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Bookmark and ShareWritten by Aleksi Knuutila and Eilis Lawlor from the Valuing What Matters team

It does exist after all. Apparently it has been broken for a while and now requires enlargement. Delivering the 2009 Hugo Young lecture at the Guardian, David Cameron stated that he wanted a “big society”, in place of Labour’s “big state”. He believes that the “growth of the state has promoted not social solidarity, but selfishness and individualism”. The alternative is to “help families, individuals, charities and communities come together to solve problems”.

Cameron’s calls for cuts in the scale of government are obviously pandering towards the fiscal conservative wing of his party. To some extent he continues the tradition of earlier conservatism, defined by Thatcher, in which the state was blamed for the moral degradation of society. The state fosters a dependency culture, discharges people from their responsibilities, and displaces families as the proper purveyor of moral values.

Cameron’s true volte face is in coming up with new victims for the state’s malice. Cameron blames government for worsening many of the themes that have traditionally been the concern of the left: the gap between the rich and the poor and material deprivation. The large size of the state, he claims, is “inhibiting, not advancing, the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality, and increasing general wellbeing”.

This appears to be a canny political move. Issues such as poverty and particularly inequality would traditionally be far from the conservative agenda. Cameron believes that by naming big government the culprit, he can mobilise conservative support even for traditionally lefty topics. He can move into Labour’s territory without losing his party’s base, as long as a smaller state is presented as the solution. So far his political gambit seems successful.

In Cameron’s view, society consists of individuals, families and communities. Government is external to society and engaged in a zero-sum game with it: The expansion of the state can only be to the detriment of society.

Third sector organizations and social enterprise are put forward as the vehicle for delivering on social goals. Cameron believes these institutions to be almost like an extension of communities, accountable to their will and able to engage them in “self-improvement, mutuality and responsibility”.

The premise that third sector organizations would be representative of community is often false. Many charities that have been tasked with delivering public services have grown so large they are as unresponsive to the needs of their clients as state departments but devoid of any formal accountability. With a large size they also acquire monopoly-like power over the services that they deliver, and can begin to work for an interest of their own. In that sense they have more in common with large corporations. The opening up of competitive markets in public services to third sector organisations has explicitly encouraged this development.

Conversely, the government providing things need not be opposed to citizens taking responsibility. Ideas of design such co-production can make sure that the clients have an active role in the delivery of services. The interface between government and civil society is what matters. Cameron forgets that the state is a part of society too, and that a good society requires strong public investment to maintain public goods and collective solutions. This philosophy makes no provision for preventative services, or long-term solutions of the kind that we now need. In spite of the rhetoric about outcomes, he has reverted with the Conservative obsession with the mode of delivery.

Cameron’s emphasis on decentralization and active citizenship is commendable. Who would not want people holding power and being actively engaged in shaping their lives? As means for delivering the changes in society the “progressive conservatives” are after – social mobility and reductions in poverty – they are blatantly insufficient.

To reduce inequality we must make a political topic of another forgotten part of society – the economy. All major parties today regard the economy as a sphere with its own natural laws and best left to its own devices. The role of government is merely to correct market failures and fix some of the resulting unjustness after the free reign of economic forces. The question all of the parties fail to ask is whether the economic system itself, with its gross inequalities and individualistic bent could be the root of the problem.

Labour’s measures such as the minimum wage and tax credits have obviously mitigated some of the growing disparities in the economy. The Tory promises to lift the threshold of the inheritance tax and cut unemployment benefits can only aggravate them and don’t fit well for Cameron’s newly found interest in the poor.

What is needed is a society of many parts: a fair economy, an effective state and a committed community – all of appropriate size.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.