We have looked thus far at areas where government has a major role to play. In other areas it must recognize that people should by and large be left to function on their own. Yet in the modern world, given the scale of activity that occurs, there is need of some state intervention. This however should be seen as
Increasing involvement of government has become necessary for production and trade after the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the modern economic system. Before that, government had mainly to ensure physical and financial security. But even in early days there were requirements that could be met only by large-scale activity, and governmental involvement was essential for this.
Thus, going back to early Sri Lankan history, we find that the mark of a good ruler was promoting infrastructural development for irrigation purposes. In modern times, apart from irrigation, which is still of vital importance, research to promote productivity and preservation, communications networks to promote distribution, and credit schemes to promote investment, are essential for the support of agriculture.
Industrial development requires even greater infrastructural support, including utilities on a large scale and specialised training. Trade in both agriculture and industry should be facilitated through financial assistance as well as improved international communications, including telecommunications where rapid modernisation is vital.
Some of these areas overlap with those discussed earlier, but these activities are the responsibility of individuals and organisations. Government need not itself engage in such activities. In statist systems, economic activity was undertaken by government, often leading to monopolies. Experience has shown that this may hinder economic development. Without incentives for efficiency or penalties for incompetence, systems tend to collapse. Political interference often leads to overstaffing and indiscipline, which breed corruption and limit productivity.
The essential function of government in these areas is facilitation of activity by providing infrastructure and services needed for smooth functioning. In some instances, it could also include subsidies, but this should be carefully monitored lest they contribute to inefficiency. Nurturing a particular sector at times is a vital task of government but such nurturing should be to strengthen it to stand on its own over the course of time. If this is not feasible, continuing with subsidies is inappropriate in view of the wider interests of society.
To sum up, the facilitatory functions of government, which need careful planning and the setting of readily identifiable targets, require in a cabinet the following portfolios—minister of agriculture / irrigation, minister of industries and/or trade, minister of transport (including roads, railways, harbours and aviation), minister of communications / telecommunications and minister of power and energy.
A related function of government is that of
Government must ensure a level playing field, so that exploitation of weaker sections of society is limited. Exploitation can be by businesses, by the government, by special interests or by individuals. Government must provide protection to all citizens against such exploitation.
Among the most important areas in this regard is labour, since employees are subject to the authority of their employers, and this can lead to exploitation. Governments then must regulate working conditions to ensure reasonable wages and job and financial security. They should also permit unionisation, to ensure that workers are represented adequately when problems arise.
However, government should also ensure that employees do not, through arbitrary actions, exploit employers to the point that business is not a viable proposition anymore. Trade unions should represent the interests of a wide section of workers rather than particular political priorities. Employment regulations should then include provision for arbitration, and also for the free exercise of choice among workers, with regard to collective action.
Labour regulations were initially among the most important functions of government in industrial society. The increasing power of business now also requires effective legislation with regard to restricting monopolies and unfair trade practices. Consumer protection is 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. While activities such as agriculture, 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.
Regulations in almost all the areas discussed are necessary to maintain standards, and ensure equitable distribution of resources. But I have highlighted those particularly vital for the protection of society, For this purpose any cabinet should include the following portfolios—minister of labour, minister of consumer affairs (perhaps with trade) and minister of the environment.
Finally there may be a role for government with regard to
Government may also need to play a role with regard to social and cultural needs, which is why many countries have ministries for the media, sports and cultural and religious affairs.
While development of these areas is desirable, the idea that they are the responsibility of the government is of recent origin, and springs from statist notions that limit the role and the responsibility of other elements in society. Ministries with absolute authority in such areas should be avoided. These are areas where political control has generally prevented the individual freedom necessary for growth and expression, along with understanding of the social responsibilities associated with these activities.
Regulation is another matter, and there is need for monitoring the activities of the media, sports bodies, and cultural performances and even of religious bodies. There is also a case for providing funding for activities in these areas, where other sources may prove inadequate. But such funding should be provided through independent authorities constituted to ensure the active involvement of participants in the field, rather than through political decisions.
The example of the media gives us an idea of how social productivity can be achieved in these areas. It is now recognised that the media should be left to the private sector, although with regulations that ensure plurality as well as competition. But given that social and educational concerns may not be addressed by the private media, many countries have provision for public sector broadcast and telecast. To leave that to a media ministry would invite partisan political involvement, with broader social concerns neglected in the process. In many countries, therefore, public sector broadcasting is through independent institutions that receive public funding for the particular concerns specified in their mandate.
To ensure activities in the public interest in these areas, a Ministry for Cultural Affairs and Sports might be useful. It could regulate and monitor activities and disburse funds as and when necessary through independent institutions. Cultural affairs could include religious affairs, but there should be provision to ensure religious independence and keep out state interference in the activities and organisation of religious orders.
The functions of government should be limited to ensuring the security of its citizens and their empowerment in all respects. Though the scope for governmental work is much more in modern society, too large a role for government, in addition to the excessive expense involved, would prevent it from carrying out its primary duties effectively. The government must, apart from ensuring security in every sense to its citizens, empower them through services to function effectively in society and 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.