The Big Society and big government must not be mixed up

Several authors of this blog have welcomed the idea of the ‘Big Society’, as long as it stands for an orderly retreat of the state from some social functions to make way for autonomous civil society groups. But they have also warned of an alternative interpretation of the concept, which would have the state trying to ‘build’ and ‘foster’ civic organisations.

This approach is transporting the failings of industrial policy into the social realm. Far from solving social problems, it would provoke endless tug-of-wars between groups trying to obtain state funding to promote their particular vision of a good society.

The first signs of this are already evident. Lord Glasman of the Blue Labour group was dismayed when Locality, a charity, obtained a large government order to train community organisers. Glasman called the group

‘a paternalist, eat-your-vegetables-and-don’t-smoke type of organisation. Locality has no experience of training people from within deprived communities. They are well-intentioned busybodies.

I have no idea whether this is a fair description of the group (to be honest, I don’t even know what exactly a ‘community organiser’ is). But what should be clear is that as long as we have the Big Society and big government mixed up, such conflicts are inevitable. Civic organisations have their distinct philosophies and approaches, which, inevitably, some people will wholeheartedly embrace while others will roll their eyes. And this is as it should be. If we already knew which approach to which issue works best under which particular local conditions – what would we need a Big Society for? We could then just stick to the previous government’s approach of hiring more social workers and implementing more social programmes. The whole point of the Big Society is the realisation that we need variation, experimentation and competition because our knowledge is so limited.

The absolute worst-case scenario for the Big Society idea would be if it degenerated into a series of political controversies over the allocation of tax funds between eat-your-vegetables-and-don’t-smoke, go-to-church-and-be-faithful, and watch-your-carbon-footprint-and-be-nice-to-minorities types of organisation. We should re-orient the whole debate towards removing the obstacles which keep people from engaging in their communities, and make way for a messy coexistence of competing local approaches.

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

3 thoughts on “The Big Society and big government must not be mixed up”

  1. Posted 12/07/2011 at 16:45 | Permalink

    I’m not sure of the exact numbers (is anyone?) but I think that something like 40% of the income of charities in the UK comes from government funding rather than private giving. It’s certainly a high proportion. In short, I’d say that we already have the sort of blurring of such boundaries – the charitable sector (like industry, agriculture, the arts) is becoming dangerously corporatist. This is evidenced by charity executives lobbying and complaining when funding is reduced, or withdrawn. As you rightly point out, the Big Society agenda could be excellent, but it could also lead to further destruction of ‘social capital’ by state intervention with the state actually expanding its power (cuts and devolution of power are limited and strongly opposed whilst state intervention into this sector is increasing).
    One certain fact that I was interested to discover while trying to find the make-up of charity finance was that funds are increasingly being consolidated into fewer charities. I don’t doubt that this is a consequence of state intervention in the sector (the state is more likely give to big charities who can do the necessary form-filling and bureaucratic compliance, something private individuals don’t require). This poses major issues for the small-scale – but perhaps most effective charities – who face danger of being crowded-out, as well as for ‘social entrepreneurs’ whose start-up charities face a similar fate.

  2. Posted 12/07/2011 at 16:50 | Permalink

    PS If you want to know what a ‘social organiser’ is just look at the President of the USA – he was one!!

  3. Posted 14/07/2011 at 13:09 | Permalink

    Quite so. I could think of a few ‘charities’ which are, in effect, left-wing Think Tanks.

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