Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Government's Role and Purpose

Written by johnleemk on 6:12:46 am Mar 4, 2007.
Categories: ,

A friend recently posed an interesting question to me — just what are my views on the role of government? More specifically, what should be the role of the government in Malaysia?

To do this topic any justice, I think my answer will have to be divided into two parts — one dealing with what the role of government should be in the abstract, and one dealing with the concrete issue of what the government's role should be as applied to the Malaysian polity.

What is the role of government? I think, quite simply, the government exists to manage the country's affairs.

But what are the country's affairs? When is government intervention justified, and when is it an injustice?

Another obvious question is what end should the government seek? What constitutes a well-managed country?

There are two views on this point, I think, which fundamentally determine how you answer these questions. One view is society- and collective-centric, and emphasises the greater good of the society. The other is individualistic, and emphasises the greater good of the individual.

Both views have their strong points, but I think both are also fundamentally flawed. The society-centric view often determines what is best for society (and thus the country) by referring to the will of the majority — and as utilitarian philosophers such as John Stuart Mill noted, we thus end up with a tyranny of the majority instead.

The individualistic view, however, cannot be reconciled with some fundamental issues necessitating a collectivised approach. The economic problem of the tragedy of the commons is one prime example. How can you reconcile an "individual knows best" policy with collectively owned and consumed goods or services, such as national defence or pollution?

I think I am closest in agreement with Mill's views on liberty, and thus the role of government (since whenever a higher authority intervenes in human behaviour, it is safe to say that some freedom has been infringed).

Mil basically held that a government action can only be warranted when the increase in overall utility (i.e. benefits) outweighed the decrease (i.e. costs). To avoid a tyranny of the majority, Mill proposed that we not assume each person has the same utility. An oppressive measure which benefits the majority slightly but harms the minority greatly would be accepted under a tyranny of the majority, but not under Mill's ideal where the impact on each individual is taken into account.

So, attempting to summarise this view in one sentence, here is what I propose. The role of government is to advance the society and country as a whole; to accomplish this, the government must never regulate anything unless the overall benefits from infringing liberty outweigh the associated costs.

A fine example, of course, is crime. Should the government equip and man a police force, and enforce laws against murders, rapes, and thefts? Yes — because although there are costs associated with taxing people to pay for the costs of law and order, and costs associated with removing the liberty to infringe on the rights of others as you please, these costs are more than outweighed by the benefits brought to society.

I know this answer seems dissatisfying, because it is talking in very abstract and philosophical terms. In a future article, I will attempt to deal with the more concrete issues of government in a Malaysian context.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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