What’s a Big Society?

In opposition to “big government” and the British welfare state, the Conservative Party under David Cameron has come up with an alternative approach — “big society.” What does it mean?

According to the Conservatives’ website, they favor a society based on “social responsibility and community action.” They promise that under a Conservative government, “charities, voluntary groups and a new generation of community organizers will help tackle some of the most stubborn social problems.” And they have some thoughts on how to do it.

Several of the proposals lack any substance. The Conservatives would establish, for instance, a new “Big Society Bank” to fund neighborhood action and charities; launch a “Big Society Day” to celebrate their work and encourage others to partake in social efforts; and rebrand the civil service the “civic service” by getting bureaucrats to volunteer and participate. With unnecessary paperwork and “stiffling” red tape cut, civil servants ought to have plenty of time to spent on “social enterprises” indeed but it all won’t change the country too radically.

The party further pledges to develop “a new measure of wellbeing that encapsulates the social value of state action,” whatever that means. But they have more concrete proposals as well.

Among other things, the Conservatives intend to introduce a National Citizen Service to get youngsters involved in “improving their communities.” They will get charities and voluntary groups involved in existing programs as Sure Start, which is a Treasury effort to improve child care and education. And they will raise “an army of independent community organizers to help people establish and run neighborhood groups.”

This, of course, is all dependent on people’s willingness to participate — except when you’re under sixteen and thrust into an array of “community” programs.

If people want to work for their community, that’s wonderful. And it’s understandable that the Conservatives, who favor small government, especially in times of financial need, bother to explain in such detail what they’re going to replace Labour’s many pervasive welfare programs with. But they should be careful not to substitude one government operation for another. How exactly are they going to “encourage” people to donate more time and money to charity if not with financial incentives? How would they “promote the delivery of public services” if not with more regulation and control? In the end, there may be little difference between a state-run “big society” and good old “big government.”

One comment

  1. My feelings exactly. I made this point to a Conservative campaigner recently and he avoided the question quite well. Big society sounds a lot like big government. Don’t trust it at all.

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