Monday, February 14, 2011

The big society, or politicians and "the vision thing"

Today, British Prime Minister David Cameron will further outline his idea of the Big Society. Curiously, the Big Society idea is compatible with Margaret Thatcher's idea that there is no such thing as "society"(!). The thought seems to be that we should all be more self-reliant rather than rely on "the state".

This is not to say that all should be left to fend for themselves and this is where the idea begins to run into some conceptual difficulties. So it is also the case that we should all be volunteering in our communities on local projects, such as libraries and schools. Such "empowerment" of citizens will re-energize communities and the Big Society can help solve society's big problems at a local level without having to always rely on teh state.

This idea of the Big Society has come under attack from a number of critics. One criticism is that the Big Society is a cover for "Big Cuts". The government is making major reductions in public financing and there will be waves of lost jobs, especially in the public sector. These cuts may include no funding for some services, such as libraries. So the criticism goes: the government wants us to do for free services that the public demands, such as public libraries.

There is something worrying about the promotion of free labour. It is striking at least to me how the first rungs on the labour ladder these days seem to be won by new recruits working for free before being offered a contract. The Big Society may well exacerbate this phenomena.

A further criticism is that a government advisor empowered to help implement the Big Society has himself now reduced his weekly hours. If the government's own advisor can't be asked to volunteer more of his time to the Big Society, then what should motivate the rest of us (who remain unconvinced)?

I suppose my biggest disappointment with these plans is Cameron's obsession with setting out "the visition thing". This is something that we have commented on before. Cameron finds himself in the odd position of losing political capital in trying to spell out an idea that may distract (and detract) from a serious conversation about public policy. Why must politicians always try to lay out a "vision"? Not all politicians have a vision or new political philosophy -- and how many more do we need anyway?

The best way to ensure that the history books look fondly on one's government -- short of writing the history books themselves -- is to ensure stability with growth (both in terms of economics and freedom). That one had a little red book or catch phrase need not entail more lasting impact or significance than one that did not.

If you have a big idea, then by all means share it. But, if not, then don't try. Cameron may learn that history may look more kindly on those that worried more about good public policies than trying to be a philosopher as well.

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