Op-Ed

How much government is too much government?

MONTANER
MONTANER

Size matters.

It’s not what you think. I’m referring to the government. This is a debate that’s shaking the planet. The size of a government matters a lot, of course, but what’s really vital is its quality (as in the other subject, racy reader). What’s essential is how and why the resources are apportioned — and on what and by who — not how much they total.

The supposedly objective argument made to recommend or condemn a model of government is usually established by comparing its public spending with the GNP, or value of all the wealth created by the country, for one year.

Defenders of high public spending usually point to the Scandinavian example. The Finnish government consumes 53.7 percent of the GNP; the Danish government, 55.9 percent; the Swedish government, 51.4 percent, and the Norwegian government, 56.8 percent.

And there’s no doubt that Scandinavia is probably the wealthiest and best managed region in the world. The most peaceable, civilized and equitable.

In turn, supporters of reduced public spending point to the extraordinary vitality of Switzerland, which gives the state only 33.7 percent of the GNP. More impressive still are Hong Kong (21.2), the United States (17) and Singapore (a mere 15.4).

All these data are official, and I’m taking them from the CIA World Factbook, because it adapts the figures to the consumer prices, or PPP (purchasing power parity).

Naturally, for the purpose of achieving collective prosperity, the proportion of wealth given to the state in the form of taxes, to be devoted to ordinary spending, is important. But a lot more important than that objective fact are the quality of the institutions and rules, the values the prevail in the group, and the behavior of the public servants, i.e., the state’s intangible capital.

In general, the developed countries — the Scandinavian nations among them — rank among the most honorable (Transparency International), the best educated (Human Development Index) and the possessors of the most business-friendly climate (the World Bank’s Doing Business Index).

But that can also be said about Switzerland, Hong Kong, the United States and Singapore. The two groups differ greatly in the proportion of public spending, but share notable similarities in the way they create wealth and service the state.

Though it may be uncomfortable, we must admit it: Societies that have the right values, knowledge and beliefs will spontaneously generate functionaries with positive attitudes, efficient governments and administrators who are committed to the general welfare and propose and carry out better government measures.

It is vital to understand this, even if it leads to a melancholy conclusion: Politicians and public servants are no better or worse than the whole of the society from which they came. If among them there is an abundance of crooks or if, on the contrary, there are people who, voluntarily and consciously mindful of the law, act decently, it’s because those are the roots of the tribe to which they belong.

I recently heard in Spain, in connection with the scandals rattling the country, that all the leaders of the political parties, labor unions and business circles, left and right, are “sausages” (criminals).

Not so. The situation may be worse. Unfortunately, even though Spain has many honorable people, a high percentage of Spanish society shirks the law and tries to break the rules, as also happens in Italy, Greece and a hundred other nations. Much dust creates much mud. It’s a problem of the whole of society, not just a few individuals.

I fear that the situation is even worse in almost all of Latin America. The existing capitalism consists of cronyism and the payment of “commissions.” Many politicians, elected or appointed, steal by the fistful. The voters are grateful bellies. Political appointees who collect paychecks for little work are legion.

There are countries where the bureaucracy creates obstacles only to encourage bribes. Theft, embezzlement and misappropriation are the rule, and most of society doesn’t seem to care. Why go on?

This observation leads us to formulate a sad general rule: It is counterproductive, even suicidal, to turn over a substantial part of the work of society to governments guilty of irresponsibility, patronage, lack of foresight, nepotism, capricious spending, and whose public servants are incompetent, thieving and mendacious, lacking in rigor and true spirit of service.

Baroque philosopher Baltasar Gracián would have stated it this way: If the government is bad, it would be best it were small. If it’s good, we could discuss the appropriate amount of taxes. A responsible person does not hand a razor to a drunken monkey.

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