Sunday, January 23, 2011

Does big government weaken the social fabric?

Perhaps I should confess at the outset that I cannot provide a definitive answer to this question. What I am about to present is some evidence suggesting that big government might weaken the social fabric. I think the evidence is sufficiently strong to suggest that the question should be considered seriously. (I provided similar evidence a couple of years ago – and I might have to write about it a few more times before many people take notice!)

The current post is one of a series in which I am looking at how values differ between high income countries with big governments and those with smaller governments. Previous posts have looked at child qualities that are encouraged, attitudes toward work and success and tolerance of neighbours who are different.

The indicators I am using to measure strength of the social fabric are estimates of the percentages of populations who say that the following activities are never justifiable: falsely claiming government benefits; cheating on taxes; and accepting a bribe. As in previous posts in the series I have focused on 14 high-income countries with broadly similar European cultural heritage for which data is available from the most recent World Values Survey.

In the table below these countries have been ranked by size of government, using government spending as a percentage of GDP as an indicator of size of government. (For each variable the five highest numbers are shown against a red background and the five lowest ratings are shown against a blue background.)

The data in this table provides evidence that people in high income countries with big governments tend to have more permissive attitudes toward a range of anti-social activities than those in countries with smaller governments. That doesn’t establish causation, but I think it should make researchers interested in trying to understand what is happening.

Why should we be concerned if big government does tend to make people more relaxed about welfare fraud, tax evasion and bribery? Can’t the problem be solved by just employing more public servants to prevent such anti-social activity? I don’t think so. Increased surveillance poses further problems including the added cost of service delivery and the increased intrusion of government officials into the private lives of citizens.


Lorraine said...

'Never' is a pretty powerful word. I'm not sure how I'd answer the questions were I being surveyed. Nice dichotomy between moral absolutism as evidenced by embrace of norms containing the word 'never,' and 'permissiveness.' Your inner paleoconservative is showing. To your credit, you're critical of surveillance. I think a lot of the 'cheating the system' type misdeeds could be detected routinely in a very not-labor-intensive way (or let's say, without installing more people in positions of authority) with David Brin-style transparency, such as setting up institutions with 'self auditing' features, or even putting every single transaction in the public record. I suppose the word 'surveillance' would be somewhat applicable, but it would be without the role play between 'police' and 'policed,' and the age-old question of 'who will watch the watchers.' If people must be watched, watching should be a right, not a privilege.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Lorraine. That might be a good point. I will have a look to see whether a lower level of opposition to cheating the system shows a similar picture.