Big government

Jul 28, 2020

The pandemic and Brexit both provide momentum for bigger government – but don’t expect any protestations from the public, writes Dr Brian Keegan.

The late US president, Ronald Reagan, never tired of giving out about big government. It’s a crude measure of the influence of government, but the level of national debt gives us some indication of the gap between what it costs to run a nation and what that nation can legitimately collect in taxes from its citizens.

National debt suffers from spikes and fluctuations from wars, recessions and – as we are now seeing – pandemics. Such things are outside our control. But even when they are within our control, the national debt can grow unexpectedly. Despite Reagan’s protestations, the US national debt grew almost threefold during his eight years in office.

The current pandemic will not grow the national debt of either Ireland or the UK by a comparable amount, but that is a factor of the scale of the existing national debt. Perhaps a better way to assess the impact of government is to look at the number of government agencies we now must deal with. Ireland’s Comptroller and Auditor General has almost 300 departments and organisations to scrutinise during his audit and assurance work. The UK National Audit Office looks over 400 or so UK government entities. As if to catch up, the new Irish Government’s programme makes over 20 references to the creation of new agencies or to increasing the remit of existing ones.

The creation of agencies drives public sector jobs. The Institute of Public Administration recently noted that public sector employment in the Republic of Ireland exceeded 300,000 back in 2018, thus restoring staffing to pre-great recession levels. Before the pandemic struck, public sector employment in Northern Ireland exceeded 200,000. While most of our fellow citizens in the public sector are involved in service delivery, a lot of them are involved in regulation.

We are already seeing how the pandemic is driving government size. Over the past few months, much of the Institute’s advocacy work has been about brokering arrangements with government – both north and south – to make things like the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme and the Job Retention Scheme work better on the ground. Ensuring that these schemes work well is vital, but they take up time, eating into the capacity of both our members in business and our members in practice to deliver other added-value services. Other business supports like state-backed loan guarantee schemes are also going to bring an additional burden of compliance, assurance and red tape.

Brexit too is providing momentum for bigger government. The UK Government is duplicating many control and regulatory functions that were previously unnecessary because of EU treaty arrangements or because they were within the purlieu of European institutions. This pattern is being replicated across Europe. For instance, the Revenue Commissioners were to hire 500 additional customs officers to do the additional cross-border trade checks along with apparently 750 in the Netherlands, 700 in France, and close to 400 in Belgium.

By and large, business on the island of Ireland benefits from the degree of State regulation. Yet, its role in attracting and securing foreign direct investment by creating a safer investment environment can get overlooked. On the other hand, businesses do not exist to carry out paperwork. This tension was always there. What the pandemic has changed is the political appetite to increase regulation.

I think any Reaganesque political campaign promising smaller government would be unlikely to succeed these days. Even if politicians were minded to rein in the regulatory horses, the pandemic has created a greater willingness among the general public on this island to be governed, as evidenced by the almost blanket acceptance of the strictures of lockdown.

Dr Brian Keegan is Director of Advocacy & Voice at Chartered Accountants Ireland.