For a long time debates about the role of government centred around size. This was meant literally, not just in terms of how much government taxed and spent, but in how many people work for the government.
However, as automation and technology continue to advance, the role of government must be reassessed, and old certainties questioned.
How many people does the government really need?
In the 2012 Presidential Debate, President Obama and Mitt Romney sparred over the size of the Navy, which was at its lowest number of ships in decades.
Romney criticized Obama for the decline, while Obama retorted that “We also have fewer horses and bayonets.”
Obama’s point was that advancing technology lets us do more with less.
This same thinking needs to be applied to the government as a whole.
Most of what the government does falls into two categories:
- Move money around
- Transfer information
With money increasingly existing only digitally and advanced computers cheaper than ever, those two tasks no longer require as many people.
This is happening in the private sector, as more and more jobs are subject to automation. So far, government has remained a bulwark against this trend, maintaining high levels of both workers and pay.
However, because all government money is first taken from taxpayers, this is an incredible inefficiency.
This means that the more technology advances, the more taxpayers are paying more than they need to in order to fund extra government workers making above the market wage.
This is good for some government workers and politicians, but it’s not so good for the rest of us.
It also contributes to income inequality, as government workers with high pay and good job security fund their salaries at the expense of working people and the middle class.
The reason the government continues to escape from the same trend affecting the private sector is that the debate on government remains stuck in the past.
We are caught in a battle between those who want government to do less and be smaller, and those who want government to do more and be bigger.
But technology offers a third option, a smaller government that does more.
Just as apps like Uber have replaced the middleman of taxi dispatch services, so can technology replace the middleman of a vast government bureaucracy.
This change would have to happen over time, with respect for current workers and getting people used to more automated systems.
But it needs to happen. Imagine a government mostly run by computers – with appropriate backups and human oversight.
The potential for greater efficiency combined with lower cost makes it possible to imagine truly paying less and getting more.
Rethinking the role of government could result in a Guaranteed Income
A guaranteed income could be the culmination of expanding automation and a computer-driven government. If all social welfare programs are replaced with automated payments – payments keeping every citizen out poverty – the government would be playing a big role while being incredibly small in terms of administration levels and costs.
Getting to that point will require a discussion in our society and a recognition of the incredible possibilities of change.
It is a discussion we need to start having. It will require breaking out of the old political debate which keeps us trapped in the failed patterns of the past.
A new era requires a new way of thinking, and a new way of thinking requires a new kind of government. Rethinking the role of government can open up a future greater than anything we can imagine.