Covid triggers fear of ‘big state’ politics

Big spenders: In France and Finland, the government spending represents over half the national GDP.

Is "big government" necessarily a bad thing? The pandemic has lead to an explosion of public spending. For supporters of a small state, this will create a terrible threat to our liberties.

The UK chancellor announced spending of £6.6bn for healthcare, £4.3bn for unemployment and £2.6bn for schools. The deficit for 2020 will be £396tn.

Conservative critics denounced a pivot to “big government”.

Advocates for small government believe that individuals are paramount. The state should be limited. Taxes should be kept low.

For the defenders of big government, countries exist so that we can pool resources. We should trust the state to advance our communal interest.

Big state sceptics caricature it as a nanny state. In return, opponents of the small state compare it to being thrown out naked into a wilderness.

The size of states often stems from history. France, who spends Europe’s highest percentage of GDP, has been wedded to big government since the regime of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Critics of the French system have blamed the enormity of its state for stifling economic growth.

In Finland, the state provides support for those living in a harsh landscape of interminable nights. For those in the south, taxes spent on the frigid north might seem earnings thrown away.

Is "big government" a bad thing?

Turn on the taps

Undeniably. The more taxes we pay, the more we lose as individuals. The larger the government, the greater the power it has to trample our freedoms. The big state is an anachronism that belongs to despots like Napoleon. In countries such as Finland, it can lead to an unfair distribution of resources. Fair societies are those that offer the greatest choice over earnings.

Not at all. We appoint governments to serve our best interest. The bigger the state, the more capability it has to serve these interests. The idea that the smaller the government the greater the freedom is a myth. Troubling cases show that small states can fail to provide the most basic securities.

You Decide

  1. You visit a restaurant with your friends. Would it be fairer if each person paid for the food they consumed, or if the cost was divided equally?


  1. Imagine you have been given £100 by the government to help you through the pandmic. Write a letter of thanks, explaining how you would spend it.

Some People Say...

“Experience hath shown, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”

Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826), Founding Father of the United States

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the Covid-19 pandemic has necessitated greater degree of public spending. Growing the state is the only way to begin to absorb the shocks felt to the economy during the crisis. This has taken different forms in different countries, but it often includes allowances for those made unemployed, grants for struggling businesses or institutions and increased healthcare spending to stifle the disease.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate concerns what should happen after the initial shock of the pandemic is absorbed. For some, in particular conservatives, the enormous increase in government debt must be eventually counterbalanced with a programme of austerity. Others believe that the increased public spending represents a chance for a new model of government spending, which could help meet future challenges such as automation and climate change. “Rather than rolling back the state,” says Guardian economics correspondent Richard Partington, “the time now is for longer-term support”.

Word Watch

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is the minister in the British government responsible for economic policy, conventionally regarded as second in importance to the Prime Minister.
The amount a government spends above their tax revenue in a given year.
Nanny state
A popular phrase used by British Conservatives, particularly associated with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Seemingly endless. In the northern extremities of Finland, the sun sets in November and rises in January.

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