A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

We need a revolution in the culture of active governement

In Home Affairs, Ideology on October 8, 2009 at 10:53 pm

DAVID WEBER

My politics teacher from my green-eyed days of school (yeah, right) used to characterise extreme liberals and extreme conservatives thus: “The former have no concept of individual responsibility, the latter have none of social responsibility”. Though there is doubtlessly more to political analysis than this, it is a good starting point, and sums up one of the critical problems with the level of political debate in this country.

The Conservatives, over their 18 year period of rule from 1979-1997, helped transform the debate over public spending drastically. Their economic policies moulded society into one which far more readily asked the price-tag of a policy, to the effect that the incoming Labour government of 1997 was forced to accept the neo-liberal consensus regarding tax and spend, fostering a relatively low-tax (for the wealthy, certainly) economy and funding spending programmes through other means (such as, for example, allegedly miraculous economic growth).

It not only makes sense for the State to influence the choices we make that affect public spending, it can be socially desirable that it does.

However, whilst the Conservatives were doubtlessly successful in forging a strong link in consideration of public spending and economic cost, they were just as undoubtedly unsuccessful when it came to creating a similar link between social policy and social responsibility, perhaps partly because the concept of social responsibility (that is, the real meaning of the word, rather than generic political rhetoric about social morality) did not feature highly in the ideology of Thatcherism. But simply having a society where we always think of financial cost before considering policy is not enough: to be healthy a society must also think of what we should be contributing societally in return. And this is an idea which is all too missing in our culture today, where people appear to take the view all too readily that the only cost to themselves should be from their wallet, rather than their behaviour.

This is a profoundly damaging point of view, because it ignores the whole rationale for the existance of public services to begin with. Firstly, public services exist to tackle social problems. So social behaviour matters, as it is part of the very reason for services to exist in the first place. Therefore there will inevitably be a direct link between social behaviour and taxation used to fund these services in the first place, meaning that it is logically inconsistent to attach a purely financial cost to the funding public services.

Secondly, people fund public services unequally when it comes to what they consume from them (a rather obvious point, as that’s the whole point of the service being public, the fact that a dichotomy exists between ability to pay and need to use). Therefore their social behaviour may be increasing the cost to another to a disproportionate extent.

Thirdly, there are many factors beyond our control that cause the need for public spending. Therefore it makes sense to minimise the amount of unnecessary spending, caused by factors that are within our control.

Fourthly, there are widespread economic reasons behind the existence of social problems to begin with, but given the nature of the economy (a relatively free-market base) our social behaviour has an impact upon this, an effect probably more transformative and certainly less prone to side-effects than direct governmental, top-down, intervention.

Therefore the concept of social responsibility coming with social provision is an extremely essential one that is all too often overlooked. It not only makes sense for the State to influence the choices we make that affect public spending, it can potentially be socially desirable that it does.

A practical example would be healthcare spending, particularly at a time when rising healthcare costs are part of a big worry at the heart of all healthcare systems. Given the price-tag that comes with improvements to medical opportunities, it makes sense to economise on the avoidable drains on the public purse in order to deliver the best possible opportunity to those who suffer from unavoidable social ills. Definining the latter and distinguishing it from the former is no doubt an incredibly tricky, painful process, which will incur disagreement from all sides of the spectrum. But equally there are obvious cases, such as obesity, smoking-related and alcohol-related illnesses.

And by all of this I do not mean an attack on the most socially disadvantaged. I do not mean forcing people suffering from these illnesses to pay out of their own purse. Nor do I just mean increased tax to deter people from pursuing these practices, though that should form a part. Rather I mean the government taking a proactive step toward encouraging healthy social outcomes, including the subsidising of healthy food, attempts to drastically improve the education of society about living healthily, and using the tax system smartly in such a way to turn cheap, unhealthy comfort food into mini-luxuries, and encourage the promotion of more natural and healthy alternatives.

For too long, people have regarded State intrusion into everyday life as by definition “illiberal” “Nanny state” and anti-privacy. In reality, though there are undeniably many areas where the State is all of these things, there are also many areas where it needs to take more of an active line, if only in the interests of reducing the need for intervention in the future. And just possibly, if we start to have this debate on more mature terms in the future, we might be better able to prioritise between the unnecessary, reactionary intrusion; and the healthy, socially beneficial intervention. It should be self-evident that where the society needs to help people, people should be thinking of how they can improve society. Or to paraphrase Kennedy: “ask not just what your country can do for youask also what you can do for your country.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: