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Thursday, 10 June 2010

Governments and Quality of Life

Protecting us from foreign enemies is one of the things advocates of the minimal state accept that the minimal state should do, even if some think the job should be sub-contracted to private mercenaries. They will usually throw in policing. It's rather similar: it's supposed to protect us from domestic enemies.

In both cases, you need the state because you can't rely on your neighbours. They may be neighbourly but not neighbourly enough when it comes to laying down their lives to protect you and yours.

Unfortunately, it's a common complaint against modern policing that it's not there for really difficult and dangerous situations. The police as a government bureaucracy are much happier passing their time issuing fixed penalty notices than dealing with fathers threatening to kill their daughters and doing so (honour killings) or council estate teenagers targetting vulnerable people until they are driven to suicide. Why put yourself at risk when you could be sitting in the police station meeting targets? But that's another matter.

Sometimes overlooked is the capacity of the state to dramatically improve quality of life for people who would find it hard to organise themselves to achieve such improvements. In recent years, across Europe, the single most important government measure which has improved quality of life is the smoking ban. Dramatic, cheap and effective.

There are many other areas in which governments could have similar effects in freeing people from the anti-social behaviour of others, but have been slow to act. That is because there is no tax gain from acting unless punitive taxation is used as an alternative to an outright ban. Here are a few examples of things which would demonstrably improve quality of life:

- Ban dogs entirely from public beaches, public parks, and public pavements. Really, ban them from urban areas. Result? Quieter neighbourhoods, a big reduction in injuries to children and postmen, no dog shit to sit on or walk on.

- Ban car alarms.

- Abolish public holidays, add them to individual holiday entitlements and allow workers to negotiate their time off to suit their own preferences. Google returns 103,000 results for the phrase "Bank Holiday washout". Abolish public holidays and you could expect your Town Hall and Doctor's Surgery to remain open on all those Mondays that they currently shut, and for your refuse to be collected. In short, the public sector could discover the word Rota.

- Accept that in urban areas pigeons, rats, foxes and landgulls really do spoil things for people as well as creating an assortment of health hazards. Bring back proper pest control.

- Try to achieve a better balance between meeting the needs of those who work and want to sleep and those who don't work and want to party. Over the period 1997 - 2007the government freed up pub and club opening hours with the consequence that pubs and clubs in some areas deprived local people of the possibiliy of relaxing and sleeping peacefully at home. An odd choice of policy priority.

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