As necessary as government and bureaucracy are, there’s a huge flaw at the heart of both. Over time they spread. They get bigger and more costly, more troublesome and, in a number of cases that are easy to cite, more domineering and, sometimes, downright tyrannical. History has taught this lesson many times. It’s nothing new. Neither government nor bureaucracy have any natural check or balance to their size or power, at least not in practice. That’s why government growth continues. This is a serious matter, hardly ever addressed, but vital to examine. Here’s one way the system is sloped towards a growing amount of government over time . . . .
Imagine you’re a government bureaucrat. You’re not elected but you’ve just been promoted to a new job with better pay, more responsibilities and a corner office. The work isn’t difficult, so you have time to think about how you might leave your mark on the bureaucracy, doing something that “makes society better”. Perhaps there’s something new that could be added to your role. Maybe there’s some previously unnoticed regulatory function that could be filled. Then there’s always the temptation to create the perception of a need, then rush to the rescue as a hero to fill it. Even in corridors of government power, there still sometimes exists initiative or some urge towards accomplishment. This is the emotion behind the tendency to fix things that aren’t broken and to add complexity to perfectly functioning simplicity. Never mind that “making society better” is about much more than regulations and laws. The perennial need to “do something” is one dynamic behind the process that makes government spread and expand its regulatory influence over time, but it’s not the only one.
GOVERNMENT + TIME = REGULATIONS
Do we need regulations? Yes, absolutely we do. But does government have a vested interest in creating more regulations beyond genuine need? Yes, the temptation certainly exists because regulation is the primary product of government. This is one reason why the country where I live, Canada, has seen a steady increase in seemingly meaningless regulations and paperwork over time, plus the loss of important personal freedoms. I was reminded of this sad fact when I changed the ownership on a vehicle back in 2017.
Changing used vehicle ownership is something I don’t do often enough to get used to, but one thing I’ve noticed is how the process has gotten much more and more complex over the last 40 years. My most recent visit to the vehicle licensing office, for instance, involved no less than 6 different signed pieces of paper. Some weren’t signed properly at first so they required re-signing. A lawyer was also involved in the process, he had to use his official seal on the paperwork, plus there was the mechanical safety check of the vehicle itself. I’m all for safety, within limits. I certainly do NOT believe in safety first – that’s an absurd platitude that’s impossible to actually live out in practice. If safety really was absolutely first, no one would do anything but stay in perpetual isolation. And even that has profound dangers, as we’re currently discovering in new ways.
In the case of my mechanic, he explained how new regulations now require him to measure and record the thickness of each brake pad and rotor individually with a vernier caliber, even though he could easily tell at a glance if brake parts are safe or not. Were used cars really so dangerous before the days before mechanics were forced to record the thickness of brake pads down to 1/10th of a millimetre and report these numbers to government? Sounds crazy, but this is exactly what’s happening in my province.
If the issue of the perennial expansion of government were only about reams of additional paperwork and extra tasks for mechanics it wouldn’t be worth writing about. But the spread of government also hits us in the wallet, too. For every regulation there’s a bunch of additional costs, many of them hidden. I’ll use Canada as an example again, but the same dynamic is unfolding across the developed world.
One Hidden Cost of Over-Zealous Government
For anyone who has a warm, fuzzy sense that Canada is on an upward climb economically, an appeal to the facts should feel like a bucket of ice water in the face. Some of the most telling of these facts apply to young people. In 2010, Statistics Canada reported the median annual income for people between 20 and 24 was $13,800. Back in 1976, this same age group enjoyed an income of $23,400 per year adjusted for inflation – that’s almost 70% more. Even Canadians up to their mid-40s are measurably poorer today than they were decades ago, as measured in real dollars and buying power. Yes, Canadians are substantially less well off economically than they used to be. Why has this happened?
It’s hard to pin all the causes down completely, but one thing’s for sure. Regulation is the opposite of productivity. The more regulation you have in a society, the slower, poorer and more falteringly the economic engine runs. Please don’t misunderstand me. We need regulations, yes, but right now we need balance more than we need additional regulations. Are we more regulated as a society now than in 1976? Anyone who has been alive for more than 40 years and who takes the time to notice things will tell you yes, for sure, we are much more regulated. Is all of this regulation really serving a productive purpose? I’m sure there are reasons these regulations were added to our world, but are these reasons legitimate or just the product of bureaucrats looking for something to do?
What countries really need are governments selfless enough and wise enough to kick into action only when no other method of making things happen exists – and not a moment before. This sort of idea is not popular, especially now as rising tides of socialism are being espoused by people who have no idea how nasty true socialism is. But sometimes good medicine is bitter. The last thing any country needs is a ruling class populated by people pursuing power, wealth and a cushy professional life in a low-expectation arena. The extent to which a critical mass of bureaucrats can resist the impulse for selfishness in government is the extent to which a country will succeed. I know of only one country in the world that has begun to systematically prune back pointless regulations with the aim of streamlining life and business, and it’s certainly not Canada.
Costs That Keep on Coming
If too much government ended with being poorer and more burdened with paperwork, it would be one thing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Where I live, the government has also taken it upon itself to protect the population from what they call “hate speech”. Hate is not defined on paper in any way, nor can it ever be. Apparently, in the government’s view, Canadians aren’t capable of determining for themselves if a person is worth listening to or rejecting. Our federal government has taken it upon itself to prevent us from being whipped into a frenzied mob by the sly words of “haters” (try and objectively define who they are), while also protecting us from having our feelings hurt if someone says something that offends us. The implied message is that we’re ether gullible, overly sensitive or both. In Canada “free speech” only exists within an arena that the government determines, sometimes in arbitrary ways. The whole realm of determining what people can and cannot say is entirely a moral issue, but tell me something. Can anyone in the government of my country point to an objective source of morality upon which they base their moral dictates? And make no mistake, morality without an objective source for that morality is nothing more than a personal preference at best, and completely tyrannical when a government takes this to the kind of horrific extents we’ve seen in the 20th century and are starting to appear again now.
All this leads to the curious prospect of a government insisting on its own brand of morality, without being able to point to any standard upon which their morality is based. The morality of human opinion is always a dangerous thing because it can mean anything anyone in power wants. For instance, I know a hardworking husband and father who was barred for life from entering Canada earlier last year because two border agents Googled his name and determined he was “undesirable”. Where’s the due process in that? Two men, two hours of time, an internet connection and freedom of speech and freedom of association is shut down in one small way. I know an 80 year-old retired school teacher who was barred from crossing the border because he had the same name as some other guy deemed unwanted. Never mind that this retired teacher had a different address and different passport. He was turned back at the border for nothing more than having the name Robert Johnson. Yes, this really happened.
What does it say when enough power rests in the hands of a border agent to determine the fate of a person based on an hour of internet surfing? Or how about being denied the privilege to cross a border because you have the same name as some other guy? Are you getting nervous yet? Here in Canada, government molly-coddling has extended to the point where we can only be trusted to make up our own minds about what other people say to a limited and shrinking extent. Nor can our emotions withstand the trauma of hearing things that offend us. No wonder this latest generation of young people have earned the nickname “snowflakes”. Many suffer from the fate of being raised with the illusion that they should expect no trauma, no emotional challenges and to live in a safe space created by the ruling class. Always beware of a government that claims to be in the safety business when they legislate whatever moral relativism is popular at the moment.
Unlike most areas of our world, there are no effective natural limits to the slow, steady advancement of government control. Free market activities are subject to the guiding hand of supply and demand, but what governs government? In a democracy it’s supposed to be the informed will of an involved voting population. But have you seen how that actually works? Democracy breaks down to the extent that the most far-reaching decisions are created and handed down by non-elected bureaucrats, judges or government leaders who determine ahead of time how a party will vote. What do you call a democracy where real democratic values run only skin deep?
There are no shortage of Canadians who feel that things have gone too far. They talk to me all the time about the things you’re reading here. But we Canadians do have one dangerous flaw in our national character. We’re much too complacent, even in the face of growing oppression that looks a lot like a tyrannical ruling class hiding behind manufactured dangers and needs.
There’s an old saying that’s worth remembering at times like this: “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Paraphrased a little, this same idea applies just as much to the ruling classes: “When you’re a bureaucrat, everything looks like it needs regulating.”
What can we do? I have no recommendations. I wish I did. All I know for sure is how grieved I feel when I see the Canada I love (and western civilization in general) being systematically dismantled piece by piece, slowly being replaced by the kind of thing that no one will be able to love in time. The anthem of my country includes the line: “O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.” How do you stand on guard for your country when the threat comes from within?