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Government’s functions and need for different Ministries - Part III:

Role of Government in welfare of society

This simplified version of the second chapter of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, published by Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, in 2005, may be interesting in view of concerns throughout the period from 1980 until this year about the size of the Cabinet. Part II appeared yesterday.

While most things are best left in the hands of people, it is essential to ensure a level playing field, to ensure that exploitation is avoided as far as is possible. Exploitation can be by businesses, by government, by special interests and by individuals. It is an essential function of government to provide protection to all citizens against such exploitation.

Amongst the most important areas in this regard is labour, since inevitably employees are under the control of their employers and this can lead to exploitation. For this reason governments regulate working conditions, to ensure reasonable wages as well as job/financial security and also permit unionization, to ensure that workers have representation when problems arise.

Ensure protection to workers at workplaces. File photo

At the same time government should ensure that employees do not, through arbitrary actions, exploit employers to the point at which the functioning of the business, or of any enterprise, becomes impractical. There is also need to prevent monopolies with regard to unionization, so that industrial action is in accordance with wider interests, rather than particular political priorities.

Employment regulations therefore must include provision for arbitration and also the free exercise of choice among workers as to collective action.

Whilst labour regulations were initially among the most important functions of government in industrial society, the increasing power of business also requires effective legislation with regard to restricting monopolies and unfair trade practices. Consumer protection is therefore an essential function of government in the modern era. This requires health and safety regulations, as well as measures to ensure competition.

Another area of vital importance to contemporary society is Environmental Protection. Whilst the activities described above, in terms of agriculture and industry and trade and their facilitation, are essential in any society, given limitations on resources and the environmental impact of such activities, regulations to protect the environment and to ensure sustainable development are vital.

Of course regulations in most fields are necessary to maintain standards and to ensure equitable distribution of resources, in particular those under the control of the government. But the areas discussed in this section are particularly vital for the protection of society in the broadest possible sense and for this purpose any Cabinet should include the following portfolios - Labour Minister, Consumer Affairs Minister and the Environment Minister.

Social concerns

In addition to the above, there are other areas where there may be a role for government. These are what might be termed social and cultural areas, in which certain outcomes may seem desirable. Many countries for instance have Ministries for the Media, for Sports, for Cultural Affairs and for Religious Affairs.

Whilst development of these areas is certainly desirable, the idea that they are the responsibility of the government is of very recent origin and springs from the statist notion that limits the role and the responsibility of other elements in society. Ministers with final authority in such areas should be avoided, since these are areas where political control has generally prevented the freedom essential for the individual, if there is to be continuous development, along with general understanding of the social responsibilities associated with these areas.

Regulation of course is another matter and there is need of monitoring of the activities of the media, of sports bodies, of cultural performances and even of religious bodies. There is also a case for providing funding for activities in these areas, where provision of funding through other sources may be inadequate. But such funding should be provided through independent bodies constituted in a manner that ensures the active involvement of participants in the field, rather than through political decisions.

A clear example of what would be socially productive in these areas is provided by the media. In general it is now recognized that the media should be left to the private sector, albeit with regulations that ensure plurality as well as competition. However, in the context of social and educational concerns that may not be addressed by the private media, in most countries there is provision for public sector broadcasting and telecasting. To leave that to a Media Ministry however would be to invite partisan political involvement that would lose sight of the broader social concerns that should be addressed. In many countries therefore public sector broadcasting is through independent institutions that receive public funding in terms of the particular concerns that are specified in their mandate.

Cultural activities

In order to ensure public interest activity in the above areas then, the ideal would be the creation of a Cultural Affairs and Sports Ministry, which would regulate and monitor activities in these areas and disburse funds as appropriate through institutions established in a manner that ensures their independence. Cultural Affairs could include Religious Affairs, but in this area in particular there should be provision to ensure religious independence and preclude state interference in the activities and organisation of religious orders.

In short, in deciding on the functions of government, we should rely on the basic principle that government should be limited to what it has to do to ensure that citizens of a country can get on with their own lives and their work productively. Obviously, in the modern age, there is much more work for governments than in earlier societies, but this should not mean that government should undertake everything.

Too large a role for government, in addition to the excessive expense involved, would mean that it cannot do properly what it has to do. Apart from ensuring security in every sense for its citizens, it is to empower them through services to function effectively in society, and to facilitate their activities through the provision of infrastructure and the enforcement of regulations that prevent exploitation. Government may also have a role to play in encouraging productive social and cultural activities, but this should be limited to encouragement without moving towards control.

Concluded

 

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