Why are governments always getting bigger?

Published on May 11, 2016

Ten days ago, I gave a speech on politics and the evolution of government in the 20th century before approximately 50 people at an event organized by my colleague Jacques Gourde, MP for Lotbinière-Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, in Saint-Narcisse (Quebec). Here is an adapted version of my speech, which you can also watch (in French) on these video clips. -- 6 September 2010


Why are governments always getting bigger?

By Maxime Bernier
August 27, 2010


You know, there are many things to do on a Friday evening apart from coming here and listening to Jacques (Gourde) and me talking about politics. Yes, Jacques and I are politicians – it’s not the ideal job nowadays! We’re involved in politics, we talk about politics.

But we are not naive. We know that many of you see politicians as people who don’t always tell the truth, who make nice promises that they do not always keep. That’s why people have become cynical and disenchanted towards some politicians.

They have good reasons for that. Politicians tend to exaggerate their own merits and denigrate their opponents. They claim that they can solve everything with a new regulation, a new law or a new program.

I’m trying to do politics differently, to say things as they are, to not make promises and to do my best to represent the people of the Beauce and of Quebec in Ottawa.

People realize that from one government to the other, from a decade to the other, we get the impression that things are not that different, and even that they are getting worse.

That’s why I’m not going to make a typical political speech this evening, but rather a speech about the problems of today’s politics. Politics is a lot more interesting when you reach out to people’s intellect instead of their emotions or their partisanship.

So, let’s discuss a crucial problem of contemporary politics: why is it that so many people have the impression that things are getting worse, or at any rate are not getting better, despite economic growth and the advantages of modern life? Is it a false impression?

If we look at certain general historical trends, I think we can conclude that this impression is indeed justified.

The main trend that we observe is that governments are constantly getting bigger. A bigger government means a government that taxes more, spends more, gets deeper into debt, and regulates more. It’s a government which intervenes in all aspects of our lives, all the while curtailing our freedom to act.

This happened all over the world during the 20th century. The scope, size and powers of government have grown tremendously.

Take for example public spending as a proportion of gross domestic product, that is, the portion of the overall economy controlled by governments. In the main countries of the western world, it has gone from around 10% a century ago to beyond 40% today.

This means that almost half of all economic activity is controlled by the state. Half of your salaries are going away in taxes. So you work almost six months per year to fund spending by federal, provincial and municipal governments.

But these gigantic sums are not even enough to pay for all the programs and interventions of governments. They still have to borrow billions of dollars every year to make up for their deficits.

Some of you may have young children, or are planning to have one. Well, you should know that when they are born, Canadian baby already owe many tens of thousands of dollars, which they will have to reimburse in one way or another in the course of their life. Perhaps this is why they start crying as soon as they arrive in this world!

The size of public spending and the taxes that are collected to fund it only explain one aspect of the growth of the state. We must also take into account the increase in the number of laws and regulation.

Some years ago, the Montreal Economic Institute calculated that each year, the Quebec government added 8000 new pages of laws and regulation in its books, while the federal government added 2000. Very few rules are ever abolished, even when they become obsolete, while a variety of new rules are constantly being created. Our society has never been so thoroughly regulated.

I don’t want to demoralize anyone, but think for example about all the papers that you need to obtain and everything you have to pay in order to be able to drive a car, from the driver’s license to taxes on gasoline, and not forgetting the parking tickets and other fines.

Or think about all the red tape that is involved in owning a hunting rifle. The gun registry is a bureaucratic monster that has cost a thousand times more than it was supposed to, and because of it every hunter is treated like a potential criminal.

You can barely do anything nowadays without having to ask a bureaucrat for some permission. You want to drive a rowboat or an ATV? Better be patient while you try to obtain all the necessary authorisations and learn all the rules that apply. Although there may be thousands of pages of obscure regulation or anything and everything, you won’t be able to claim that you did not know them before a judge if you are caught violating one of them. Ignorance of the law is no defence.

Governments too often treat us like irresponsible children and act as if they know better than we do what is good for us. From their perspective, this justifies all the measures they adopt to hold our hands and tell us what to do. And also to pick our pockets.

Did you know for example that there is a law in Quebec and in other provinces which imposes a minimum price on the beer that you buy at the store? That’s right, beer could be cheaper, but the government is afraid that you may drink too much of it if you pay less than some arbitrary amount for it. So the Liquor Board determines a “minimum retail price for beer so that it does not encourage irresponsible consumption.”

That’s not a joke, this is how the law is written. The government believes that you won’t be able to control yourself and to drink beer in a responsible manner if the price of beer is too low. And it’s a nice coincidence because that also happens to bring more taxes in government coffers.

Governments are trying to control everything we do to protect us from all the imaginable dangers and risks of life. But who will protect us against governments?

The state also controls whole sectors of the economy, such as health care and education. Sectors which seem to be in a permanent state of crisis and always have funding problems. Still, every year, their budgets increase faster than the overall economy. How is that possible?

Former US president Ronald Reagan explained it best when he said that big interventionist governments tend to see things as follows: if it moves, tax it; if it keeps moving, regulate it; and if it stops moving, subsidize it!

What we need to ask is why are governments always getting bigger? Does everyone really wish to have these giant governments? Is this what people vote for?

Economists have tried to explain this dynamic. Their research shows how particular groups have a strong interest in getting organized to put pressure on politicians.

These special interest groups want subsidies, trade protection, more generous social programs, a fiscal or legal privilege, regulation that favours them and keeps out competition. Any favour they get from the government can potentially bring them huge benefits.

Of course, in the end, it’s you, the citizens, who will have to pay for these favours. But in your case, the amount you have to pay for each measure is not significant enough to justify getting organized to oppose it. You don’t have time to go to meetings and demonstrate in the street to oppose a particular program that will cost you ten dollars, even if ten dollars here and ten dollars there add up to hundreds and thousands of dollars. You have to work and take care of your family. But the small group of people who get 100 million dollars have a huge interest in getting organized.

It’s very hard for politicians to say no to these lobbies because they have the means to hijack debates, quickly mobilize support and fuel controversies in the media. On the other hand, nobody hears what you, the silent majority, have to say even if you are the ones paying the bill.

So, there is a fundamental imbalance in political debates. On one side, you have concentrated benefits to special interest groups who have a strong incentive to do their lobbying; on the other side, you have dispersed costs that fall on society at large.

Within governments, civil servants too are trying to get higher salaries and other perks. Bureaucrats are not saints who dedicate their lives to the common good. They also have their own personal interests to advance.

Civil servants have a very large influence on political decisions because they are the ones who control the information and the day to day agenda of politicians. I got first-hand experience of this as minister of Industry. I had to fight civil servants in my own department to achieve my goal of deregulating a section of the telecom sector, in order to foster more competition and offer more choice and better prices to consumers.

If special interest groups and civil servants want a more interventionist government and if politicians agree to this, then voters will get a bigger government, whether they like it or not.

That’s how government grows and grows. That’s how we become less and less free. And more and more dependent on government.

What can we do – what can you do – to reverse this trend? First it’s essential to understand that the main rift in politics is the one that separates those who want a bigger government, more programs, more control, more taxes and regulation from those who want individuals to be free and responsible for their own actions.

If you belong to this second group, you can do something: ask your governments to get out of your way. Demand more freedom from your Members of Parliament. Ask them to treat you like responsible adults. Discuss these issues with your family, your friends and your neighbours.

The more people there will be who understand and share these ideas, the easier it will be to create a counterweight to the lobbies that we constantly see in the media asking for more government intervention, and for a bigger chunk of your salary. It might also move politicians to finally take into account the interests of the silent majority, your interests.

To conclude, it’s true that politics can be boring. Political debates often sink to the level of petty squabbling. But by not paying attention to politics, you make it easier for politicians to determine for you how you live your life and spend your money. In the end, it’s up to you to decide if we shall have a freer, more responsible and more prosperous society.