The weaknesses of the "big society" should not blind us to the policy and political dead end of the "Big State". The public won't vote for the prescription that central government is the cure for all ills for the good reason that it isn't.
Although this is seen as “Blairite” it is also consistent with a more radical leftist tradition of scepticism about big government is a longstanding tradition on the left such as guild socialism, anarchism, market socialism or Marxism; the SWPer who asked his public choice lecturer “when did you become a Marxist?” was making a serious point.
And such scepticism is valid. In some respects (not all - I just highlight the flaws), the state does not promote leftist ideals:
- It is not very redistributive. The difference between the Gini coefficient for post-tax income (that is, income including benefits after direct and indirect tax) and original income is only seven percentage points: 38% vs. 45%. The tax rate for the middle quintile, at 27%, is not far short of the 32.6% on the top quintile. To a large extent, therefore, the state redistributes income within the working class. And this has an unpleasant effect. It leads to a “divide and rule” the working class, with some public workers and benefit “scroungers“ being stigmatized.
- It is insufficient to protect the interests of the vulnerable. The state can be - and often is - captured by people hostile to the worst-off with the result that benefits are cut.
- The state serves the interests of the rich whilst attacking the poor. A man who, in his mental distress, tries to kill himself is imprisoned for damaging property. A man who, with a more respectable mental disorder, wrecks the economy merely loses a knighthood; those who say Fred Goodwin broke no law miss the point - that there are no laws against capitalist vandalism.
- The state serves as a lightning conductor, which deflects criticism away from capitalism - for example, when the crisis is blamed upon Labour’s deficit or weak banking regulation rather than the flaws of capitalism itself.
- The state is run according to the same dysfunctional ideology than runs business - hierarchical managerialism. However, in the private sector its flaws are mitigated by the forces of competition whereas they are much less so in government. The upshot is that the state offers indifferent value for money.
It is in light of these flaws that we should read Sunny’s claim that spending cuts won’t make the government unpopular. Very many working people are not opposed to cuts because they do not regard the big state as their friend. And this is for a good reason.
Granted, David’s analysis and solutions here would be rather different from mine. But he is posing a good question. The tragedy is that, in our anti-political political culture, this question will be ignored.