Aidan Quh sets out the reasons against the Government’s vision for a Big Society.
The Big Society is a lovely idea, it really is. Communities providing public services, citizens running libraries and leisure centres, the common man extending a hand to his fellow neighbour – you don’t have a power drill Steve? No problem! Take mine old chum, mi casa su casa, and the same goes for my wife too. Boo, hiss and bah to those fat cat public officials, lolling around tax-payer funded leather armchairs whilst the poor and vulnerable starve in their beds.
Yes, it’s a tantalising vision that Cameron has crafted: the idea that society doesn’t need the state to provide some services because we have the skills, resources and (I quote) an “untapped social energy” to provide services for ourselves. We’ve been dependent on the state for years, suckling from its sallow teat like a babe in arms when we could just stand up, dust ourselves down and go build a school. It’s time to give communities the power to decide which services are really important to them and to give them the freedom to run them.
I hate to burst the bubble and rain on the parade, I really do. Even I started getting a touch misty-eyed there for a moment, but there is one critical flaw in all this schmultz and I’m afraid it involves me delving into the murky world of economics. Wait! No, please don’t go. I’ll disguise the economics by telling one of those nice stories with a cleverly concealed lesson which is revealed right at the end. Remember those? I felt so cheated when my mum told me a story about a hungry caterpillar but it was actually a story about childhood obesity. Thanks mum. THANKS A LOT.
Imagine there is a village of 200 people, where the inhabitants are very rich and they have lots and lots of time because they have rich spouses and they don’t do anything. Let’s call the village Hampstead. One day the villagers find out that the library is closing unless they decide to take it over. Half the villagers are very worried, so they get together at the golf club to eat vol au vents and drink Chardonnay and make a plan to save the library. “Hurrah!” the villagers cried tipsily “the library will be saved!” The villagers work tirelessly for 3 hours a day, 4 days a week, and buy lots of new books to make sure the library is the best in the land. On the day of the opening Dr. Evil appears, “lend me some books!” he cries. The villagers are angry, for Dr. Evil is the richest villager with the most time but he did nothing to help the library, nor did he give any money. They don’t want to let him in but they must because it is a public service. And then Mrs. Flaky starts thinking ‘if Dr. Evil can enjoy the library without working all week then I can too.’ And then gradually all the villagers stopped working for the library and stopped giving money and the library fell into disrepair and was lost.
This is called the free-rider problem, and it is one of the primary arguments for state provision of public services. Why would you pay for a service that other people can enjoy for free? How can you encourage people to collectively pay for a public good, like a library? The answer, of course, has been taxation and state provision. The state knows that libraries and leisure centres, social protection schemes and charities are good for us, and so they make us all contribute through our taxes and then they provide the services. It’s not a perfect system by any means. It’s often wasteful, inefficient and sometimes ineffective, staffed by public servants who lack motivation and expertise. But it is the only way because human nature dictates that ordinary people will not provide these positive social services without state intervention.
The Big Society is a big con. The government knows perfectly well that our communities won’t provide certain services because of the inescapable truth of the free-rider problem, but they’re telling people to do it anyway because they know if they don’t manufacture some cock-and-bull rhetoric like this then people will realise that their public services are being completely desecrated and revolt.
The Big Society isn’t about giving power back to the public; it’s a clever PR stunt devised to divert the public’s attention – look, big foot! – whilst the state whips the carpet out from underneath us. A nice story masking a nasty little truth.