Not to get too ambitious or anything; I mean this is something people have been arguing over for generations, and major philosophers have disagreed fundamentally over it. (In ancient times, Plato's Republic; for an early grounding, Locke and Hobbes are pretty good; later Rousseau is interestingly wrong; Marx, obviously, and not to forget Jeremy Bentham, and that's the Twitter-length list).
So, I'll knock this off in a blog post and then I can get on to the difficult stuff...
Governments rule by the consent of the governed. In the case of a dictatorship, it can be a sort of sullen consent in that the people are not yet in open rebellion; in the case of a democracy the continuation of government requires a more active consent in the form of voting for them from time to time.
While I'm highly dubious of his State of Nature, I think Locke basically has it right that in agreeing to form a government over us, we give up certain rights, in return for having protection from other people.
So the primary responsibility of government is protecting its citizens, and this develops in three directions:
First, the citizenry as a whole must be protected from external threats, this heading broadly covering our Ministry of Defence, GCHQ and the SIS (better known as MI6).
Secondly, the citizenry must be protected from one another; this covers the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, aka the police, courts, prisons and so on.
Thirdly, the citizenry must be protected from the government. Understandably, this is difficult for the government to handle itself, and is probably best dealt with by means of a free press and an independent judiciary in combination with regular elections.
That's all well and good. However, the government of the UK does a lot more than this. The Government budget for 2010-2011 ran to almost £700 billion, of which the Armed Forces, Intelligence Services and Criminal Justice system required around 8.5%.
So, what's the other 90-odd%, and why is the government responsible for it?
You know, when I phrase it like that, it sounds a bit libertarian - the idea that we are all responsible for ourselves, and that if something is worth doing then those who are affected will get together to do it without needing the government to force them. Without wishing to misrepresent the libertarian point of view, it summarises to the idea that government should secure the borders, enforce law and order, and otherwise stay out and let individuals get on with it.
It's an appealing perspective - who doesn't want to be free to make their own decisions? And there are several ways to deal with this libertarian critique of government action; I am going to take a less usual one, which riffs shamelessly on discussions of subsidiarity that I have seen on Fred Clark's blog.
Subsidiarity is a term from theology, but it is neither solely nor necessarily a Christian concept. It is the idea that as a human being, you are responsible for everyone and everything around you; but that you are responsible to a greater or lesser extent, depending upon your proximity to the problem, your ability to be of assistance, and so on.
This meshes well with moral intuition - mine, at least - consider the case where you walk down the edge of a lake and see a child drowning. It is your responsibility to do something to save that child, even if you have never seen that child before and will never see them again. If you are a strong swimmer and there is no-one else around, it is on you to swim out and save the child. If you're in a wheelchair, your responsibility would be rather to look for a life belt to throw, or for someone who is able to swim out; if you come by and the child's parent is already swimming out to save them you should perhaps just keep an eye to make sure they get back to shore okay. Universal responsibility, modified by proximity, personal circumstance, capability.
What does that translate to on a national level? Well, if there is a consistent problem of old people living in misery despite their own savings and everything that families and local communities can do, maybe the government should run a pension scheme. If there is a problem of poor people being unable to access healthcare, there might be a good case for providing healthcare free at the point of delivery. If you need to plan a transport network on a national level, perhaps the national government should be the one to co-ordinate it. If someone can work hard at a full-time job and not earn enough to survive, perhaps the government should enforce a minimum wage.
If you become aware that a growing economy requires a well-educated workforce, (or that a flourishing civil society requires an educated population; or indeed that an effective democratic government requires a well-informed citizenry) then you might see a need for free schooling.
In fact, if you look at the history of public services in this country, all the big ones come from just this sort of process - a recognition that all other solutions had failed, and thus a campaign for the government to step in as the provider of last resort. Specific examples include:
The campaign for the old age pension.
The foundation of School Boards for universal primary education.
I'm open to argument on whether particular individual services are necessary, but the sweeping libertarian critique of government-in-general fails on both practical and moral grounds.
Government is the guarantor of security from threats abroad and law and order at home; it is also the provider of services too big for any other actor, and generally the "x" of last resort, where "x" can be "parent" (the care system), "lender" (as seen in the case of Northern Rock), "beneficiary" (for those who have neither a will nor close relatives), or a variety of other roles that may be required from time to time.
Next up will be a consideration of the first role of government - security. That will probably get too big for one post, so I might break it down by department - first Defence, then Home, then Justice, thinking about what the current situation is, and how it could be improved. All constructive input is welcome.
Part of the Manifesto series.