Contrary to the “big government” approach of the Labour Party, the British Conservatives championed “big society” ahead of last year’s general elections. They promised a society based on “social responsibility and community action” and hoped that “charities, voluntary groups and a new generation of community organizers [would] help tackle some of the most stubborn social problems.”
Prime Minister David Cameron launched this civil society initiative last May, claiming that it was designed to “take power away from politicians and give it to people.”
That’s because we know instinctively that the state is often too inhuman, monolithic and clumsy to tackle our deepest social problems. We know that the best ideas come from the ground up, not the top down.
Good stuff except the left doesn’t seem to get it. In recent weeks, Labour has alleged that “big society” is no more than a euphemism for public spending cuts and Cameron has failed to convincingly argue otherwise.
In the Daily Express, Theodore Dalrymple does. He notes that “big society” is rather a bad name for an otherwise sensible idea: “that citizens should not rely upon the state and its bureaucracies for their own welfare.”
Making government smaller is a formidable challenge, according to Dalrymple. “A bureaucracy can be created in an afternoon but it cannot be dissolved in a decade.” But it’s a challenge the Conservative-Liberal coalition has begun to face.
We entrust the state with our health care, cradle to grave; it educates us, right up to postdoctoral level if need be; it guarantees our retirement; for about a third of us, it houses us; it employs many of us, either directly or indirectly; it even keeps us amused, through the BBC. For an increasing number of children, the state — and the TV in the bedroom — is the only father they will ever know. It gives us rights we never knew we had, but once we have them we are reluctant to lose them.
That sense of entitlement is precisely what’s driving Labour’s opposition to the dismantling of the welfare state of course.
One of the key problems about government doing what charity should, notes Dalrymple, is that “unlike real charity,” the government “can make no distinction between the deserving and the undeserving.” Charity thus loses its meaning and the taxpayer is discouraged from undertaking any charitable activity independent of the state.
Since a third of Britons are now completely dependent on the government for their material wellbeing, Cameron and his party have a tough fight ahead of them. Once people believe that they have a “right” to free education and health care and welfare benefits — and as long as they have politicians agreeing that they do — it’s difficult for the champions of freedom to reduce government to its proper bounds.