We extended a cautious welcome to the Government's Spending Challenge when it was launched last summer. It was a consultation on the internet, which invited members of the public and public servants to submit ideas for cutting public spending. As we report today (pages 8-10), Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, is running a parallel exercise called Your Freedom to seek suggestions for laws and regulations that should be scrapped.
As we said in the summer, such digital plebiscites are gimmicky, unrepresentative and risk being exploited by lobby groups. Yet they can also breathe new democratic life into government. The Your Freedom exercise is a way to find out what unnecessary laws cause most irritation. It is also, like the Spending Challenge, a good way to mobilise the expert knowledge that is locked away at the lower levels of bureaucracy and among the users of public services. Unless you have run a small business or have had to look after a severely disabled child, for example, you are unlikely to know how frustrating simple interactions with the authorities can be.
All governments are attracted by the metaphor of a bonfire of red tape. Harold Wilson, as President of the Board of Trade, won favourable headlines for authorising a "bonfire" of war-time controls in 1948. More recently, Al Gore's main claim to fame before he discovered climate change was the Reinventing Government initiative that he ran as Vice President. And who can forget the Better Regulation Taskforce set up by Tony Blair in 1997?
One of the abiding weaknesses of the Labour governments of Mr Blair and Gordon Brown was that they tended to see regulation, legislation and new public bodies as the answer to almost any problem. By the end, Mr Brown was reduced to passing a series of laws - to halve the deficit in four years, in the most pointless example - as a form of press release.
The British Liberal tradition, now represented around the cabinet table, should be dedicated to the ceaseless struggle to limit the reach of the state and to cut back unnecessary rules, laws and quangos. Mr Clegg and his party are more instinctively sensitive to the threats to civil liberties than their …