Sir Robert Menzies Lecture 25 September 1975
Published by Victor Perton as part of Australian Liberalism: The Continuing Vision
Liberalism (A Resource of Liberal Materials from around the world including definitions of Liberalism)
...We are living through a period when the proper scope and nature of government activity is being hotly debated. The traditional debate between the pro- ponents of laissez-faire and of government intervention is no longer relevant, if it has ever been in the Australian context.
Australians of all political parties have long accepted an active role for government in assisting those in need and those disadvantaged by material deprivation, in regulating the conditions of industry and relations between employers and employees, and in subsidising activities believed to be in the national interest and intervening in the economy to maintain full employ- ment.
In the last three years, we have had an unpre- cedented explosion in government spending and powers in Australia, but the causes of the growth in government extended beyond Australia. Obviously common forces in all countries have encouraged the general trend towards bigger and bigger government.
Among the major factors leading to the growth of government in western countries, we can list the following:
...Some people appear to believe that the differ- ences between governments of the Liberal and Labor persuasion on the issue of government intervention is merely a matter of degree. On this view, Liberal Governments make merely a pretence at resisting governmental growth, while Labor Governments actu- ally foster government growth. Superficially, the record bears this out.
...Underlying the different rates of expansion of government, are two fundamentally opposed attitudes to the role of government and its proper relation to the people of Australia.
One attitude, the Liberal attitude, is that there are serious limitations on the ability of the government to produce the better life, that while government may encourage and assist people, basically, a better life will be built by Australians themselves, through their own efforts, by their own decisions, on their own volition.
The other attitude, the Labor attitude, believes that a government growing in size and powers and concentrated in Canberra is the road to a better life for the average Australian.
The Liberal view is that the goals of Australians should be set by Australians themselves in the course of their own lives. Government is the focus of common but limited goals. It does not, and should not, set detailed goals for individuals. Government has the job of aiding people in pursuit of their diverse objectives and of minimising the imposition of uniformity and conformity.
The Labor view on the other hand views government as embodying some higher wisdom, as the authentic voice of the community, as distinct from the individuals who make up the community. In this view, it is bad that individuals differ, that they want different things. Since there is a common interest known to the government, its wishes prevail over individual desires. In this view, the fewer choices in important matters individuals have, the better, because the greater the latitude individuals have, the more likely they are to deviate from the government's line.
The means of implementing this philosophy is through gaining control over an ever increasing proportion of the earnings of individuals. It gains this control through the tax system.
...In the contest between the individual and government for control over earnings, the individual, in Mr Hayden's view, should give way. He should give way, of course, because in the Treasurer's view, he will not spend his own income nearly as well as the government will do it for him.
And if we ascend the Labor Hierarchy, towards the throne, we can look at the PMÕs Chifley Memorial Lecture - a carefully thought out statement of the philosophical position of his government. The Prime Minister here insists that neither the individual nor the family, irrespective of their wealth, can provide the basic necessities of life. Only the community can provide them.
The Prime Minister and here I quote directly, says ain the Australian context, this means that the community, through the government, must finance them or they will not be financed at all'. Thus here we see denied, the capacity of the basic units of our society, the family, and the individual, to provide for themselves, and we see the affirmation of the impo- sition of government choice.
This denial and this imposition is justified on the grounds of a common community will, and a common community need, which the government embodies. Such reasoning has a long intellectual tradition behind it, from Rousseau through the totalitarian philosophers and Marx. Whether they recognise it or not, many socialists still advocate it.
The notion of an all-embracing community will and an over-riding community interest, represented by a ruling group which claims to have the insight to discover what the community really wants, has been the basic rationale for totalitarian movements which suppressed people in the interests of a myth.
Government is not the embodiment of the com- munity. It is a set of institutions within a wider society. A community composed of groups and individuals who have both co-operative and conflicting interests.
The significance of undertaking an increasing number of activities through governmental decision can only be appreciated if the character of govern mental institutions is properly understood. Government is bureaucratic. It is not the only bureaucracy in society, but it is the most powerful. Government places decisions in the hands of a few. In the provision of services, it tends to be monopolistic. It largely relies on the acquisition of resources by compulsion from other sections of the community. In allocating resources, governments rely on authority and coercion. These are simple facts.
They do not mean government cannot be used for very worthwhile ends, in a dynamic and creative way. In fact, it is fundamental to Liberal beliefs that the power of government ought to be used to establish the circumstances in which people can act according to their own wishes and to assist those in need, who would not otherwise obtain assistance. But it is as well to be realistic about the nature of government, because many of the problems we now face stem from a failure of realism.
... In his Chifley Lecture the Prime Minister continually merged community and government as if the two were one and the same. But transferring decisions from individuals to government is not transferring them to the community, but to a set of officials in a precise set of institutions who have at their disposal, limited but potent means of acquiring and allocating resources. One of the great strengths of Liberal tradition of political thought is that it has always had a much more accurate view of the role and nature of government than those influenced by socialist philosophy.
This is the reason why Liberals have always sought to keep government limited. Liberals have recognised that unlimited government, in common with all monopolies, is a threat both to individuals and to the community's constituent groups. It inevitably means a massive growth of monopoly power, the power to dictate. Government may have both a constructive and a destructive role in relation to the constituent groups of community. Ill-conceived government action effectively destroys co-operation between members of community.
...In his Chifley Lecture, the Prime Minister suggested that welfare, health, education, recreation, and transport can increasingly be provided only by government. That government has a vital role to play in the provision of these services is not, and has never been, in question. But to suggest as the Prime Minister does, that something approaching a government monopoly in these areas is either desired or desirable is nonsense. Several of these are areas in fact, in which there is, if anything, a growing demand for more opportunities for people to decide for themselves what form of provision they want. This is obviously so in the education area. In a fundamental sense, it is also true of the other areas.
Take the one where it may seem to be least true - welfare. It is now increasingly clear that our perspective on welfare has been distorted by the emphasis on government provision. As the Henderson Report on Poverty makes plain, the major source of help and support for those in need is the vast informal network of families, friends and neighbours. It says "it is when the informal structure cannot cope, or does not reach an individual, that the formal structure is most needed".
Moreover, when the Henderson Report discusses the formal structures on welfare provision, it places particular weight on the role of voluntary and local activites, because of the choice, flexibility, and individual consideration which is possible through these kinds of organisation. The capacity of voluntary organisations to come to grips with the problems of the disadvantaged is in many ways unique. They work with a flexibility and initiative that government bureaucracies cannot match. They cannot attract and involve highly committed people who would have difficulty working within the constraints of a bureaucratic structure. They provide assistance to those in need while enhancing the capacities of the poor to help themselves without assistance.
One of the most damaging aspects of dependence is its effect on self respect. This has been an important part of the traditional Liberal case for freedom. There is now increasing acknowledgment of its crucial relevance to welfare policy.
...Further, the great importance of the family as a source of help and support ought to mean that government should act to strengthen this function Here the government's willingness to permit an extraordinary increase in the tax burden shows the direction of its thinking. The link between the policy and its general philosophy is simple. The greater the proportion of its income a family pays in tax, the less able the family is to make its own decisions in areas such as education, health, care of ageing parents and so on. To the extent that it cannot meet these demands from its own resources, it must rely increasingly on government provision.
The government's tax policy is part of the Prime Minister's announced philosophy of making people more and more dependent on government.
...One way to ensure that people become dependent on government, is to make sure that they do not retain enough of their own earnings to provide adequately for themselves. A vicious circle of dependence is established, in which more and more government programmes are undertaken simply because people are taxed at levels which prevent them providing for themselves. Each new programme has to be funded, requiring yet higher taxes further crippling the capacity of families to cope with their needs as they see fit.
Every interest or group which obtains some new grant from the government requiring new personal taxes, does so at the expense of the family's capacity to cope. In the end, we are no better off. We are worse off. Our capacity to realise all our aspirations is limited not because some myopic politician refuses to think of a new programme, but because our resources are limited. The constant offers by politicians to solve this or that problem by some new spending programme, often overlooks the fact that in order to solve one problem another may be opened up. This is what is happening to Australia at the moment.
...All members of society must be provided with a basic level of security. The notion that deprivation is a necessary spur to achievement and that initiative is dulled by the provision of welfare is not only wrong but it has no place in a philosophy that values the individual. On the contrary, the security of knowing that aid is available if needed can increase the incentives for, and reduce the costs of, achievement. The concept of a safety net below which no individual should fall through circumstances beyond his control is basic to Liberal thinking. In providing this safety net, the independence of the person concerned is of the first importance.
The net exists not to ensnare, but to support. The emphasis is on the provision of income which permits choice rather than the imposition of uniform services for everyone which precludes choice. There is no reason why unnecessary restriction on choice should be added to all the other problems the disadvantaged suffer, nor why the choice of everyone should be restricted by ill conceived efforts to provide assistance.
Policies directed to ensuring income security will be at the heart of our new social welfare policy.
...The watchwords of the next Liberal Government will be freedom and concern. By giving people more choice in matters which are close to them, by enlisting their commitment and their creativity, by encouraging their best energies, the well being of all Australians will be enhanced.
Sir Robert Menzies Lecture 25 September 1975
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Re-edited 30 May 2000
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