In our modern Malaysia, one can hope that government policy comes about through the general will of the people peacefully through democratic means. One can further hope that this mean not merely crass majoritarianism but that which is respectful of individual rights. After all, the government and the state derive its legitimacy from the people, the citizens — an idea that is clichéd but time-tested and the prevailing idea of government in our time. It took us humanity hundreds if not thousands of years to finally subscribe to it either willingly or grudgingly.
The ideal democratic government and state translate the general will into policy and ideally, they must always accede to the general will.
What is ideal is not necessarily true on the ground however. How many self-proclaimed democratic states have turned against its citizens?
History has witnessed many of those examples, which should be enough to convince the democrats among us of the need to establish some mechanism to limit the opportunity for government to shirk from their responsibility to the people and more importantly, to prevent it from developing means to promote its own separate interest at the expense of citizens.
Since we really live in a largely majoritarian reality, herein lies the importance of a small government.
To understand the need to control the size of government, it is crucial to note that government employees themselves are voters and all voters are self-interested. They will vote for those who will promote their welfare and interest more often than not. They are exemptions, of course, but the assumption of self-interest remains the most robust assumption of human behavior. It expects the least and thus less susceptible to disappointment, unlike other more benevolent but naïve assumptions that exist on the economic left that have failed more frequently than the financial markets have crashed.
A large government employing a large fraction of citizenry will invest this group of voters with excessive political power. The larger the government, the more votes will go toward enhancing the welfare of its employees.
This creates a conflict of interest where the employees of the government can promote their interest collectively instead that of the wider voting population. With a power voting bloc, the institution that is supposed to execute the general will of the people takes a life of its own. How many times have large rewards been to government servants just before the election in Malaysia?
Essentially, that large voting bloc enables government servants to raise their own wages and grant themselves other benefits, a conflict of interest so brilliantly portrayed in an episode of the BBC’sYes Minister.
That conflict of interest is even more worrying when the taxpayers are mostly those who are employed in the private sector. What pain do the benefactors of the voting bloc suffers when someone else is financing the punch party?
With a majoritarian reality and an influential voting bloc, officeholders and the aspirants will not dare promote a responsible public finance. So not only it exacerbates the status quo, it reduces the likelihood of putting the party to a stop before it is too late to switch the tracks.
At the very extreme, such bloc makes the liberal rationale for the state irrelevant. The state now becomes overly sensitive to government servants, and less so to the citizens at large.
The 19th century American author Edward Bellamy somewhat circumvented the problem by making everybody the employees of the state. He detailed his views in his work of fiction, Looking Backward.
Ingenious, except he dreamed of a very different society. He dreamed of a utopian communist society where all wants and desires are fulfilled, and men and women work not for monetary reward but merely for recognition that scout boys proudly wear. Men and women believe of Looking Backward believe the government does everything for the benefits of the masses, ever so efficiently.
Where Bellamy spotted a utopia, Orwell saw a dystopia.