The below op-ed was published in the AFR today under the title Let People be Free to Choose (need subscription).
Apparently, the only people in our society smart and responsible enough to make important life decisions are politicians and bureaucrats. They make decisions about where we should spend our money, which hobbies are appropriate, and how much risk we should accept.
The reason for this government control is the perception that some people can’t live without help and guidance. While some liberals object to this paternalism, such sentiments are clearly popular with a majority of Australians.
But many people in Australia can look after themselves and make their own life decisions. It is neither necessary nor appropriate to treat all Australians as dependent on the government. We can help those who need help without extending welfare and behavioural control to people who are at least as competent as politicians in managing their own life.
One option is to allow Australians who need help to “declare dependence” on the state.
We could also allow Australians who clearly don’t need government control to “declare independence.”
Allowing some individuals to declare independence from the welfare and nanny states would not harm anybody else. Independent people would still pay tax, and would still need to follow laws that prevent them from directly harming others. People who didn’t claim independence could continue living exactly as efore.
People would take pride in declaring independence, and independent people would also escape welfare churn. At the moment, every year $90 billion of is returned to the people who paid it, through schemes, rebates, subsidies, and services. An independent person could choose not to receive these welfare benefits, and would not pay this portion of their tax.
Once somebody is clearly self-sufficient, there is no “public good” argument for managing their decisions.
Indeed, if we are not going to trust law-abiding, self-sufficient people with lifestyle decisions like how much they put into superannuation or whether they smoke a joint, it seems strange that we trust them with responsibilities that affect others more, such as voting, driving, and having children. If we don’t trust anybody with making simple lifestyle decisions for themselves, why do we assume that politicians and bureaucrats have a superhuman ability to make the right choices for them?
Declaring dependence would be the reverse of declaring independence. Dependent people would be assisted in paying living expenses, getting decent health and education opportunities, finding a job, and maintaining a home. As they would be net recipients from the government, they should not pay tax.
But such people would admit they were unable to manage their own lives and were volunteering for greater bureaucratic control over their decisions. It would make sense to ban them from risky activities that might lead to self-harm and make them a drain on the public purse, and to force them to do other things, like investing for retirement, that would make them less reliant on welfare. More dramatically, it might make sense for dependent people to forfeit their right to vote.
People should also be able to choose to continue living their present, semi-dependent and semi-controlled lives. But if we want to deal with the growing problems of tax-welfare churn and a shrinking sphere of individual choice, we need to let free people choose to live without excessive government intervention.
(John Humphreys is one of the authors of Declaring Dependence, Declaring Independence: Three Essays on the Future of the Welfare State, published by the Centre for Independent Studies on Wednesday)