As anyone who reads Leiter Reports or follows the Philos-L mailing-list knows, there has been a big uproar recently in the UK about the AHRC’s (a government body which funds Arts and Humanities research) ‘connected communities’ funding scheme. One problem is that, in advertising the scheme, the AHRC has adopted the current government’s notion of the ‘Big Society’. This raises a variety of important ethical questions about on what grounds public research funding should be distributed. However, in this post, I want to focus on the question of whether the Big Society is a good idea in the first place. It seems to me that, contrary to what some people at the AHRC and the government seem to think, there’s already plenty of good philosophical research done to show that it is not (which has unfortunately been ignored in the public discourse). So, to do my part of the unoriginal academic research on the Big Society, I want to lay out Robert Goodin’s argument against the Big Society from his wonderful 1988 book Reasons for Welfare – the Political Theory of the Welfare State.
There’s one assumption in the debate which all sides currently accept (which of course the followers of Nozick will contest). This is the idea that, if there were only completely free markets and nothing else, this would make the position of many individuals unpalatable. We are not necessarily talking here about only our physical needs such as food, shelter, and health, but also perhaps our educational and cultural needs and the like. Because of this, justice requires some kind of government intervention – regulation of the markets and some redistribution.
The main debate then is about how the state should alleviate the position of those who will not be able to do well enough on the completely free markets to provide for their needs. Defenders of the welfare state like Robert Goodin (and myself) think that the government should intervene directly. It should set up centrally governed organisations such as hospitals and healthcare centres, jobcentres, housing projects, schools and colleges, theatres, youth centres, swimming pools and so on. These organisations should help everyone to meet their basic needs when they are unable to do so on the markets.
In contrast, the defenders of the Big Society think that the state should act only indirectly. It should buy the required services from private companies, or give vouchers for citizens to buy the services from them. It should also give resources for charities, voluntary organisations, and local communities so that they could satisfy the needs of those who fail on the markets. In this way, the state would step one back. Here’s why, on the basis of Goodin’s book, I think that this is a bad idea.
The latter alternative is only distinct from the first welfare state model if the companies, the voluntary sector, and the local communities are given discretion. That is, they need to be ‘empowered to pursue some social goal(s) in the context of individual cases in such a way as [they] judge to be best calculated, in the circumstances, to promote those goals.’ Of course, as shown by the slides of the AHRC, the defenders of the Big Society explicitly use the language of empowering the communities. This means that the welfare activities which the state supports indirectly are still governed by some general rules, but the dictates of these rules are indeterminate.
The problem is that discretion in this context has four very bad consequences. Firstly, discretion leads to manipulation and exploitation. The voluntary organisations and local communities empowered by the state would gain some powers over the individuals they interact with. They could ‘lay down all sorts of demands and back them up with threats to withhold the needed resources from the other unless that person complies with those demands’. Given that, in the Big Society, the state’s other safety-nets would be withdrawn, many individuals would have no other reasonable choice but to comply. This would amount to exploitation backed up by the state. This is especially worrying because many voluntary organisations and local communities tend to adopt strongly moralising and religious tones. Often those whom they help are required to adopt higher standards of conduct than anyone else.
According to Goodin, the second consequence of discretionary powers is arbitrariness. This means that, from the perspective of those who are most affected by the actions of the voluntary organisations and the local communities, the voluntary organisations and the local communities ‘act without reasons that are known to and can be relied on in advance’. They might even act without reasons altogether. This leads to uncertainty, unpredictability, and insecurity which amount to the main ways in which the worst off will be burdened by the Big Society. And, presumably, ‘the poorer one is, the more urgent one’s need to be able to budget in advance is.’
Finally, discretionary powers also lead to lack of privacy and intrusiveness, i.e., snooping. The local communities will want to make their decisions on the basis of ‘full facts’. They will want to know whether the people they help satisfy their moralised requirements. Unfortunately, they will also be particularly effective in trying to find out whether the members of their community who need their help have deserved the help by their lights.
So, it seems like there is already plenty of evidence for why the Big Society is not a good idea from the perspective of justice. Rather, the state should intervene more directly to remedy at least some of the unfortunate consequences of the free markets.
I want to finish with two caveats. First, as Goodin makes clear, the bad consequences of discretion are not completely removable even in the institutions run by the welfare state. However, they will less severe if the state institutions are well organised and properly funded. Second, of course, the voluntary organisations and the local communities are a good thing. The point is that the state should not work indirectly through them. Once we have the welfare state, there is nothing wrong with either. This is because, in that situation, individuals will have reasonable alternatives for relying on them.