government but in his bureaucracy and state-owned industries, such as Eskom.

Another malign purpose of some governments is to enforce ideology. Communist governments do this, enforcing policies they know are harmful, but are doctrinally correct. In 1922, when Lenin saw collectivisation of farms was leading to famine, he hastily cobbled up the ‘New Economic Policy’, which allowed a degree of market enterprise in agriculture. Immediately crops improved and the famine ended. It was clear to the communists that the market worked better than socialism. Nonetheless, when Stalin’s government was big enough and strong enough, he scrapped the market and returned to socialism – producing even worse famine. African governments do similar things.

Over thousands of years, the free market has proved to be the most efficient economic system for delivering prosperity to everyone, especially the poor. But markets can only operate under proper political leadership. North and South Korea have the same people, geography and history, but one is prosperous and the other impoverished, for the simple reason that one has a capitalist government, the other a communist one.

It goes further than that. Small governments, interfering least in people’s lives, have delivered the most prosperity and the highest economic growth. Hong Kong and Singapore are spectacular examples. So, in a strange way, is the ultra-capitalist sector of China under its communist government, which leaves this sector alone.

The South African government must be reduced. The colossal bureaucracy, whose main effect is to make the cost of business prohibitively high and to strangle enterprise in red tape and to hobble growth, must be reduced. The cabinet must be shrunk much more. We could probably get rid of all the deputy ministers. We don’t need a minister of sport. Did Italy have a Minister of Art at the time of Da Vinci and Michelangelo? I don’t think so.

Perhaps it is politically impossible for Ramaphosa to make his government small, clean and competent. Maybe he and we are doomed to huge, bloated, corrupt and incompetent government. But I think we should at least start arguing for the small ideal, which alone can save this country from further destitution.

 

Andrew Kenny is.a writer, engineer and a classical liberal.

 

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the IRR.

 

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