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Governments should be wary of thinking they can solve everything

"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help" - Ronald Regan

The recent Groundswell protests in New Zealand (NZ) have been fighting against regulations they perceive to be unworkable. Groundswell seeks a rewrite of difficult legislation, advocates for rural communities, tailored solutions to climate change and less cost from government rules.

Whether or not you agree with Groundswell's message, it is an interesting example of people fighting back against perceived government overreach.

Not every rule the government makes is necessarily useful. In NZ, it is illegal to make loud noises near a whale. In Britain, recklessly disturbing a bat can land you in prison for up to 6 months. In Washington State, USA, it is illegal to kill Bigfoot - maybe that's someone's sense of humour. These are real examples. It is important to be critical.

A common theme of this website is the scope of government, and where it makes sense to have intervention. This article builds on this theme.

With problems like COVID-19 and climate change we are likely entering an era where we need more government to coordinate, resource and address large problems. But governments need to be wary of believing they have all the answers to avoid overreliance.

Government can't solve everything

The title of this post is a bit misleading, it is both public officials, and the government of the day, that should be wary. A common trait among the public sector is the belief that they have more influence than they really do, and can achieve better outcomes quickly merely by educating people or telling them what to do.

Overconfidence in one's ability to make change is common at all levels, but particularly relevant for governments who use taxpayer funds.

The can-do attitude is admirable, but also naive. Chasing better outcomes is a good thing, but there are some things government genuinely shouldn't or can't solve. Agencies need to consider their appropriate scope. For example, should a government purchaser be involved in distribution? Or stick to what it knows?

To illustrate the point. Governments should be involved in tackling climate change. Carbon pricing alone isn't enough to address climate change, and the stakes are too high for failure to be an option. Every intervention must be on the table.

On the other hand, it makes no sense for a government to be involved in the production and sale of baked beans. Sure, the government may provide food stamps to address poverty which is subsequently used to buy baked beans. But production and sale? Forget it. That market works already.

There is a risk that government intervenes just because it sees something it doesn't like

Sometimes the government tries to solve problems just because it sees bad stuff happening, rather than because an intervention is reasonable, needed and likely to be effective. But not every social ill is a problem to be fixed by the government. Plus, the intervention has to be effective to be worth celebrating.

Governments may harmfully designate certain communities as 'vulnerable' or 'in need of help' based on the outcomes they see groups achieving. It may sound unusual to describe this as harmful, but it talks to the superman complex you sometimes see with public officials.

Communities may well need support but should be able to determine what that looks like and have the autonomy to act on it themselves, rather than having 'help' pushed upon them.

This approach reflects the importance of self-determination - giving people the power to manage their own lives. If people then choose not to behave in a manner that supports better social outcomes, that isn't necessarily a problem for government to solve.

Governments risk overreach when they take on too much responsibility for social problems

Overreach, when agencies do more than they should, can occur when agencies believe that people need help or protection, or chase improvements in outcomes using methods beyond the agencies scope.

It's not uncommon for people to see a problem, and think they would do a better job of solving it. People also don't like to cut back on what they're doing, as to do so risks losing influence. The government, being in a position of control is, therefore, at considerable risk of overreach. Though this is not unique to government.

Additionally, public agencies often only consider costs and benefits within their own scope, which makes them prone to overreach. This can occur because agencies aren't adequately considering the wider implications of intervention - or certainly not giving them the same weight as their own agenda.

The prohibition movement in the 1920s/30s which banned alcohol is a good example of government exerting too much control. Alcohol-related social problems are terrible, but heavy-handed approaches that push against social norms are unlikely to be effective, and have unintended consequences. When markets move underground they are harder to control. Arguably marijuana legislation and complete bans on smoking sit in a similar bucket.

COVID-19 vaccination strategy is a recent example. How much responsibility can the government reasonably take for the unvaccinated? Centralised vaccine strategies are useful to ensure widespread access, support equity and address externalities, but the government can only do so much. There is a stubborn core of the population that remains unvaccinated.

COVID-19 has prompted discussion about overreach and the right role of government

During COVID-19 we have seen an expansion of government rules into domains not previously considered. One of the more topical is appropriate restrictions for the unvaccinated - if any. It's one of the big debates in NZ.

When is it appropriate for the government to restrict the rights of the unvaccinated as opposed to leaving it up to individuals? This post doesn't have the answer, but here are a few thoughts:


  • Remaining unvaccinated increases the risk of transmission and new variants, so these people should be 'encouraged' to vaccinate.

  • There are significant externalities from remaining unvaccinated. Government intervention is worthwhile reflecting the social cost.

  • The vaccinated would generally prefer not to be exposed to the unvaccinated to manage their own health risk, and vaccinated people have done the right thing.

  • It's difficult to privatise the costs in public health systems e.g. if someone ends up in ICU as an unvaccinated person, who is going to make you pay?


  • There are equity issues if the unvaccinated demographic is a high-risk population (e.g. those with low income).

  • With regard to restrictions on service - it isn't typically the government's role to choose who an organisation can and cannot serve. Many organisations already have an incentive to serve only the vaccinated majority anyway to entice health-conscious customers wary of transmission.

  • The unvaccinated are people too.


  • It's targeting COVID-19 specifically. Should those not vaccinated against measles also be restricted?

It is too easy to blame the government

On a final note, most people at some point blame the government for something without really knowing why, or what they are talking about. It's natural, but it's also a bit lazy. The government isn't there to solve every ill, and this needs to be accepted. But unfortunately, governments do set themselves up for blame by overreaching taking too much responsibility for social problems.

The right incentives and structures need to be in place to enable self-reliance alongside social support. Ultimately society needs free-thinking people who can solve their own problems to work properly. 'Too much' government prohibits this.

On a final note, this is the last post of 2021. Enjoy the rest of the year. Also, big thanks to Feedspot for selecting Byte Size as one of the top 100 blogs on the web.


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