Why We Should Fear “The Big Society”

The Big Society is ostensibly the centerpiece feature of the Conservatives’ policy for this election; their manifesto was titled “Invitation to Join the Government of Britain” in reference to it.

For such a centerpiece policy, it is breathtakingly vague. Nobody understands it properly, not even many people within the Conservative party. One shadow minister said: “The ‘big society’ needs to be turned into more practical, voter-friendly language. We need to turn Oliver Letwin’s Hegelian dialectic into voter friendly stuff.” When you’re using the phrase “Hegelian dialectic” to describe why something is tricky to understand, you know you’re in deep trouble.

Not many people (who don’t have philosophy degrees) are going to know that Hegel was German philosopher, one of Marx’s influences, and like the philosophy of Marx the ideas of the Big Society display an earnest idealism totally stripped of even a single iota of pragmatism.

The Big Society is supposed to conjure up an image of us as a country spontaneously coming together to fix “Broken Britain”, volunteering to fix our social ills, to cure a culture of entitlement, to restore power to the people, etc. It speaks of a social movement to bring about change, and in the face of the Big Society, the Big State will wither away.

That’s bollocks. It’s the same mad utopian dream as that of Communism.

There is no social movement, no grass-roots activism for the Big Society. Cameron didn’t even mention it in the debates, and their polling is hovering steady in the low thirties; this is no popular movement. It’s just words, words with nothing but vague appeals to working together for change. It’s all just political hot air.

The real intent, the real policy, is a return to something like the libertarian aspects of Thatcherism, or worse. The state will not be allowed to wither as vounteerism takes up the slack; the state will be hacked away with glee, cut to the bone. Provision for the poor, for the weak, will fall through the cracks as charities and volunteers struggle to cope. It’s a reversion to how things were a hundred years ago or more, before these functions were absorbed by the state. Police and Fire services were once run by dedicated volunteers, and there’s a damn good reason that we don’t do things like that any more. Similarly with social services; look at what’s happened in Hammersmith and Fulham as council provision has been stripped away. It’s ugly, so very ugly.

In many ways, the individualism inherent in Thatcherism, the belief that “There is no such thing as society” is part of the root of what is wrong with Britain today. We were told, as a nation, that we should look out for ourselves, that greed was good, individualism was king. Are we surprised that people took this to heart? That kids who grew up in that time, and in the time since, act as if they have no responsibility to anybody? There’s a thread running directly from Thatcherism to the rise of the ASBO.

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for charity or volunteering; absolutely there is. It’s a noble thing to give of your time and money for a good cause, but it should be in addition to the services provided by the state, not an alternative. The richest and strongest have a responsibility to the poorest and weakest, whether they like it or not.

The Big Society is also economically nonsensical. The wealth of nations is at least partly based on the division of labour. If I do my job well, and efficiently, it will generate wealth. That wealth can partly be used to fund somebody whose job it is to provide social services, which they too will do efficiently. If social services are performed by volunteers, then they will be performing both their day job and their volunteer work, reducing overall efficiency.

Before I’m accused of being a mad Big Statist, I’d like to point out that I am a Liberal Democrat; the first paragraph of the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution includes the words “we aim to disperse power”. The state doesn’t need to be large, monolithic and centralised, and that has been a major failure of the current Labour government, but it also shouldn’t be wiped away entirely.

The free markets and spontaneous individual action are not, and cannot, be the solution. When individual initiative is allowed to run too far, unrestrained, the consequences are usually disaster. Look at the banking crisis. Look at the Roman civil wars in the first few decades B.C. Look at the dictatorships of the world. We have a democracy because we know that pluralism, not individualism, is the way forward. We are stronger together than we are apart.

16 thoughts on “Why We Should Fear “The Big Society”

  1. You should go and study Public Choice theory before you assign such a massive role for welfare through the state.

    If you think market economics have poor outcomes then Public Choice will shock you….

    see Calculus of Consent by Buchannan and Tullock, online through Google.

  2. You should go and study Public Choice theory before you assign such a massive role for welfare through the state.

    If you think market economics have poor outcomes then Public Choice will shock you….

    see Calculus of Consent by Buchannan and Tullock, online through Google.

  3. Just like to point out that using poll numbers as justification for not doing something is daft. Conservatives have 35% in the polls, so this is obviously not a popular policy seems to be part of your argument. Lib Dems are on 26%….. Labour on about the same.

    If the policy is as vague as you say it is, then I am not sure you can make the statement “The real intent, the real policy, is a return to something like the libertarian aspects of Thatcherism, or worse.”.

    Out of curiosity what parts of the state do the Lib Dems suggest cutting away?

    People who rely on the state will always loose out when it is cut, no matter how small or well thought out the cuts are. The only way for no one to loose out would be if there were a 100% tax and everyone was given an allowance that was enough to live on. But I don't think that has worked out too well previously.

    So should there be a state presence, yes. But there is a balance to be reached so that it is not overpowering and inhibiting.

    also your website is a bit broken. I tried resizing this box to make it bigger and it has resized behind the page, so now I have a big text box only viewable through a small window.

  4. I meant that a real popular initiative would have real overwhelming popular support.

    I should have probably been clearer; the public face of the policy is vague, but if you read between the lines, you can see the actual effect / intent.

    The Lib Dems are very much about devolving more power to communities. An awful lot more government than is necessary is run out of Whitehall, for instance.

    Yes, somebody is going to lose out, but you can try and avoid making the cuts hit those who are most vulnerable the hardest.

    The resizing comment box thing is actually kinda a Chrome bug, or a bug in Chrome + Disqus. Does the same thing on your blog.

  5. “So we will redistribute power from the central state to individuals, families and local communities.”

    Page 35 Conservative Manifesto

    “We are committed to handing back power to local communities. We believe that society is strengthened by communities coming together and engaging in voluntary action, which sets people and neighbourhoods free to tackle local problems”

    Page 84 Liberal Democrat Manifesto.

    Seem pretty similar to me. And just to finish:

    “But we recognise that it is not enough to create
    opportunities for people to get involved in
    building the Big Society; our reform plans
    require a social response in order to be
    successful. So building the Big Society is not
    just a question of the state stepping back and
    hoping for the best: it will require an active
    role for the state.”

    Page 37 Conservative Manifesto

  6. Lib Dem and Conservative Policies are roughly in line on the size of the state and it's role in the community. So, how should I interpret your blog post?

    Johann Hari is left wing, his distorting of the facts with regards to the use of Hurlingham park leaves his article in the same category of drivel as the right leaning newspapers spat out following Cleggmania.

  7. That I ultimately believe that the Lib Dems believe in fairness and social justice, and the Conservatives don't.

    If the parties were similar, you should consider voting Lib Dem, but we both know they're not, so you won't.

    Incidentally, I have been thinking these same things about the Big Society for a while; the Johann Hari article was a catalyst, not a supporting pillar for my complaints.

  8. That I ultimately believe that the Lib Dems believe in fairness and social justice, and the Conservatives don't.

    If the parties were similar, you should consider voting Lib Dem, but we both know they're not, so you won't.

    Incidentally, I have been thinking these same things about the Big Society for a while; the Johann Hari article was a catalyst, not a supporting pillar for my complaints.

  9. I was going to go through and list the reason why voting Lib Dem is probably not a good idea, but in going through the manifesto I found so many things that I don't agree with or are daft or idealistic or obvious that they do not need to be said.

    You already know how I feel about their policies on defence, energy, economics and my opinion on Clegg. So there is no point repeating them.

    As a whole they are not a bad party. But they are far too idealistic, have far too many major things wrong and are far too reliant upon the argument of not being one of the 'old parties'.

    I also don't like Vince Cable, or his record, he has been given far too much credit and not close to enough scrutiny for a potential chancellor.

  10. As far as I can see the 'Big Society' just means the Tories trying to wash their hands of all responsibility for difficult decisions in the public sector. Once again, those who can help themselves into the private system, will, and those who can't are just dismissed as somebody else's problem, left to fester by the wayside.

    I don't care how 'progressive' Cameron claims to be – the underlying Tory philosophy hasn't changed one bit.

  11. “The free markets and spontaneous individual action are not, and cannot, be the solution. When individual initiative is allowed to run too far, unrestrained, the consequences are usually disaster. Look at the banking crisis.”

    I'm not sure that's a fair analysis. I think the banking crisis was – in part – caused by too much state involvement in some areas (iirc by setting interest rates which caused property prices to rise unsustainably). Indeed, some banks reacted to that badly, but not all took stupid risks, and in any other industry risky businesses failing wouldn't have such a profound effect as it does in banking. I don't think the fact that businesses fail means that free markets are therefore bad – in fact for a lot of industries it's a good (if regrettable) aspect of the system.

    That's not to say that I think markets should be completely unrestricted (e.g. there's an obvious case to be made for some state intervention on environmental issues) or that banking should be lightly regulated (as it's a special case). Just that I don't think it's right to say that it's never the solution.

    Anyway I agree with the fundamental point that I think you're getting at. I can sort of see why people think the big state is the answer, and I can also understand why the opposite sort of anarcho-capitalist viewpoint is attractive. But I also think that ultimately both of those are damaging – one for stifling individuality and freedom, and the other because it's too unfair. So I think the pragmatic “ideal” is somewhere in the middle of those extremes, although I'd argue that it tends towards minimal state intervention (as a very general rule! As you point out, it makes perfect sense for some services to be provided by the state in some way, e.g. healthcare).

  12. There was recently evidence (can't cite it right now, sorry!) that some employees in a bank knowingly made bad deals, and then placed bets to the effect that they would make money when the deals inevitably went sour.

    They did something rationally self-interested; they personally made money. It just so happened that what they did was deleterious to society as a whole. This example shows that the axiomatic idea that the individual free actions of self-interested actors lead to global benefit is erroneous.

    I think we fundamentally agree, anyway. There are times when free markets work very well, and times they don't, and those cases should be looked at individually. Like you're right, in general, businesses being able to fail is important, because it spurs improvement, which is good for the community.

    Other times, businesses failing is a bad thing. For instance if a business is the dominant employer in an area, or if the business collapsing will cause severe economic damage. In that case, the business collapsing will cause harm to the community, and it's right for the state to mitigate that.

    To categorically state that free markets are always the answer, and that state intervention is always bad is worrying to me. Sure, an anarcho-capitalist economy might have fabulous growth, but would you really want to live in one?

    There's also the problem that governments, and general governmental structures, seem to tend to arise spontaneously. Isn't it a potential problem that after you abolish government, more unpleasant proto-governments will spring up after it? Maybe that's a thought for another post when I actually have time to research it properly…

  13. Banks were geared up though for cynical employees to make bad decisions. When short-term gains are rewarded, long-term issues aren't going to be considered. I'm not sure if this is something inherently wrong with the system – other industries or even certain banks seem less affected by short-termism – or whether it was a specific problem with some banks. I'm not sure it even shows that individual free actions can't or dont lead to global benefit; it just shows that within certain organisations, the prevailing attitudes weren't in the interests of self-preservation. I.e. the “culture” and the things which were rewarded were things which were absolutely not in the interests of the business. I think most businesses are geared around the idea of self-preservation, so they try to incentivise things which are beneficial.

    Whatever the case, banking is the one industry I can think of off the top of my head which most definitely should be regulated more strongly than at present. If Ford or Tesco fail, then ultimately the economic problems aren't massive. Significant, yes, but it won't drag the economy of a country down. If banks fail, then by now we're all to aware of the consequences!

    And I agree, I wouldn't want to live in an anarcho-capitalist economy, or even one where there was no state intervention in anything (i.e. where the state exists purely as a “referee” sort of thing, but doesn't get directly involved in providing things, as it does now). Yep, it'd probably have stunning growth and be absolutely fabulous for the “haves”, the people from good backgrounds with no problems in life and who have good jobs. But for the “have nots” it'd be terrible. I think that foregoing some growth in return for a more civilized society is an easy trade-off.

  14. My personal viewpoint is that the state should stay out of things unless there is a reason for it to be there. I am a libertarian, sort of.

    Health, welfare, and potential economy destroying industries and so on all have reasons for the state to be there in some capacity. And I think most people agree, it is just to the level of state involvement that people would disagree.

    Some things work well without it, some things do not. It should be decided on a case by case basis and not by sweeping generalisations.

    If there are no homeless shelters in an area go ahead and build one, if there is already one operating somewhere but struggling with volunteers etc then give it some funding.

    There is always a balance, for the poor and disadvantaged it would be best if the state provided everything from housing to wages for everyone and everyone were on the same level. But that would be terrible for the country and the population as a whole.

    The same is true in reverse, removing the state in all areas and removing regulation would help the best off among us but would destroy those without as much.

    There is a balance to be reached that is compassionate and effective but not overbearing and restrictive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *