May 24, 2006

Why do we need big government?

Since it isn't really possible to argue that a big government is good for economic performance, at least not without getting laughed at, but what about non-economic performance? Does a big government help peoples general well-being? Well actually it isn't that great at that either according to some research.
First, a group of Swiss and Danish researchers from the WIF Institute of Economic Research in Zurich looked at whether government involvement in the economy is conducive to life satisfaction across 74 countries. The results show that life satisfaction actually decreases with higher government spending. This negative impact of the government is stronger in countries with a left-leaning median voter. It is alleviated by government effectiveness - but, crucially, only in countries where the state sector is already small. In general, a one standard deviation increase in government spending yields a median decrease of 4.42 percent in self-reported satisfaction by the voters, a drop in the degree of economic competition of 4.17 percent and a shift in voter preferences in rightward ideological direction of 4.15-9 percent.
OK so it might not be bad for general economic growth, and not exactly great for general happiness and wellbeing. How about social issues that is the particualar bug bear of the authoritarian right. Are a set of government sanctioned moral guard-rails needed? The 90's saw what the authoritarian right often saw as a wave of unexceptable liberalism, such as on gay rights, and an explosion in access to what they would consider the most harmful information most in need of censorship thanks to the unregulated nature of the internet. This invention has allowed a massive explosion in access to everything that the moral authoritarians consider harmful. So obviously if a set of government sanctioned moral guidelines are needed then we should see something happening, and happening especially in countries where there is the most access to the corrupting influance of the internet. And there have been some definite trends, just not the ones that a moral authoritarian would expect.
Teen pregnancy is down. Juvenile crime is down. Crimes against children are down. Incidence of rape is down. Overall crime is down. Divorce is down. Teens are waiting longer to have sex. High school dropouts are down. There are fewer abortions. Life expectancy in America continues to reach all-time highs. Unemployment remains low.

Pick a statistic. Odds are, it’s moving in the correct direction.

Oddly enough, all of these trends have been improving since at least the early-to-mid-1990s, the very period over which the family values crowd has been decrying the “coarsening of American culture.” ...

So what gives? Seems to me that technology, relaxed public attitudes, and consumer choice have given Americans more lifestyle freedom over the last 15 years than we’ve ever had before. Yet not only is our national moral fabric not unraveling, it appears to be as durable and fibrous as it’s ever been.

So why exactly do we need more moral guardrails from the government aimed at restricting behavior?

(Interestingly, the one trend that hasn’t significantly declined over the last 15 years — or at least hasn’t receded as quickly as the others — is drug use. And that’s the one vice the government has been most aggressive about policing.)


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