Let’s not muddy the waters over the big society benefits

Tom Clougherty discusses the big society agenda and why it is preferable to big government. He argues that big government undermines the complex fabric of relationships that exist in a free society but also warns of the dangers of government  attempting to plan society.

A LOT of people, both on the Left and the Right, are suspicious of David Cameron’s plans for the “big society”. The Left think it’s a way of making cuts sound cuddly, while the Right fears it will turn into just another way for Government to boss us around. I think both sides have got it wrong.

At the core of the the big society agenda is a great idea: that voluntary co-operation should, as far as possible, replace coercive state action. It means groups of parents setting up their own schools, neighbourhoods coming up with their own development plans, or charities and social enterprises getting the unemployed back to work. This, really, is what Cameron is on about when he talks about “rolling forward society”, rather than just rolling back the state.

But why is local voluntary co-operation better than Government provision? There are two big reasons. The first is that voluntary co-operation will provide better services and achieve better outcomes. This is partly because the services will be more responsive to the needs of the people using them, and the providers more directly accountable. But it is also because radical decentralisation of this sort allows for innovation and experimentation. Lots of different things can be tried; some will succeed, some will fail, but overall we learn and improve. Top-down provision can never hope to emulate this discovery process.

The second reason is that empowering people to do things themselves, rather than always relying on bureaucrats, will allow them to lead richer, more fulfilling lives.

American political scientist Charles Murray has written persuasively about this: people get a great deal of real, lasting satisfaction from community, from voluntarily working with their neighbours to overcome local problems and meet local needs. Letting Government take over doesn’t just disempower people; it also leaves them feeling rootless.

Indeed, one of the most pernicious myths about leaving people free to make their own choices is that it leads to atomisation. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, big government undermines the complex fabric of voluntary relationships that exist in a free society, and replaces it with nothing more than distant, top-down authority. Instead of combining with their families, colleagues and neighbours to help themselves, people are infantilised, told that they are too weak to be independent, and that they must become clients of a patronising state.

Yet the ethos of the big, activist society is deeply rooted in Britain’s history. You can see it in the great charitable hospitals of the 19th century. You can see it in the mutual aid organisations that provided millions of manual workers with healthcare and unemployment benefits before Lloyd George’s National Insurance Act. And you can see it in the extraordinary levels of charitable giving and civic activism that characterised Victorian Britain.

That these things happened in the past, when we were so much poorer than we are today, should be a source of inspiration. Just imagine what could be achieved if we combined the big society spirit of the 19th century with the wealth we acquired in the 20th. And, of course, the big society is not just a thing of the past. Far from it. Just look at the New Model School Company, which provides low-cost, private education to disadvantaged children. Or even the trades unions that provide millions of their members with access to affordable, private healthcare.

But big government’s greatest trick has been to convince everyone that they can’t live without it. And this, ultimately, is the political point of the big society agenda: people have become so reliant on government doing things for them that we can’t just roll back the state and hope for the best.

Maybe the private and voluntary sector would fill the gaps, but the adjustment process would be painful and the politics of the situation impossible. Instead, we should use the power of the state to remake society, to stimulate the renaissance of voluntary co-operation, and make room for the bureaucratic state to gradually, not suddenly, withdraw.

That all sounds appealing, but there are dangers. Government is unlikely to be any better at planning society than it has been at planning the economy. Indeed, the fact that teams of civil servants have been assigned to oversee big society pilot projects does not bode well. Nor does the idea of a state-sponsored Big Society Bank, or a “neighbourhood army” of Government-trained activists, fill me with optimism.

It would be all-too-easy for us to end up nationalising and bureaucratising existing social enterprises, getting them hooked on taxpayer subsidies and subjecting them to countless rules and regulations, rather than inspiring a generation of new ones. The Government’s influence could, in other words, be malign rather than constructive. Only time and experience will tell.

But whatever the outcome, it is good to see that at least some on the Right are abandoning their belief that “society” is an inherently Leftist concept, which stands opposed to free markets and individual freedom.

This notion – perhaps rooted in a woeful misunderstanding of Margaret Thatcher’s “no such thing as society speech” – does them no favours at all. For, in fact, the market and society are two sides of the same coin. One means voluntary co-operation in the economic sphere, the other means voluntary co-operation in the social sphere. And we need both if we are going to make Britain a better and more prosperous place to live.

Published in the Yorkshire Post.