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Structure, Remit, and Size of Government


It is true that different sized government is sometimes required for problems of different dimensions. However, it is equally clear that most problems can be dealt with best by human-sized associations which have better knowledge of the challenges faced by citizens, a higher moral stake in seeing efficacious solutions implemented, greater transparency, as well as a higher capacity for moral empathy. In this chapter I draw on the principle of subsidiarity to set out a case for highly decentralised government with a carefully defined remit, augmented by larger associations only when the necessity for scale dictates. I also explain how a balance can be maintained between the centralising tendencies of higher tier governments and the decentralised authorities that I champion. I conclude with some observations regarding the needless costs incurred because of the failure to match coronavirus policy to human-sized government.


Power-hungry premiers know that we’ll never eliminate Covid…most Covid-19 infections now pose a greater threat to public freedoms and economic activity than they do public health (Kenny, 2021).

For human beings seem to desire ruling power in the same way that the sick desire health (Aquinas, 2007, p. 3196).

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  1. 1.

    Subsidium involves providing help only for bona fide need, and then in a way that makes it superfluous as quickly as possible. Providing subsidium for wants, or failing to build-in redundancy, does not respect the compulsory donor and also, perversely, encourages dependency contrary to human dignity (see Drew, 2020).

  2. 2.

    There is some doubt regarding the population of ancient Athens: one estimate places it at 30,000 citizens (plus slaves and resident aliens), another provides a ceiling of no more than 40,000 males (Dahl, 1967). In any event, it was far less than any modern nation state, and even less than some local governments.

  3. 3.

    Because people tend to congregate in areas where similarly minded citizens reside it is quite likely that a national minority might find itself to be in a majority in a much more decentralised government area. Thus a group that could barely register as a voice on a national podium, might control a decentralised government (or at least be audible).

  4. 4.

    We have only to pause a few moments and compare levels of crime and vice in current times to other moments in modern history, when most people attended religious services, to understand the importance of religious associations to the good life and good society.

  5. 5.

    Being free to indulge in vice does not necessarily set one at liberty – instead a vice-ridden person becomes captive of their animal lusts and desires (a far cry from a flourishing human being – see Chap. 2).

  6. 6.

    A fact that seems to have been lost on the architects of the excessively draconian COVID restrictions in many countries such as Australia.

  7. 7.

    One example is the legalisation and listing on the stock market of brothel enterprises and marijuana suppliers.

  8. 8.

    Because doing so denies others the existential space and also exposes communities to risk which is the key justification for profit taking (but something that most citizens generally don’t feel is inherent to government). Indeed, any risk taken – even when for the highest motives – should be explicitly acknowledged and consented to by the citizenry during the course of practical reasoning.

  9. 9.

    There is an implicit incentive for each decentralised government to do less than their fair share, knowing that the efforts of others will ultimately protect them – essentially the problem noted by Trump in relation to NATO.

  10. 10.

    These are matters where unilateral action by one or more decentralised governments would be ineffective because low barriers would mean that people and capital could simply move to a different decentralised government. For example, it would be futile for one decentralised government to introduce a moratorium on international immigration (or require minimum standards of language proficiency) unless all did so, because people would simply avail themselves of internal migration after arrival in the country.

  11. 11.

    I acknowledge that even nations often do not have sufficient control over the movement of capital for taxation purposes – hence the recent OECD proposal for collaboration on a minimum corporate tax rate. Thus it may well be the case that nations will have to enter into federations subsequent to the assignment of powers to the central government (see also the next section on the size and shape of international federations).

  12. 12.

    The purpose of a horizontal equalisation grant is to allow all decentralised governments to be able to offer a basic level of public goods and services through reasonable effort (see Drew, 2021). The need arises because some regions are simply poorer than others – due to the distribution of natural resources, or patterns of settlement and industrialisation.

  13. 13.

    Indeed, Aquinas (2007) uses the fear that people would be led into the vice of greed by traders as a reason for insisting on self-sufficiency.

  14. 14.

    This might be restated as: at one extreme of size, then, the people have maximum human dignity, but cannot flourish due to a lack of common good; at the other, they have a potential surfeit of common good but very little dignity.

  15. 15.

    Arising from the preference of one location over another – for instance, my wife would be willing to pay considerably more to live by the sea, while I strongly prefer the countryside.

  16. 16.

    That is, the concern relates to public goods, merit goods, and goods with positive externalities. For private goods paid for in full by fees there is no real correspondence problem.

  17. 17.

    It is not lost on me that a considerable democratic deficit has emerged in Australia after the removal of explicit citizen education from most high school curriculum. Indeed, standing in lines at polling booths one immediately realises that many people have no idea of the remit of various tiers of government and no idea of policy positions (let alone more weighty concepts such as the common good). Clearly a vote made in ignorance is a worthless expression of voice that undermines the political legitimacy of any government.

  18. 18.

    Voice options are amplified by each vote having relatively more power, more direct access to decision makers, and (especially) sortition. Exit options are amplified mainly because there will generally be more alternatives to choose from within a reasonable distance of a current abode (the latter reduces some of the intangible costs of moving).

  19. 19.

    An example of this gaming occurred a few years back when state MP for NSW, Adam Marshall, conveniently moved up to Armidale from a few hundred kilometres away to putatively study at the university there. A ‘surprise’ by-election occurred a little while later and Mr. Marshall took full advantage of his situation.

  20. 20.

    Indeed, according to Headlam (1890) the Athenians used sortition specifically for the purpose of ensuring mediocrity in the appointment of bureaucrats for presumably the same reason – that is, knowledge of where true power often lies.

  21. 21.

    For many years I have noted that the hiring policy for key consulting outfits seems to revolve around engaging recently retired senior public servants who then use their close contacts with former colleagues to procure a steady stream of lucrative work.

  22. 22.

    Not so long ago a politician caught having an affair would be hounded by the press and ultimately forced to resign. However, more recently people like the current Deputy Prime Minister of Australia – who deserted his wife and children to live with his pregnant staffer – have publicly declared their grievous vice and been spared (even applauded by some media). I am extremely concerned about the more frequent and brazen disregard for morality, but this has nothing to do with being prudish. Politicians have made a deliberate decision to seek both the power and the trust of the community. Furthermore, trust is critically important in public policy because of both information asymmetries as well as the uncertainty of public interventions: if people haven’t shown themselves worthy of the trust placed in them by their spouse and children, then how are the public supposed to rationally trust them in much larger matters?


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Drew, J. (2022). Structure, Remit, and Size of Government. In: Natural Law & Government. Springer, Singapore.

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