Big Society and the Big State

I was struck by the following statement in a summary of recent discussions at the Institute for Government on the “Big Society”:

“Most people solve most of their problems most of the time without reverting to the state.” The summary of the argument for the Big Society, goes on, “families, friends, communities and the marketplace can all help individuals to solve problems with minimal involvement from government.”

This is probably a fair summary of the sort of argument being deployed by advocates of the “Big Society”**. And before I say anything else, let me make it clear that there are some “problems” for which I think this is true. But, and it is an enormous but, the statement could only be made by people who either deliberately or out of ignorance have no sense of history or comparison.

Rather like the fish swimming in the sea has no concept of water, because it is all around them all the time, anyone who says the state in Britain today is not “reverted to” by most people for most of their problems, or at any rate a large proportion of them, is living in a fantasy.

Let’s just take a few “problems” as examples…..

Health – in most countries of the world, and in Britain until fairly recently in historical terms, if you get sick you either pay for medical help or you suffer and, if it’s serious enough, you die. The state, through the NHS, has largely solved this problem.

Children – in Britain today all our children, without exception, have a legal right to over a decades worth of free, full-time, education and, incidentally, child-care to the benefit of their parents. This is not provided by friends, families, communities or marketplaces. It is provided (even if not everyone uses it) by the state.

Transport – as you drive to work in the morning, reflect for a moment on what society would be like if the provision of roads, railways, public transport and enforcement of things like traffic rules were left entirely to friends, families, communities or marketplaces. I have been in places where they are, and believe me you would not want to go there.

The air we breath – again imagine a place where emissions were left entirely to friends, families, communities or marketplaces – it is not difficult, just remember 1950s London or go to Beijing or New Dehli today.

National security – now we get to really silly examples, does anyone really think we can defend our country on the basis of friends, families, communities or marketplaces? Well, yes, there probably are a few who believe that.

I could go on, but I think the point is made. If we are going to have a sensible debate about the ‘Big Society’, and I think the idea is not without some merit, let’s start from the realities of the role of the state in modern democratic capitalist countries – none of which spend less than a bout a third of national wealth on socially (state) organised provision of services and most of hem spend more.

So, people do NOT solve most of their problems through friends, families, communities or marketplaces. Which is not to say there are not problems, especially the more “wicked” ones, that would not benefit from more active, non-state, social organization. (And incidentally lumping together non-state social organization with ‘marketplaces’ is clever little slight-of-hand, but the two are radically different).

** Footnote: I am not “blaming” the author, Adrian Brown, for this quote – he was, I think, simply summarizing the views of the Big Society advocates. I have no idea what his position is, but in the rest of the report he reflects some of the concerns about the Big Society.

One thought on “Big Society and the Big State

  1. In reading i was reminded of the debates in 1905 when the Liberals planned major social reform ( education, pensions etc). At the time many libs were concerned that universal education was statism and gone too far . Perhaps the politicians do need a lesson in history and be reminded what there predecessors were saying a century ago!

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