… an inflated idea of its own importance

In addition to security considerations, there are several areas in which government is deeply involved. But we should not take what government does for granted. There is a natural tendency for any institution to have an inflated idea of its own importance, and this means that it will tend to take on more and more responsibilities. A regular consequence of this is that it becomes inefficient.

It is therefore important that those exercising particular responsibilities give careful consideration as to their core functions. They should know what it is they must do. Any additional services they can provide might be useful, but they should also make sure that they do not create a culture of dependency, which could inhibit development. The statism that dominated many societies in the last century often led to stagnation. Any government therefore must bear in mind the need to leave room for individual initiatives that would also help with satisfying social needs.

In particular ,when allocating responsibility for the provision of services governments must take care to discourage populism. Ministers responsible for services should be able to conceptualize. They must work on improving service delivery whilst encouraging alternatives that will help to raise standards and improve the service.  I therefore present here the next section of the Second Chapter of ‘Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka’, which scrutinizes what government should do, and why, with regard to service provision –



qrcode.29262648Before what we may term the Modern Period, beginning from about the eighteenth century, security and justice were seen as the primary duties of a government. While governments performed various other functions these were largely as a matter of personal commitment by particular rulers, or in times of emergency. They were not seen as central to the duties of a ruler.

With the development of modern society, however, the role of government changed. This can be seen most clearly with regard to health care, which is now seen as one of the most important functions of government. In the early days, some kings distinguished themselves by building hospitals, the management of which was often handed over to independent institutions such as religious bodies. But the responsibility was not usually considered that of the government itself.

With industrialisation and rapid urbanisation, health became a more central concern. Epidemics had more disastrous consequences for the society, and not only cure but also prevention became an urgent necessity. With the development of new techniques in health care that required extensive capital investment, the establishment of government hospitals became necessary. So health became a vital function of government. The minister of health has a crucial role to play in any government of today.

Similarly education too, which was of minimal importance to government before the Modern Period, is now of vital significance. Before the Industrial Revolution, when societies were largely agricultural, education was not considered essential by most people. Schools were generally run by religious orders which required their members to acquire some learning. Apart from that, learning was confined to the upper classes, and to the merchant classes who had to acquire some ability in arithmetic.


All this changed with the Industrial Revolution. Not only was there need for skilled labour to make use of the new technologies that had developed, there was also need for white-collar labour for the various services that went along with mass production. As opportunities for social mobility developed through access to such jobs, the need to provide such opportunities on a wider scale led to massive state involvement in education. England, for instance, set up commissions on education in the nineteenth century that led to the establishment of universities as well as school boards all over the country. In the colonies too, as these came into contact with the modern economic system, education was given priority.

Other service areas where state involvement became a necessity in the nineteenth century were transport and utilities such as water (and later electricity). Yet with regard to these, and in particular health and education, it was believed that the government was only required to provide these facilities to those who would otherwise be deprived. It was only in the twentieth century that the idea developed that some or all of these had to be government monopolies.

This has led in some instances to the idea that any non-governmental involvement in such areas could have detrimental effects. However, it has been seen that government monopolies lead to inefficiency. It is possible that involvement by private, religious or other non-governmental institutions or individuals could result in better service to everyone, provided the government does not neglect its core responsibilities. For instance, transport, which was a government monopoly in Sri Lanka for about 20 years, has improved rapidly after private bus services were permitted in the late 1970s. Before that, service was limited, investment unavailable to improve equipment, and the department over-staffed and indisciplined due to political interference.


While privatisation has helped on most routes, the state however needs to be aware that certain routes, which may be uneconomical for the private bus services, should not be ignored. The state must ensure, through license fees or other methods of raising money to provide services, that those who would otherwise be deprived of ready access to transport are not neglected.

Similar principles should be extended to the other services mentioned above, as well as areas such as housing. They could also be extended to the area of food security, not in terms of making sure that food supplies are readily available, which is a different responsibility, but in terms of providing social security to those unable to obtain the basic necessities of life for themselves and their families.

To sum up, the service functions of government, which involve providing essential services to those who cannot otherwise obtain them, while encouraging and regulating the provision of such services by others too, require in any cabinet the following portfolios—minister of education, minister of health, minister of public utilities, minister of transport, minister of housing, minister of social security.


It is important to note that there is a sliding scale of state responsibility with regard to the above portfolios. Social security and housing are not the responsibility of the state and need only be provided to those without any capacity of their own. Transport and public utilities need to be provided, in particular the necessary infrastructure, but these need not be subsidised except in cases of dire need, and the cost of supply should be met by those who use the services, in proportion to their usage. As for health and education, direct government involvement is necessarily greater because of the scale of activity involved. However, the involvement of others should be encouraged, provided no one is deprived of high quality services because of a lack of personal resources.