Government Intervention

Limited government – Ideal State

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning

Limited Government; Ideal State – Part IV

By Dhananath Fernando

This article completes Advocata’s four-piece series on “limited government”. Over the past three weeks, we have presented three arguments in favour of a limited government. We began the series by delving into the mounting costs associated with a government of this size. The article questioned the rationale behind expenditure on this scale, given that the services provided by the Government are characteristically inefficient. Erratic power cuts and railway strikes seen in the recent past are testament to this. From here, the series explored the question of how a government can best serve its citizens.

The main argument presented was that when the powers and responsibilities of the State are decentralised, voters are given a stronger voice and are better able to hold elected officials accountable. The result is that public finances are better managed and service delivery improves. The last topic tackled in this series was that of corruption, expanding on how the window of opportunity for corruption widens when a government grows in scope as well as physical size, without the necessary governance and accountability measures in place. All three articles concluded on the same point – the size and role of the Government needs to be re-visited.

At a fundamental level, a government exists to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. This is the first and foremost responsibility of a government and it is vital that this is given priority. The danger of governments expanding into other sectors is that these foundational responsibilities are pushed to the sidelines. When a government provides subsidies, creates price ceilings, and gives ad hoc handouts, it loses incentive to focus on its priorities. Giving a subsidy has an immediate impact on its voters and a cycle of instant gratification begins. Parallel to election cycles, governments now have an easier, quicker method to win over voters. Ensuring the rule of law and enshrining the negative freedoms of a population does not have the shiny appeal of a handout – the positive, virtuous cycles these freedoms and protections create are strong, they can permeate institutions and change cultures of work. However, they can take years to come into effect and are difficult concepts to convey through the flashy advertisements of an election campaign.

Of course, this means that governments respond to the attractive incentive of a quick win and an extended term in office, and prioritises the handout over the fundamentals of freedom. As much as these freedoms can create virtuous cycles of growth and development, the neglect and deterioration of these freedoms can create dangerous cycles of corruption, misuse, and violence.

The best way to illustrate these dangerous cycles is through the justice system. Unfortunately, we witnessed first-hand the aftermath of the Easter attacks where virulent rhetoric against the Muslim community resulted in riots, with 500 Muslim-owned shops being attacked and set on fire. In the face of this outbreak of violence, the rule of law was flagrantly abused, and peace was not upheld.

Eammon Butler, in his book “Foundations of a Free Society”, expounds on this in some detail. According to him, the rules of justice are a cornerstone of any free society. While rules of justice would mean there are penalties for harming other people, in a free society, emphasis is also given to ensuring the role and power of a government is strictly limited. This will mean that the monopoly over violence a government has will not be used arbitrarily or in the self-interest of those who wield it. To quote: “The main problem of political organisation is not how to choose our leaders – that is easy – but how to restrain them.”

This seems reasonable and rational. No one wants an army-running rampant – you want to ensure the people with the guns and ammunition have clear rules on when and why they can use it. Most governments recognise this and have mechanisms such as constitutions and the separation of the executive, legislature, and judiciary to restrain those in positions of power. But the foundation of this is to ensure that citizens are all treated equally under the law – that all laws apply equally to all citizens and there is equal treatment and due process of justice. For freedom to have meaning, it has to apply equally to the whole population. When this does not take place and there is essentially a break down in the rule of law, the immediate impacts might seem inconsequential. It might mean that someone gets out on bail when maybe they shouldn’t. It might mean that tariffs are raised to protect politically important local business interests. Taken alone, these are singular events, which, while problematic, don’t cause much consternation. However, this is a slippery slope which often ends in widespread corruption in the best case, and a complete breakdown of law and order in other instances.

Once again, recent events illustrate that all citizens are not treated equally under the law, and that instances where law and order break down are increasing in frequency. The Wennappuwa Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) Chairman issuing a letter prohibiting Muslim traders from conducting business at the Dankotuwa Market is a case in point. It is of utmost importance that steps are taken to ensure the rule of law is maintained, and the Government prioritises its core functions putting the safety and freedom of all its citizens at the forefront.

Less spending, less corruption

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning

Why should we have a limited government? – Part III

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

The World Bank quite simply defines corruption as the “abuse of public office for private gain”. Accordingly, public office can be abused when private agents actively offer or accept bribes, institute practices of patronage and nepotism, and engage in the theft of state assets or misuse public funds. In Sri Lanka, corruption has become institutionalised and can range from the traffic policeman who accepts a bribe to a high-ranking bureaucrat siphoning public money for personal expenses.

In 2018, Sri Lanka ranked 89th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. As a country, we score 38 out of 100, with 100 representing a clean, corruption-free country. The magnitude of this problem is clear.

What’s the big deal about corruption?


Is corruption really bad? You can’t deny that when your garbage is piling up, it’s easier to bribe the garbage collectors to take your garbage than visit your municipal council and file a complaint. Sometimes, it can just be easier to pay a bribe to the traffic police than go to court and settle a traffic violation, or to pay a little extra and get your driving license renewed faster. These are all very mundane, commonplace occurrences that have become normalised to the point one does not think of it as “corruption”. It’s just a small payment to make your life a little easier – a small payment to ensure an application is processed smoothly. So, if corruption can make things simpler, what’s the issue?

While corruption on this scale can appear to be insignificant, in reality, it is one component of a much larger, systemic problem which has far-reaching consequences. Corruption in government is institutional, and given the outsized role the Sri Lankan Government plays in markets and business, the impact is far-reaching. The difficulty in holding government officials accountable and the considerable discretion they can wield creates an environment in which corruption can flourish.

The far-reaching impacts of corruption

Large corruption scandals often focus on the amount of money that has been misused, placing emphasis on face value loss that is created by corruption. However, the impact of one act of bribery or corruption goes far beyond the initial monetary loss. Corruption raises the transaction costs of conducting business and creates uncertainty in the market. In an environment where corruption flourishes, a business will not win a contract based on merit and skill alone. Procurement-related issues (read: corruption) associated with the Kerawalapitiya Power Plant meant that it took three years to award the tender. This lowers profitability within firms and creates an overall environment of uncertainty which discourages foreign investment. The result is that the positive spillover effects from investments, like increased competition and technology transfers, will not take place. Corruption also reduces the attractiveness of entrepreneurship, resulting in higher prices and lower quality. The problem does not end there. The culture of corruption is one of impunity and complete disregard for the rule of law. When this culture permeates the government, it affects the independence and credibility of the legislature and the judiciary – the very institutions which should be ensuring that the rule of law is upheld.

State-Owned Enterprises and corruption

Sri Lanka’s state-owned enterprises are a prime example of institutionalised corruption. In Advocata’s flagship report, the State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka – 2019, the problem of corruption is a key issue tackled. In this report, corruption is explained through the perverse incentives that exist in the Sri Lankan bureaucracy. In the case of state-owned enterprises, as the money invested in state-owned enterprises is not of the politicians, there are no incentives for politicians to work towards making these enterprises efficient or productive. However, given the deep-rooted culture of patronage that exists in Sri Lanka, there is a strong incentive for politicians to use state-owned enterprises for their own gain. The lack of oversight or accountability means politicians can hire almost indiscriminately, giving out jobs for political gain. The reports from the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE) make this abundantly clear, highlighting the numerous instances where recruitment had taken place without the appropriate approval from the Department of Management Services.

This problem is exacerbated by weak systems of accountability and governance. While the COPE and the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) do play a role in the governance of state-owned enterprises, they have access to limited resources and equipment and are in need of specialised skills such as legal aid.

What is the solution?

If corruption is the abuse of public office for private gain, then in order to stop corruption, we should focus our attention on how and where this abuse happens. When the government moves outside its core mandate to protect life, liberty, and property, it grows in size and in scope, making the government difficult to monitor and hold accountable. Additionally, as a government grows in size, so does its spending. Changing a culture of corruption will take a great deal of political will and leadership, as well as buy-in from the bureaucracy. While accountability and transparency play an important role in countering corruption, the effects of this are seen in the long term. In the short term, focus should be on limiting the scope of the government and thereby drastically reducing government spending. A 10% cut of Rs. 3 million is significantly lower than a 10% cut of Rs. 300 million; reducing government spending is the fastest way to reduce corruption in quantitative terms. A reduction in government spending will also make transparency within the government easier to enforce, helping create a culture of accountability.

If we are to seriously tackle the problem of corruption in government, the role and scope of the government needs to be revisited and limited.

Decentralisation: Taking governance to the ground level

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning

Why should we have a limited government? – Part II

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

When speaking of a limited government, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that governments tend to be so expansive. A plethora of ministries and an innumerable amount of departments and agencies spring to mind. However, it is important to keep in mind that when speaking of a limited government, the rationale goes far beyond arguing for fewer ministries and reducing the duplication of work and responsibilities within the government system. A limited government is one that is limited in scope – it identifies its key functions and expends all resources to achieve them. When speaking of the role of the government, its primary functions can be described as the protection of life, liberty, and property. When a government’s main role expands beyond this, there is a strong likelihood that the government will prove to be ineffective and even harmful.

How can a limited government run a country?

It’s all well and good to say that the role of the State should be limited to the protection of life, liberty, and property, but governments also provide a myriad of public goods. Doing all this requires resources, people, and departments. Given that this requires a significant amount of administration, how do you ensure the government does this effectively, while staying within its key mandate and with minimal corruption or abuse of power?

Can decentralisation be the answer?


Why should Sri Lanka move away from a centralised system of governance and increase the levels of decentralisation in the country? While there are some very theoretical explanations for decentralisation (which are important in their own right), we will use a simpler approach. In a population of approximately 21 million diverse people with different interests, preferences, and disposable incomes, how do markets allocate resources efficiently? Any A/L economics student will reply with the brief answer of the “invisible hand”. In reality, of course, there is no puppet master moving fruits and vegetables from one place to another. Each individual business acts in their own self-interest, resulting in a more efficient allocation of resources. Prices signal to these businesses – and the profits or losses these businesses make guide decisions to produce or sell – and thus, without the convening of committees or the presentation of any findings, an entire country is provided with goods and services it requires. William Easterly sums up this phenomenon as such: “The wonder of markets is that they reconcile the choices of myriad individuals”.

Price signalling works well in allocating resources because at any given point of time, it is impossible for one bureaucrat, or even a host of committees of bureaucrats, to have all the information necessary to dictate the production and distribution of a single good in an economy, much less all goods in an economy. This is because information and knowledge are localised, time sensitive, and tacit. In other words, information and knowledge cannot be transferred effectively in their entirety or in time. The fall of the Soviet Union is a testament to this.

What do markets have to do with decentralisation?

The same principle applies. The decision-making in a market economy is never centralised. While decentralisation will, of course, function differently – the spontaneous order created by price signalling in markets will not be making administrative decisions – the principle that centralised decisions are not effective stands. The reason behind this is that the information problems, which plague centralised decision-making of economics, also plague centralised decision-making for administration and governance. As much as a bureaucrat will find it impossible to distribute exactly the number of potatoes required to each province of this country, it is equally difficult for a bureaucrat to be located in a central government and to take decisions on local infrastructure. Any decision taken at a central level will not be ideal. There will always be information and local contexts that a bureaucrat is not privy to, and as a result, the decision will not be as effective.

Decentralisation brings governance and administration down to the ground level – it means decisions are taken by local government authorities who are best placed to make that decision. They are aware of local contexts and have been elected into office by the people in the locality, which would mean they have an understanding of what is needed. Of course, where the rule of law is weak, decentralisation can mean that local government authorities succumb to crony capitalism, as a system it is not without its faults. However, when comparing central governance and decentralised governance, in the case of decentralisation, there is greater opportunity for electorates to hold their representatives accountable, make their demands heard, and push for the reform that they want. In other words, it puts more power with the people and makes elected individuals more accountable to their voters – an admirable objective not only in principle, but also because of its effectiveness.

The burden of unprecedented costs

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning

Why should we have a limited government? – Part I

By Dilshani Ranawaka

“The government that governs best, governs least” – Thomas Jefferson

A state has three core tasks within a society: Protecting the life, liberty, and property of the people. As societies evolved, these core tasks were overlooked when more emphasis was given to managing economies. Should the state intervene in economic affairs? Would that be more beneficial to the economy and society?

For the following four weeks, “The coordination problem” will discuss why large governments cause more harm than good when they engage in tasks beyond ensuring freedom and security of the citizens and the rule of law.

The series titled “Why should we have a limited government?” will justify why large governments are a bane to the economy through arguments on costs, problems of coordination, and corruption. The series will then conclude with a fourth piece on what an ideal state looks like.

It is intuitive that larger governments incur larger costs. This takes place through two avenues: recurrent expenditures and management expenditures. The present Government has lost count of the number of enterprises the State owns, as revealed by the Advocata Institute’s recently published report “The State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka – 2019”.

As of 2017, 1,389,767 of the labour force in Sri Lanka are employed in the public service. This is around 14.5% of the labour force. The enormity of these numbers is clear when compared with developed countries. For instance, Canada, which has a population of 37.6 million, has a public sector of 262,696, according to the official Government of Canada website, making it clear that a government does not need to be expansive even in the instance of a large population.

To make things even worse, the Government introduces salary increments either at the onset of an election or during a new budget proposal, instead of having increments dependent on performance.

With the recently proposed increment of Rs. 10,000 for the public sector, the expenditure for wages adds up to Rs. 768 billion for the year. This is around 25% of the government’s expenditure, as per the Budget in 2019. This exceeds the amount allocated for public investment (Rs. 756 billion) for the year 2019, which is around 24% of the budgeted expenditure for this year.

These complicated numbers bring questions to mind: Is providing jobs a role of a government? What is the opportunity cost? What are the indirect consequences? What is the concealed political gain from this process?

A state’s role goes beyond providing job opportunities. Some of the crucial elements a state should look into are national defence and maintaining law and order. The Easter attacks and ensuing events highlighted that the Government should be focusing more on its core functions before moving beyond.

Furthermore, when looking retrospectively at political campaigns, politicians target the votes of government officers mainly through the introduction of wage increments. While increments are positive incentives for productivity, politicians use them for popularity. In such cases, two factors increase the costs for the government. Since larger governments require more state officers for administration purposes, the costs incurred just for administration purposes increase. When politicians promising higher increments become popular, the cost burden for the government piles up.

Every decision made in the economy has an opportunity cost. A state could allocate resources either for consumption or for investments. Investments generate direct income in the long run while consumption creates effective demand which indirectly generates income. Given this backdrop, it is important to answer why unregulated and irresponsible expenditure by a state is catastrophic.

Let us explain through a simple example. If a household spends on consumption which does not generate income, the household has to resort to loans. A similar argument can be transposed towards a state. If a state spends on consumption (in this case the cost for expansion of the government), they have to utilise other methods such as loans or taxes which are reflected back on the taxpayers of the country. These wage expenditures incurred by the government are utilised for consumption most of the time. Alternatively, if politicians stop promising salary increments and reduce the size of the government, these wages could be utilised for public investments – a critical requirement for economic growth and long-term income generation.

Cost Burden

Leaving vital services aside, what do state officers incur to the government? Losses or revenues? Would an additional state officer cover the cost of their wages and generate revenue through their productivity? Would it increase the efficiency of the department? These questions should be standard criteria before unnecessarily expanding particular state departments. The experience one has at most government institutions speaks for the inefficiency that plagues these institutions.

What is the underlying cause of incompetence of the State in Sri Lanka? If the government is supposed to facilitate services, why do they operate their entities in a manner they generate losses? Why do we constantly see power cuts through the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) if larger governments are meant to provide better services? Could we keep our trust on the State, given the way they function with our money?

Do larger governments function better? The evidence seems to indicate otherwise.