The greatest irony about modern democracy is that it is in the name of democracy and consent that vast powers have been accumulated by government and the liberties and real wishes of the people denied.
Modern democracy was the product of the struggle to contain the power of government, then represented by the King. The King was able to govern against the wishes of the people on account of his extensive prerogatives and the vast patronage he commanded with which he was able to control even members of Parliament. After a century of struggle Parliament was able drastically to reduce the King's power and, to extend the franchise to the people. The Ministers of State became responsible to Parliament rather than to the King and Parliament itself became representative of the people. A century later, the wheel appears to have turned the full circle. Governments are no longer effectively responsible to Parliament and Parliament has largely ceased to represent the actual wishes of the people. The government is led by the party which has come to power by making extravagant promises to the electorate. Actual government policy is determined by trade-offs between powerful interest groups.
Looking back at the decades of socialisation, social control and steadily expanding government, one finds it difficult to understand how a population mainly committed to so called conservative values has permitted such a development. The popular belief is that the welfare state and the immense powers needed to administer it were created by the people's democratic choice. In recent years a wealth of information has emerged from the work of economists and philosophers which effectively disproves this theory. This work, mainly represented by the so called "public choice" theorists have demonstrated that what has been implemented as popularly accepted programs have more often than not been measures which have been directed to serve particular sectional interests. They have shown that the way in which modern democracy operates has been conducive to the prevalence of special interests over the interests of a genuine majority of people. What passes for majority opinion is often a deal struck among collusive interest groups and government.
An important reason why the welfare state was not resisted was because the public was neither aware nor informed about the costs it entailed in terms of money and personal freedom. At elections governments merely promise welfare. They do not at the same time demand extra revenue or enlarged powers. If such demands accompanied the promises it is highly unlikely that the people would have accepted them. Once elected on such a platform governments assume that they have the mandate to impose taxes and to regulate personal lives and the economy in order to deliver on their promises. It took a long time even for economists to realise the full cost of welfare in economic and social terms.
However there is another explanation of the growth of the welfare state which is rarely considered in the discussion of public policy. That is the extent to which the proponents of socialisation and big government have perfected and applied the art of public deception. The recent and contemporary political history of Australia is replete with evidence of such deception. Not only does government ignore the broader interests but it often successfully hides its true intentions in proclaiming and implementing policy. Programs are dressed in moderate garb and are presented to the electorate as measures consistent with the liberal and individualistic tradition widely shared in the community. In truth they represent radical measures aimed at transforming the economic and social life of the community. Medicare and Affirmative Action are prime examples of this type of deception.
Although the welfare state was not initially the product of the genuine wishes of the people, it has now made large numbers of people dependent upon it. It has produced a kind of social addiction to welfare. People are reluctant to relinquish benefits they have learnt to take for granted.
If the size of government is to be scaled down, it is essential to communicate the message that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that the welfare philosophy has been mainly responsible for the economic decline and the social decay of this nation (Australia).