The need to balance necessity against liberty hasn't changed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 November, 2010, 12:00am

Although common sense in Hong Kong has long favoured small government and a free market, ironically there has also been a surge in demand for more public services, and government intervention and regulations, in almost every area - housing, health care, education, transport, employment, income maintenance, consumer protection and support for small and medium-sized enterprises.

A pro-intervention developmental regime will take root - 'small government' as understood in the pre-1997 era is no longer sustainable.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung

Executive councillor,

Insight page, Nov. 16

Anthony Cheung and I have crossed swords before on his Big Mother ideas of government and once again I cannot let him get away with this one.

He draws a picture for you of an older world in which life was simple and the crude mechanism of the free market enough to sort out economic difficulties. He then draws a picture of a new world, full of villainy and complexities. Government must now help people get through their lives as it never has before.

I don't buy it. Government has always been interventionist-minded, right throughout history, and people have always recognised that in some areas it must be.

The perpetual question is rather how best to balance administrative necessity against personal liberties, and there is no reason to think that this balance should be much different now from what it has always been. Let's deal with Professor Cheung's list item by item:

Housing: Development regulations have always been the biggest determinant of a city's housing stock. Hong Kong's housing standards are a creation of its land lease policies and building codes. The meanest village in China 3,000 years ago had their equivalent and its appearance was similarly dictated by what the ruling authorities permitted. Only in Taiwan can developers do as they please.

But if Cheung actually means that it is government's job to give all people all they want in housing at their chosen prices, then remind me to get out of the way when he pulls this magic housing supply out of the clouds. That's the only place he or any government will ever find it.

Health care: The book of Leviticus in the Bible, more than 3,000 years old, is a public health manual. Government in any society has always been responsible for public health measures.

Education: Apprenticeships aside, education in older times was mostly the province of religious institutions. Call that public by another name. It provided what was needed.

Transport: China's Grand Canal, fully completed 1,500 years ago, was a public sector project. Rome's Appian Way, 2,000 years old, was a public sector project. Government has always taken responsibility for major transport planning.

Income maintenance: Bread and circuses was the operating principle of government in imperial Rome. Entertain the people but make sure first that they are fed. It has never been wise to do otherwise. 'Let them eat cake,' said Marie Antoinette and off came her head. Governments ignore basic livelihood at their peril. It has always been so.

Consumer protection: People do not get hands chopped off for false weights and measures these days. It could have been their heads in times past if found guilty of counterfeiting. Government has always recognised responsibility here.

Support for small and medium enterprises: But not here. Industrial subsidy is not a natural responsibility of government. All the other categories on Cheung's list involve maintaining a necessary framework for society. Propping up losers does not. Yet our public purse has guaranteed HK$100 billion in loans to small companies that cannot prove they are creditworthy.

I am at loss sometimes to make the distinction here to people who don't understand it and I think Cheung does not. It is often that way with people who spend their lives in public service.

There is a role for government to play, there always has been, and it has always been an extensive role but it's like the car and the driver. The driver can go nowhere without the car but it's not up to the car to tell the driver where to go.

And times have not changed that much. This notion that the world was all private sector in the past and now it must become public sector by force of circumstance is just plain wrong. There is a proper balance to be struck here and there always has been. But we are very much in danger of striking it the wrong way if we adopt Professor Cheung's school of thought.

Life is too dynamic to entrust its direction to bureaucrats that way. We'll go up dead-end lanes and stay there. We'll waste our public resources on unworkable ideas and we'll stick with them much too long. We will, in short, impoverish ourselves and invite ever greater polarisation of our society.