The Big Society and big government must not be mixed up

published on the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) Blog, July 2011

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.