“Big government” is often portrayed as the enemy of human freedom and economic vitality. “Small government”, by contrast, argue proponents, leaves citizens relatively free from government interference, and is the key to a successful economy.
In the UK and elsewhere, this plays into an ideological debate about “shrinking the state”, with Conservatives arguing that cutting overall levels of taxation and government spending will produce a better society.
When one thinks of the term “small government” one tends to think of the United States, and perhaps Singapore, the Middle Eastern Gulf States and Australia. “Big” governments, meanwhile, might include Communist states like Cuba, and China, and some of the more socialist European nations such as Sweden and France. Britain, with its strong welfare state combined with a neo-liberal economy, is often seen as something of a “big” and “small” government hybrid.
But what does the economic data tell us? Who are the world’s biggest of “big” governments, who are the smallest, and how do they compare?
A look at the latest data published by the US-based think-tank the Heritage Foundation (an organisation not noted for its socialist tendencies) seems to throw up some surprising answers to these questions.
According to these figures, the 10 countries with the lowest recorded “tax burden” (ie. the percentage of annual GDP taken in taxation by the government) were:
Equatorial Guinea (2.4%)
Saudi Arabia (5.4%)
The 10 countries with the lowest recorded “government expenditure” (as a percentage of overall annual GDP) were:
Dominican Republic (15.7%)
Central African Republic (15.9%)
According to these measures, both the United States and (albeit less surprisingly) Britain appear to be a fair way off these countries on the “small government” scale. According to the Heritage Foundation, the US has an overall “tax burden” of 24.8% and government expenditure of a stonking 41.7% of GDP. The UK government, meanwhile, takes 35% of GDP and spends 49.1%.
Even more surprisingly, based on the Heritage Foundation’s figures, it might appear that the smallest of small governments in the world right now is Burma – a country not noted, to put it mildly, either for its respect for human freedom or for its vibrant economy.
The prominence of Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Libya, Sudan on the “low taxation” list is also striking, given, again, that these are not places where freedom can be accused of flourishing. Less surprising are Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But while these certainly fare better economically, all have dubious human rights records, and Saudi Arabia has one of the most repressive governments in the world.
The US thinktank Freedom House last year rated 9 countries as the “worst of the worst” for political freedom: Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. These were closely followed by Belarus, Chad, China, Cuba, and Laos.
Strikingly, of these 14 most repressive countries, five (Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Chad) rank among the top 10 countries for either a low “tax burden” or low government expenditure.
Comparing this list with the figures from the Heritage Foundation in more detail presents an interestingly mixed picture.
Country Tax burden (% of GDP) Spending (% of GDP)
Eritrea 50% 38%
Equatorial Guinea 2.4% 45%
North Korea (not available) (not available)
Saudi Arabia 5.4% 39.9%
Somalia (not available) (not available)
Sudan 6.5% 18.4%
Syria 10.4% (not available)
Turkmenistan 20.9% 16.7%
Uzbekistan 20.4% 32.8%
Belarus 25.6% 43.4%
Chad 5.2% 28.6%
China 18.2% 23.6%
Cuba 18.2% 75.2%
Laos 13.3% 21.8%
Of these 14 most repressive countries, only Eritrea and Belarus have a higher overall “tax burden” than the United States (50% and 25.6% respectively, compared to the US figure of 24.8%). And only three – Equatorial Guinea (45%), Belarus (43.4%) and Cuba (75%) – have higher government expenditure as a percentage of overall GDP.
The rest – including, strikingly, both Communist China and Laos – all appear to be, at least in terms of overall tax burden and public expenditure, unequivocally “smaller governments” than the United States.
Looking at these figures, the idea that a “shrunken state” is correlated with high levels of political freedom seems very difficult to sustain.
Striking too is the picture that emerges when we look at the opposite end of the scale. If we take the 10 countries with the highest “tax burden”, according to the Heritage Foundation, and combine this with the ratings from Freedom House, we see the following:
Country “Tax burden” (% of GDP) Freedom House rating
Timor-Leste 342% “Partly free”
Lesotho 57.7% “Free”
Eritrea 50% “Not Free”
Denmark 48.2% “Free”
Sweden 45.8% “Free”
Belgium 43.8% “Free”
Italy 43% “Free”
France 42.9% “Free”
Norway 42.8% “Free”
Finland 42.1% “Free”
So contrary to what advocates of “small government” might expect, this would seem to suggest that, in general (and clearly with some exceptions – Eritrea having an outstandingly repressive government), a relatively high “tax burden” may actually go hand in hand with higher levels of political freedom.
The picture is a little more complex when we look at the countries with the highest levels of government expenditure as a proportion of overall GDP:
Country Govt expenditure (% of GDP) Freedom House rating
Timor-Leste 156.4% “Partly free”
Kiribati 85.9% “Free”
Cuba 75.2% “Not free”
Iraq 69.8% “Not free”
Micronesia 66.9% “Free”
Lesotho 62.1% “Partly free”
France 56.1% “Free”
Denmark 56.0% “Free”
Solomon Islands 55.9% “Partly free”
Finland 54.1% “Free”
Nonetheless, 8 out of the ten countries with highest levels of government expenditure (as a proportion of GDP) are rated either “Free” or “Partly free” by Freedom House. (5 “Free” and 3 “Partly free”).
By contrast, if we apply Freedom House’s analysis to the list of countries with the lowest “tax burden” and lowest government expenditure, we get the following:
Country “Tax burden” (% of GDP) Freedom House rating
Kuwait 2% “Partly free”
Equatorial Guinea 2.4% “Not free”
Oman 3.1% “Not free”
Burma 3.2% “Not free”
Bahrain 3.9% “Not free”
Libya 4.8% “Partly free”
Qatar 4.9% “Not free”
Chad 5.2% “Not free”
Saudi Arabia 5.4% “Not free”
Sudan 6.5% “Not free”
This again seems striking – 8 out of the 10 countries with the lowest “tax burden”, based on the Heritage Foundation’s figures, are rated “Not free” by Freedom House. The countries with the very lowest levels of overall taxation are less free than those where the “tax burden” is highest.
The picture is slightly better when we look at the 10 countries with the lowest levels of government expenditure (as a proportion of overall GDP). Six are rated “Partly free” – yet only 1 is rated wholly “Free”.
Country Govt expenditure (% of GDP) Freedom House rating
Burma 10.4% “Not free”
Madagascar 13.5% “Partly free”
Guatemala 14.7% “Partly free”
Dominican Republic 15.7% “Free”
Central African Republic 15.9% “Partly free”
Bangladesh 16.2% “Partly free”
Turkmenistan 16.7% “Not free”
Macau 16.8% (not ranked)
Singapore 17% “Partly free”
Philippines 18.1% “Partly free”
By contrast, 7 out of the 10 countries with the lowest levels of government expenditure (as a proportion of overall GDP) are rated “Free” or “Partly free” by Freedom House (1 “Free” and 6 “Partly Free”).
This of course just a snapshot, and I have largely been looking at a relatively small sample of countries from the extremes of both ends of the scale.
At some stage I will try to do a more comprehensive analysis – for example it would be interesting to see what the average levels of tax and expenditure are for the overall groups of countries listed by Freedom House as “Free”, “Partly Free” and “Not Free”.
But based on this initial number-crunching, it’s hard to find much support for the notion that societies with very low levels of taxation and government expenditure tend to be freer or healthier than those at the opposite end of the scale.
We are good people. Therefore, if we deliberately inflict pain on another, the other must have deserved it. Therefore, we are not doing evil… We are doing good. The relatively small percentage of people who cannot or will not reduce dissonance this way pay a large psychological price in guilt, anguish, anxiety, nightmares, and sleepless nights. The pain of living with horrors they have committed, but cannot morally accept, would be searing, which is why most people will reach for any justification available to assuage the dissonance…
– Carol Tavris & Elliott Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me),
The Daily Mail this week featured a brutally candid – and unrepentant – testimony from a member of a secretive British army unit that operated in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s.
The author, writing under the pseudonym “Simon Cursey”, tells us that at the time he was deployed, “Northern Ireland was close to civil war and the IRA seemed beyond control. The regular Army… were hamstrung by the law. They couldn’t use the tactics employed by the IRA…”.
“Someone high up” therefore decided that “an undercover unit was needed to seek out the enemy and confront them head-on”.
In contrast to the regular Army, the “Military Reaction Force” were able to operate outside of the law, and were instructed to mirror the IRA’s brutal tactics.
“The aim was to beat them at their own game, striking fear into their hearts with clinical brutality. We were a deadly ghost squad, a nightmare rumour . . . a Shadow Troop…”
“During briefings phrases such as ‘deal with’ and ‘eliminate’ were used. We were given dossiers on the most dangerous people – and yes, we had a ‘shoot on sight’ list, including Gerry Adams among many others.”
“Call it torture if you wish”
In addition to the “shoot on sight” policy, the unit were involved in the violent interrogation of suspected IRA members:
“We weren’t looking for confessions, but information. Call it torture if you wish, we didn’t care then and I don’t care now…”
“We were told to enter the room, break one of the suspects’ arms and then grab the other one. With that kind of shock treatment, prisoners soon begin to talk.”
This would certainly seem to fit the definition of torture outlined in the United Nations Convention Against Torture, whose terms include “any act by which severe pain or suffering… is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession”.
If the unit’s activities were exposed, says Cursey, it was understood that the UK government “would deny all knowledge”. Nonetheless, “We were told these new intensified operations had Westminster backing as part of a deeper political game aimed at forcing the terrorists to negotiate”.
At the time, the UK government was insisting that its forces in Northern Ireland operated under the law and in accordance with strict rules of engagement. In March 1972 – the same month that Cursey says he was recruited to the Military Reaction Force – the government had explicitly banned the use of five harsh interrogation methods which though unpleasant, fell significantly short of breaking people’s arms. An official investigation had reiterated that “everyone would agree that torture, whether physical or mental, is not justified under any conditions”. Official briefings from the time insisted that “any suggestion” that soldiers were employed to carry out assassinations was “nonsense”, and that “The fact that such claims are made is in itself an indication of the degree to which the plain clothes surveillance patrols hurt the terrorists”.
Justifying torture and extra-judicial killing
Cursey, however, argues that the torture of IRA suspects was justified because “These were brutal killers and we had no time to waste – lives depended on us”. He claims that “The information we gained allowed us to compromise terrorist attacks. My unit saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent lives”.
He also insists that while, even at the time, “The press had a field day with claims such as ‘Army murder gangs are out on the streets murdering innocent people’. We never targeted innocent people – we didn’t need to. There were more than enough guilty ones…”
One thing that comes through very strongly in Cursey’s account of his torture and targeted killings in Northern Ireland is a belief that all of his victims were “guilty”, despite their never having been tried or convicted in a court of law.
Originally Cursey had been ordered to shoot “anyone carrying a weapon”. The list of targets was subsequently expanded to include “groups manning barricades or vigilantes patrolling late at night”, alongside the named individuals on the “shoot on sight” list, such as Gerry Adams.
Cursey admits involvement in the May 1972 killing of a Catholic man named Patrick McVeigh. In justifying this he claims that the victim “had been standing with a group of ‘vigilantes’ that included some particular IRA bad boys on our list”.
Cursey notes that “All the IRA players looked ‘civilian’ of course”, but insists that “there was no such thing as an unarmed group of vigilantes in Belfast in those days”.
The implicit suggestion is that Patrick McVeigh was involved with the IRA and therefore a legitimate target, and that those he was with must, by definition, have been armed.
What Cursey doesn’t mention in his Daily Mail article is that an MRF soldier was subsequently tried for murder over the attack, that McVeigh and all those with him had tested negative for firearms deposits, and that there is no evidence of Patrick McVeigh being involved with the IRA. His family continues to campaign for justice over his death.
Cursey’s admission that his unit systematically tortured suspected IRA members to obtain “information” also, obviously, raises further questions about the reliability of that information – information on the basis of which other supposedly “guilty” people were targeted for assassination or interrogation. His article offers no evidence to support his claim that “The information we gained allowed us to compromise terrorist attacks” and that “My unit saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent lives”.
Cursey nonetheless insists that he has “no regrets” and that “if I was approached and asked to go back and do it all again, I would be tempted”.
Self-deception and self-justification
“In the horrifying calculus of self-deception, the greater the pain we inflict on others, the greater the need to justify it to maintain our feelings of decency and self-worth” – Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (but Not By Me)
Notwithstanding the lack of evidence to support it, Cursey’s self-justifying narrative seems quite understandable. It would be difficult for many of us to live with ourselves after having committed multiple acts of murder and torture without rationalising those acts and convincing ourselves, very firmly, that what we did was right: We never targeted innocent people – we didn’t need to – there were more than enough “guilty” ones to choose from. We never killed anyone who was unarmed. The people we tortured were all “brutal killers”. The information we gained from them saved hundreds or even thousands of lives. To accept the alternative – that some of those we killed or tortured might not have been the “killers” we supposed them to be, or that the horrific things we did might actually have led to more deaths by fuelling the terrorist movement we were trying to defeat – would be far more painful.
When the perpetrator is “one of us”: Why we all have an interest in bringing Northern Ireland’s killers to justice
Perpetrator-psychology is examined in detail by the social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson in their book “Mistakes Were Made (but Not By Me)”:
Once a perpetrator has decided on a course of action, he or she will justify that decision in ways that avoid any conflict between “We are the good guys ” and “We are doing some awful things.” …During his four-year trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, Slobodan Milosevic, the “Butcher of the Balkans,” justified his policy of ethnic cleansing that caused the deaths of more than 200,000 Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Albanians… Serbs had been victims of Muslim propaganda . War is war; he was only responding to the aggression they perpetrated against the innocent Serbians. Riccardo Orizio interviewed seven other dictators, including Idi Amin, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Mira Markovic (the “Red Witch,” Milosevic’s wife), and Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic (known to his people as the Ogre of Berengo). Every one of them claimed that everything they did— torturing or murdering their opponents, blocking free elections, starving their citizens, looting their nation’s wealth, launching genocidal wars— was done for the good of their country. The alternative, they said, was chaos, anarchy, and bloodshed. Far from seeing themselves as despots, they saw themselves as self-sacrificing patriots.
But there is a twist:
if the perpetrators are one of us, many people will reduce dissonance by coming to their defense or minimizing the seriousness or illegality of their actions , anything that makes their actions seem fundamentally different from what the enemy does… Most people want to believe that their government is working in their behalf, that it knows what it’s doing, and that it’s doing the right thing. Therefore, if our government decides that torture is necessary in the war against terrorism, most citizens, to avoid dissonance, will agree. Yet, over time, that is how the moral conscience of a nation deteriorates. Once people take that first small step off the pyramid in the direction of justifying abuse and torture, they are on their way to hardening their hearts and minds in ways that might never be undone…
One of the most valuable social functions of a fair and comprehensive criminal trial is that it can systematically de-construct the self-justifying narrative of people who commit terrible abuses. Day after day, the prosecution has an opportunity to confront the defendant, in an open and public forum, with the evidence of what they have done, allowing them to contest the facts of the case, and exposing the weakness of their responses.
The perpetrator themselves may continue to cling to self-deception and self-justification. Yet a systematic and public process such as this offers an opportunity for the wider community, who have less of a personal investment in the perpetrator’s guilt or innocence, to get an objective view of the facts, distance themselves from the perpetrator’s actions, and re-affirm the underlying moral principle that has been violated. In doing so, we can help prevent the kind of deterioration in “moral conscience” that Tavris and Aronson warn of, and deter similar “mistakes” in future.
Exposing the UK government’s role in torture and extra-judicial killing
Beyond the horrific details of his own case, Cursey’s testimony raises wider questions about the conduct and integrity of the UK political establishment that should arguably be of concern to us all.
If the “Military Reaction Force” did indeed have “Westminster backing” in carrying out torture and extra-judicial killings, then this would imply that these tactics were, at the very least, known of and approved by the UK Ministry of Defence – and that this was happening at the same time as the UK government was publicly disavowing any involvement in torture, and insisting that its soldiers were acting within the law.
Many of those involved in the conflict in Northern Ireland are still alive today, including Lord Carrington, who was Secretary of State for Defence from 1970 until 1974. He and others in the command chain must surely now have serious questions to answer.
Simon Cursey’s article in the Daily Mail was followed this week by a major exposé by BBC Panorama, featuring on-camera interviews with several other members of the Military Reaction Force.
A report from the Belfast Daily reveals that:
Declassified documents from the National Archives show how concerned Whitehall was to prevent details of the [Military Reaction Force] unit being made public… One document read: “There can be no useful purpose in admitting the existence of any such organisation” and “There seems to be considerable advantage in maintaining as much confusion as possible”.
If Cursey and his former comrades are telling the truth, then it would appear that the British public was being systematically deceived by the UK political establishment about the nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland, and the war that was being fought in their name. And if this is the case, then we all have an interest in understanding how this deception happened, and how we can reduce the chances of it happening again.
Further information: Inside Castlereagh: “We got confessions through torture”, Ian Cobain, Guardian, “From Palestine to Belfast: Post-War Counter-Insurgency – A Very British Family Affair”, Ciaran McAirt, Campaign for Truth”, The McGurk’s Bar Massacre, Ciaran McAirt, Campaign for Truth.
Amnesty International recently published a detailed report on the legacy of abuse in Northern Ireland, and are now calling for a “comprehensive mechanism… to answer the unanswered questions and ensure people finally have a chance to hear the truth and see justice”. Please consider supporting this call here.
Online poll: Should the Daily Express stop using misleading polls to whip up racial tension in Britain?
Harsh words from poll guru Anthony Wells:
I might as well waste a few pixels being horrid to the Daily Express, which today claims 98% of people think Britain should close its doors to all new immigrants. It seems almost superfluous to point out that almost any survey in the Express is complete tripe… Express “phone polls” are premium rate numbers they put in the paper, to get people to ring up to vote yes or no (multiple times if they wish), presumably after reading a foam-flecked Express rant on the subject in question. There is obviously no attempt to get a representative sample and they always show around 97%, 98% in agreement with whatever the Express’s line is….
This raises an obvious question, for which an online poll is surely the best vehicle for providing an answer…
“unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying… that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States… there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in #rendition.” – Jack Straw, December 2005
“The idea that in #GCHQ people are sitting working out how to circumvent a UK law with another agency in another country is fanciful. It is nonsense”, William Hague, June 2013
Ironically, given his emphasis on “rigour” and traditional teaching methods, Michael Gove’s Department for Education seems to take a more relaxed approach approach to basic arithmetic when it comes to spending public money…
Last year I highlighted some of the questions surrounding the government’s decision to approve a controversial state-funded boarding school run by an Academy notorious for spending large sums of money on PR, lobbying, and libel lawyers.
Now the Independent has taken up the story:
Costs of running ‘Eton of state sector’ hugely unrealistic
West Sussex villagers object to boarding school for inner-city pupils, saying Government has got its sums wrong…
In a comprehensive dossier on the development, locals in the village of Stedham say the £22.3m stated cost of the scheme is a vast underestimate. They argue it will cost at least £30m – based on the DfE’s own average building estimates. In a remarkably comprehensive series of documents, they accuse the organisers of the project of vastly underestimating the cost of setting up the new school in an area of “outstanding natural beauty”…
A new piece from me in the New Humanist
Thousands of lives are at risk in the troubled east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a new and brutal rebellion, with a leadership described by the United Nations as “among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations… in the world”, has flared up in a region where millions have died since the 1990s.
The “March 23” insurgency began as a mutiny earlier this year by former rebels who had been integrated into the Congolese army after a previous peace deal in March 2009. The mutiny was ostensibly triggered by violations of that agreement. But there are mounting allegations by the UN and human rights groups that the rebels are being directed, trained and supported by the government of neighbouring Rwanda. On 30 November, the UK government became the latest international donor to suspend aid to Rwanda as a result.
M23’s leaders reportedly include the notorious Rwandan-born warlord Bosco Ntaganda, whose bloody track record in previous conflicts has earned him the nickname “The Terminator”. Despite being wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, Bosco was given a senior role in the Congolese army as part of the 2009 peace deal.
“Bosco Ntaganda is the most notorious but he’s by no means the only one”, says Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch, who talks of a strong sense of déjà vu around the current crisis. “Quite a few of his mates are and have been doing the same kinds of things for years… No one has ever done anything to arrest them so they just carry on, they become emboldened… the use of violence and those atrocities start being rewarded.”