A short piece written by Richard Reeves from the Policy Network last month on a state fit for individuals:
The supplanting of radical liberalism, shot through with an interest in and dependence on individual morality, with Fabian-inspired social democracy ceded the language of morality—of virtue, goodness and character—to the right. In the US the “moral majority” is short-hand for right-wing attitudes. Socialists and social democrats very often run the risk of seeming amoral. An unwillingness to pass judgement on others, based on fears of “imposing middle-class values” or “blaming the poor”, and their faith in the power of the rationally-planned state action are twin silencers of social democrats on the big moral questions.
The agenda of social democrats for the latter half of the 20th century was to construct state welfare systems, for health, education and income replacement, and thereby protect people from the evils of poverty, sickness and ignorance. To a large extent, this was a liberal agenda, too: the opportunity to lead a flourishing, chosen life relies on sufficient economic resources, health and knowledge. It is no coincidence that in Britain it was radical liberals such as Lloyd George who laid the foundations of the welfare state.
The value of these achievements cannot be overstated. But the way forward is not for more of the same—for more state-run welfare monopolies, more redistribution, more government spending. If social democrats want to renew themselves, they have to reach for a more liberal version of themselves.
I really can’t say I entirely agree. I really do think we need bigger government, although it may not be fashionable to say so. (I have never understood why. No one ever says we need smaller companies. As far as I can see, they’re allowed – indeed, expected – to expand much as they would wish.) We need – inevitably – bigger government in the face of bigger challenges, challenges which range from terrorism to climate change, from food shortages to energy crises, from credit crunches to grave political logjams, from public freedoms to very private rights.
But that bigger government needs to be fit for far smaller people. It has to allow people to organise themselves. Reeves is interesting, firstly, when he points out:
[...] Being a good citizen, a productive worker, a committed and loving parent, taking care of your health—now the personal is truly the political. The character of individuals, as Mill knew even in 1859, is a vital component of the progressive project.
Liberalism in its bastardised Thatcherite form was in some ways the enemy of character, promoting greed, selfishness and lack of care. But a liberalism which is founded on the conviction that each individual ought to be the architect of their own life, one which is not harmful to others, is not only hospitable to ideas of good character, but vitally dependent upon them. Free societies can only flourish when made up of good people. This means that the institutions in which character is formed, especially the family, are much more important to liberals than to either conservatives or social democrats.
And secondly, when he says:
The issue now is who is running the machine. Giving people more choice over their school or hospital, more control over the way social care budgets are spent and more say on local spending decisions are not a retreat from progressive goals, but their natural development. Now that the NHS has been built, it can be broken up—in the positive sense of being made more responsive to the needs and wants of those paying for it. The tedious rhetoric of “public service reform” is actually about a fundamental liberal question: who is in charge?
Just one example. The power of modern search engines places in the hands of the individual a library of knowledge like no other in history and at virtually no cost at all. Applied to governance, modern systems analysis could do the same. Integration of technology with a useful and intelligent identification of real need would be the key here.
Find a need, put it together with the right people and you’ll soon find the solution.
There’s always a solution.
And democratic socialism can provide it.
Just because we haven’t found it yet doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.