David Cameron’s effort to revive the Big Society raises a question: could it be that the social preconditions for an active, autonomous voluntary sector are lacking? I’m thinking here of three things:
1. A body of frustrated workers. A century ago, the voluntary sector was staffed by women who had been excluded from the labour force (think of Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey), whilst trades unions and friendly societies were established by intelligent, energetic workers. Today, though, the women who provided the backbone of voluntary societies are in the labour force, whilst some of the men who energized trades unions got to university and left their class for middle class jobs.
2. Colossal inequality and genuine poverty. This encouraged workers to set up self-help groups, as no-one else was going to help them. It also encouraged voluntary work by the upper class, either out of a sense of noblesse oblige or by giving them a private income that freed them from paid work and hence made them look for something to do.
3, Religion. There’s some evidence that religious believers are more prosocial and more likely to give to charities. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are nicer than non-believers. It might just be that the fear of eternal damnation gives them different incentives than non-believers.
The thing is, though, that these three conditions are weaker now that they were in the (perhaps mythical) golden age of the big society. The potential supply of self-help and voluntary workers is thus less than it would otherwise be.
This leads me to two thoughts.
First, most readers of this blog will think it a good thing that these factors are not so strong now as they were many years ago. And yet I’m not sure that the lack of supply of volunteers and self-help is a good thing: I fear that the public’s apathy about the Big Society has the same roots as its lack of desire for worker ownership and control. Some good social developments, then, can crowd out others.
Secondly, might Cameron be making a similar mistake to the more enthusiastic libertarians? They have long though that, if the only the state would get out of economic life, it would unleash a wave of entrepreneurial activity. Cameron, likewise, seems to think that if the state gets out of social life, it’ll unleash social entrepreneurs. But in both cases, it ain’t necessarily so.