Snow offers a case for big government

11:15 am - January 11th 2010

by Sunder Katwala    

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‘Big government’ is often attacked as political rhetoric. In the abstract, we all like to be agin it.

Yet, on every specific issue, from child protection to the collapse of the banks, most of the public calls are very often for government to do more.

Especially when it snows.

I would suppose that a ‘big government’ approach to heavy snowfall would place a good deal of emphasis on local Councils as having the taxpayer-financed responsibility for clearing the roads, and letting business and life carry on as far as possible, and paying particular attention to vital emergency services.

Mightn’t a ‘social responsibility’ approach suggest we should rally around and sort it out for ourselves?

So you wouldn’t expect local candidates and councillors whose political parties rail against big government to be pushing for more to be done on the side roads and pavements, though this seems to have been a common theme from local Labour, LibDem and Tory and non-partisan voices.

Similarly, at a national level, the severity of sustained conditions have led to worries about a grit shortage. The Conservative opposition is among those calling for more planning, to try to ensure resources are available and are rationally distributed, reflected in the Cabinet Office-led civil contingencies approach to looking at where salt needs to go most.

A similar instinct has been shown in Tory concerns over gas supplies and energy security.

It would be strange if a bit of bad weather were to trump the laissez-faire instincts of the libertarians.

So I am sure Hannanites of the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Taxpayers Alliance will shortly point out how all of these problems are caused, yet again, by too much regulation rather than too little. (Though we seem to hear so much less about Iceland from them these days).

Still, don’t forget that big government is always the route of all of our problems.

Except when it isn’t

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Libertarians ,Our democracy ,Westminster

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Reader comments

I don’t really see the inconsistency. Even the most ardent freemarketeers endorse the state provision of public goods

Root! (unless I’ve missed an intentional pun….?)

This is a good post. The point that it could easily have been about gas supplies as about road salt is crucial. With peak oil etc we are going to move increasingly into the politics of basic security of life’s essentials, and pro-active government of some description (big enough to be effective would be the best) will be the right answer and that which people want.

What we won’t be able to afford is the luxury of letting privateers cream off monopoly profits on life’s essentials such as gas and power, and these industries will have to be taken under more direct control for the same public interest reasons.

Meanwhile, if the Tories get into power, they will try to privatise the motorway network in the desperate attempt to raise cash (not so much selling off the last of the family silver, more selling off a large part of the stately home).

This will make planning for roadsalt distribution more like planning for gas – the companies will do nothing in the public interest unless their mouths are stuffed with gold or they are regulated to do so – and the companies will invest all their efforts in dodging regulations to enforce the public interest if there is private profit in doing so.

@1 Luis. You are somewhat out of date. Criticism of big government is almost always PR propaganda to push the agenda of privatising public services, thus allowing taxpayers money to be shovelled into the pockets of the shareholders of services companies, whether in defence, health, education, social services, or wherever.

4. So Much For Subtlety

The problem with big government is that a government that tries to do everything ends up doing nothing. They only have so much focus, such a narrow attention span and limited resources. The more they try to do the less they actually get done

Clearing the snow, like providing basic policing, decent roads, schools that actually teach and hospitals that meet minimal hygiene standards, might be considered the Core Function of any government. Needless to say that the more they try to micro-manage our diets, the shape of bananas and whether or not we think that turbans look funny the less they are able to do any of these things properly.

So no, the snow is not an argument for Big Government. It is an argument for a government that focuses on its core functions and tries to do those well.

The difference between the “big government” and “small government” sides of the debate can be seen in how we look at path clearing.

A small government person would want the councils etc to offer emergency services where necessary – such as during unusually high levels of snow fall.

A big government person would want that as well, along with a hundred and one other extra services added into the mix, even though they are not really necessary and could be considered to be luxuries that shouldn’t be funded by taxpayers but by local residents if THEY wanted them.

I can’t think of a single “small government” person calling for councils to stop clearing pavements of snow – but I can now think of at least one “big government” person who would like to pretend they would.

In guidance to its members, who advise businesses through­out the country the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health said: “When clearing snow and ice, it is probably worth stopping at the boundaries of the property under your control.”

Clearing a public path “can lead to an action for damages against the company, e.g. if members of the public, assuming that the area is still clear of ice and thus safe to walk on, slip and injure themselves”.

As local authorities have, apparently, no legal responsibility to do so I have, as a responsible libertarian, taken on the the risk of litigation by clearing the snow from my section of the pavement. You’re welcome.

You are of course correct that most people buy into the notion that government have a responsibility to protect, nurture and cherish them from cradle to grave and they are happy to pay them to do so. So if you ask whether they would like to be cosseted further, most will say yes. So, no doubt, we will soon have legislation to make councils responsible for clearing pavements and people will no longer be surprised that the government has allowed them to slip and hurt themselves.

Whether this is an outcome to be gloated over rather depends on ones overall perspective.


Talking of being out of date, I suggest you update your knowledge of gas and electricity regulation in the UK. Paying particular attention to what price regulation entails for privateers hoping to cream off monopoly profits.

I don’t see it. If we had private toll roads, we would expect the private road operators to keep them gritted. How is that a case for big government? The question over the scale of government operations isn’t at the level of “should we grit the roads in bad weather” but “should the government own and operate the road network”. The question about gritting is just an operational matter. We’d be asking the same questions and making the same suggestions for improvement if the operators of the roads were private entities.

I’m not sure that the argument holds up on a wider perspective either. “Gritting the roads” involves the provision of a very basic public good, that is nearly universally beneficial and is applied largely indiscriminately, with no interference in or obstruction of people’s daily lives (unless you get stuck behind a gritting truck, I guess). It therefore doesn’t easily fit the profile of the kind of activities that anti-“Big Government” types tend to oppose. One could have a very small government that still gritted the roads, kept basic law and order, managed national defence and kept the lights on without doing much else. Likewise, the argument that “we gritted the roads for you, so you’ll have to submit to ID cards and CRB checks and 28-day detention and a DNA database” doesn’t hold.

9. Alisdair Cameron

Whoa, Sunder. Roads,power supplies,transport etc are infrastructure. Not incompatible with smaller govt at all. Govt should do more of the basics competently (and devolved down to the most local level:even the Fabians agree with that for the future). What should be avoided are the huge, non-infrastructure, intrusive vanity projects that have given rise to the calls for end ‘big’ govt.Furthermore, those calling fro smaller govt aren’t all right-wing-nuts, but include many of those on the left disappointed and dismayed with remote centralised monoliths who seem to love ‘mission creep’ and seek to impose rather than serve (eg ID cards,surveillance and database society, the ISA fiasco etc etc)

No, Sunder.
It offers a case for focussed, competent government.

The opposite of what we have now.

11. Shatterface

Nobody wants to pay gritters to sit around for 10 months waiting for something to do – but they will pay them to do a vital service when needed. Far from making a case for Big Government you’ve made a case for adequate pre-planning and flexible employment contracts.

Maybe those employed snooping on citizens should only be brought in when absolutely necessary rather than attempt to justify their jobs by finding new areas of our lives to stick their beaks in?

Sory to rail metaphorically, on this site’s pro-big government, anti-liberal instincts but it is clear that one factor in the unpreparedness of the authorities for this weather (running down salt stocks etc) is that big government has been resolutely pushing the claim that we are experiencing catastrophic warming.

It is exactly the unwillingness of big government to change direction because it has eliminated competitionn in the market of ideas as much as economics, that enables it to adopt Lysenkoism or Catastrophic Warming scams with such undiluted enthusiasm.

“So I am sure Hannanites of the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Taxpayers Alliance will shortly point out how all of these problems are caused, yet again, by too much regulation rather than too little.”

Not sure I’m a Hannanite but I’m at the ASI.

So, to the problem of road gritting and clearing. Not all that long ago we had a public/private partnership that helped here. Certainly within living memory….Tim at The Englishman’s Castle (who is slightly younger than I am) took part in it. Large numbers of farmers have equipment that can be used to clear or grit roads. Farm machinery, you know. Tractors n’such.

Local councils would make agreements with local farmers. “Look, if it comes down like Satan’s going to need winter woolies, we’ll call you out, OK? Yes, we’ll cover your fuel bills if we do.”

That was pretty much what was needed: there is still voluntarism, community spirit out there. Helped along by having out of pocket expenses covered of course.

And that’s pretty much what did happen. Get a shocker like this winter and local farmers would be out clearing bits off the less major roads. Councils could keep a smaller fleet (saving the ratepayers money: after all, this all happens so infrequently that we don’t need the huge fleets like Moscow) of the necessary machinery and the system, although cobbled together in that make do and mend manner that the English seem to like so much, seemed to work.

Now we don’t have that system. No, I don’t know why, but I’ve seen various explanations bandied about. HMRC is less keen than it used to be for farmers to be using red diesel on the roads, something they would do to do this. And no farmer is going to keep two tanks on one farm, one taxed the other not. Others think it’s a union led manouvre: protect the jobs by not having volunteers. Yet others think it’s ‘elfn’safety: maybe even insurance laws.

As I say, I really don’t know why this system was abandoned. Perhaps Sunder would like to deploy the resources of the Fabian Society and find out for us. Then he could tell us whether it’s about excess regulation or too little regulation?

We need to be more responsible and stop looking to government to fix everything.

It is actually the RAC who are calling for the privatisation of the UK road network.

The author could also have mentioned another thing that I have noticed from Tory-minded people in recent years is concerns about ‘ food security ‘, which appears to conflict with the free market. The idea of benevolent British farmers giving us free food while those nasty foreigners charge us is an intriguing thought. How exactly could one have ‘ food security ‘ without large state subsidy growing food inefficiently in an inappropriate environment?

Facile. I am not a libertarian, am on the left, & I think the government has overextended its reach because it bails out City bankers with massive sums of our money, because it comes out with ill thought out child “protection” schemes that will do more harm than good, because it makes suspects of us all, because in every case it reaches for the “solution” that will increase its own powers, having apparently planned out how to be as much of a cunt as possible (because they certainly haven’t planned out how to make a good policy) & so on.

Yes, there probably is a role for the state in clearing roads, but that hardly nullifies criticisms like those I voice.

I make no comment on roads, just on the way this is spun as indicating some crushing point.

What puzzles me is how are we to decide just how big – or how small – is the optium size for government. What crietria should we apply?

Posing the crucial issue as a binary choice between Big v Small seems to me to be verging on the puerile.

18. Silent Hunter

I don’t think that it’s necessarily “Big Government” that’s the problem Sunder.

It’s the LABOUR Government that’s the problem.

Try to keep up.

Perhaps a start would be getting rid of health and safety regulations and laws that mean I can be sued if I clear the pavement/road outside my house and someone slips on it.

Then some Government 2.0 initiative such as a map of where the gritters will grit (so that you can plan your journey and know whether you need to get shovelling etc).

You don’t need ‘big government’ to deal with snow. You can’t clear the country’s roads from Whitehall. ‘Sensible government’, now there’s an idea.

“Big government v. small government” seems a false dichotomy; what we should be interested in is, for any proposal, whether whether it should be done at all and, if it is to be done, whether it is best done by government or some other public or private means or all of the above.

ISTM, government should be about facilitating the good life – very often this means government getting out of the way (and of course sometimes it doesn’t mean that).

“very often this means government getting out of the way”

As governments on both sides of the Atlantic did with the extensive deregulation of financial markets which led on to recent consequences that were nearly catastrophic and certainly hugely costly for taxpayers.

What’s more, to judge by press reports, bankers look as though they are trying very hard to return to their old practices. What’s worse, in America the recent crisis in financial markets was a bigger and wider replay of Saving & Loan Association debacle of the 1980s and 1990s:

“The savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s (commonly referred to as the S&L crisis) was the failure of 747 savings and loan associations (S&Ls) in the United States. The ultimate cost of the crisis is estimated to have totaled around $160.1 billion, about $124.6 billion of which was directly paid for by the US government — that is, the U.S. taxpayer”

It’s worth reading John Kay on: Unfettered finance has been the cause of all our crises

Some commentators go back further, like Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff: This Time Is Different – Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton UP, 2009)

It seems that Hegel was right:

“What experience and history teach is this – that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” [Philosophy of History]

Again I ask you. What does deregulation of financial markets have to do with snow, & how is it a defence of those elements of NuLab policy that I have aired criticisms of?

You are also aware, surely, that bankers wouldn’t be so cocky, would have learned a few hard lessons about life in the reality-based community, had it not been for the bailout?

I understand what you’re trying to say against hardcore anarcho-libertarianism, but that doesn’t begin to “offer a case for big government” in the ways that the Henry Porters of this world attack.

“What does deregulation of financial markets have to do with snow, & how is it a defence of those elements of NuLab policy that I have aired criticisms of?”

We don’t often have problems in Britain from too much snow but deregulated financial markets have been a persistent cause of crises – see the above link to John Kay in the FT.

As we’ve learned, Brown’s inner circle comprises a small group of highly educated economists so why no action to regulate financial services when we had early warnings of the inflating house-price bubble at least as far back as 2002?

Btw the winter of 1946/7 was much worse than this recent cold spell:

“The winter of 1946–1947 was a harsh European winter noted for its effects in the United Kingdom. The UK experienced several cold spells, beginning on 21 January, 1947, bringing large drifts of snow to the country which caused roads and railways to be blocked. Coal supplies, already low following the Second World War, struggled to get through to power stations and many stations were forced to shut down for lack of fuel.”

Attlee sacked Shinwell, the minister responsible for the coal industry, because he refused to take on Polish miners to increase coal production despite warnings about low coal stocks from cabinet colleagues. The NUM had objected.

That’s as may be, but it doesn’t justify the repeated infringements on civil liberties that are the core of many of teh attacks on “big government”.

I am of the left, & I will agree with bloggertarians on this matter, but disagree with them on others.

Is this one of those ironic piss take posts or what ?

When I was a kid (1970s) there were grit bins on most local roads, especially hills. When there was snow/ice local people would grit the roads. people would clear the pavements outside their own houses. Result – residential pavements were cleared and gritted, as were the most dangerous sections of local roads, by the residents i.e the community.
We now have big government in charge of gritting and a population infantalised to the point of helplesness by big government. Absolutely no local pavements and few local roads have been gritted in the past month, we are running out of/importing salt (yes that valuable commodity salt is in short supply) and much of the local road network is impassable. Meanwhile the government has millions of pounds of valuable “swine flu” vaccine they don’t know what to do with…..
An argument against big govermnet if I ever heard one.

Was it all trees in your day, Twat Munro?

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