The cup of conservatism overfloweth with bromides about the virtues of small government. “That government is best which governs least” is a pithy quote from Thoreau. People today are probably more familiar with Ronald Reagan’s most dangerous nine words: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. There’s the oh-so-cute line about shrinking government to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub (which, I’ve got to tell you, is a fucking creepy image). Of course, time and again we see that when “conservatives” are given power, they use it to rapidly expand government’s role in the social sphere while cutting the amount of actual good they do in terms of policy.
Hypocrisy aside, the maxims of ‘small government’ are still mostly nonsense. It is not the size of government that is meaningful, it’s the behaviour of government. Institutions that are transparent and made accountable to the people in its constituency can provide excellent services and aid in a variety of sectors. Insofar as a small government is easier for the electorate to monitor than a big one, there is some virtue in reducing size per se. Of course there is a trade-off to be paid in reducing government size – it becomes much less able to do things. A government small enough to drown in a bathtub is too small to react meaningfully to a national emergency or create a sufficient safety net – things it does much better than the private-sector alternative.
There is a balance that must be struck, to be sure. Big government isn’t always the problem, and shrinking it isn’t always the solution. Sometimes large social problems require government-assisted solutions. Case in point:
For the first time in two decades, the number of people living on Calgary streets has dropped, a stunning turnaround for a city – once dubbed “bum heaven” – that has officials crediting an ambitious 10-year strategy to end homelessness. When the 2012 homeless count was conducted on a frigid night last month, 3,190 people were either sleeping on the streets, in shelters or in short-term housing, marking an 11.4-per-cent decline since the last tally in 2008.
Calgary’s foundation has been blessed with government support – $24.4-million from the province and $4.7-million from Ottawa in the current fiscal year, in addition to about $1-million in donations – and has quantifiable success. Governments and agencies in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador have all sought its advice.
This is, in my mind, the ideal model for government intervention. Not rushing in to build what you think people need, but working with agencies who are on the ground in the area of interest and making resources available to help the community solve its own problems. Oftentimes the bad name that government-backed activities get comes from instances where (often federal) agents have arrived on the scene with the attitude of ‘we know best’ rather than one of ‘how can we help’? While homelessness is a provincial jurisdiction (if that – it may be more of a municipal issue), it has broad-reaching ramifications that impact things within the federal portfolio. Partnerships like this are an appropriate answer to the problem – bringing adequate resources to bear in concert with sufficient local knowledge.
It should be noted that this intervention happened under our current “conservative” government, which is not a dig at their conservatism but an attempt to note that they do occasionally do good things. My suspicion is that they’d prefer for these types of things to happen under the radar – homelessness in Calgary is not an issue of national interest and so they are less likely to toe the ideological line. Whatever their actual feelings about the best way to address homelessness, this program has achieved results not despite government intervention, but because of it, at least in part. That government is best which governs best, and while that truism may not be as poetic as Mr. Thoreau’s axiom, the people of Calgary can attest to its accuracy.
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