But in 1974 or so – based on my experience of working with community groups and trying to reform a small municipal bureaucracy – I wrote a pamphlet called From Corporate Management to Community action which reflected my disillusionment with the technocratic fashions of the time.
New Labour was a social engineering government with a vengeance – with Brown given the time and opportunity to invent a giant machine for minute tweaking of socio-economic processes acroess the board. His budgets (companies), tax credits (households) and PSA (public service agreements setting targets for Departments) were infamous for their detail and optimistic assumptions about the link between technical means and social outcomes. It was not just the sheer arrogance – it was downright ignorance of the literature on the perversity of social interventions – which amazes.
Davies’s The Limits of Expertise tries to look at the philosophical underpinnings of what we might call the "policy bent" – by which I mean the incredible growth in the past 20 years of Think Tanks and of interest in policy analysis. That reflects, of course, the huge expansion in universities of social science, paramount amongst which has been economics – with its weird but (until recently) unquestioned assumptions about human nature. He has an interesting argument -
Unforeseen by the policy architects who designed the New Labour platform, the defining problem of the past decade has turned out to be an ethical-political one: antisocial behaviour. Utilitarian calculations can only conceive of the world in economic terms (‘economic’ in the sense of weighing up profit and loss), and as such are entirely ill-equipped to deal with this problem. It can be bracketed as an aspect of poverty or even biology; it can be tackled through an extension of police and surveillance technologies; or it can be swept under the carpet through mystical references to ‘communities’ and the voluntary sector. All the while, it looks set to rise in the future, thwarting all our expert analyses of the psychology and economics that supposedly determine it.That reminded me of David Cameron’s address in November which articulated his Big Society idea.
For the foreseeable future, our politicians will treat it like crime or unemployment: quantitative phenomena that rise and fall as outcomes of policy and/or the economic weather. In time, however, it may have to be treated as an ethical and political issue. At an ethical level, Richard Reeves points out that there is a growing need to revive respect for 'character’. He point to three dimensions of this: a sense of personal agency or self-direction; an acceptance of personal responsibility; and effective regulation of one’s own emotions, in particular the ability to resist temptation or at least defer gratification.
It reads very well – it is quite something for a Conservative Prime Minister to be committed to deal with poverty and inequality. He actually quotes from the recent Wilkinson and Picket book which strongly argues that healthy societies are equal ones.
Having proven (to at least his own satisfaction) that big government (spending) has not dealt with the problem of poverty, Cameron then suggests that the main reason for this is the neglect of the moral dimension, refers to various community enterprises, entrepreneurs and goes on -
Our alternative to big government is not no government - some reheated version of ideological laissez-faire. Nor is it just smarter government. Because we believe that a strong society will solve our problems more effectively than big government has or ever will, we want the state to act as an instrument for helping to create a strong society. Our alternative to big government is the big society.It is sad that I never found Blair or Brown singing a song like this. Of course one can make various criticisms – one of the best is in a TUC blog
But we understand that the big society is not just going to spring to life on its own: we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen. We need to use the state to remake society.
The first step is to redistribute power and control from the central state and its agencies to individuals and local communities. That way, we can create the opportunity for people to take responsibility. This is absolutely in line with the spirit of the age - the post-bureaucratic age. In commerce, the Professor of Technological Innovation at MIT, Eric von Hippel, has shown how individuals and small companies, flexible and able to take advantage of technologies and information once only available to major multinational corporations, are responding with the innovations that best suit the needs of consumers.
This year's Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Elinor Ostrom, has shown through her life's work how non- state collective action is more effective than centralised state solutions in solving community problems.
Our plans for decentralisation are based on a simple human insight: if you give people more responsibility, they behave more responsibly.
So we will take power from the central state and give it to individuals where possible - as with our school reforms that will put power directly in the hands of parents.
Where it doesn't make sense to give power directly to individuals, for example where there is a function that is collective in nature, then we will transfer power to neighbourhoods. So our new Local Housing Trusts will enable communities to come together, agree on the number and type of homes they want, and provide themselves with permission to expand and lead that development.
Where neighbourhood empowerment is not practical we will redistribute power to the lowest possible tier of government, and the removal of bureaucratic controls on councils will enable them to offer local people whatever services they want, in whatever way they want, with new mayors in our big cities acting as a focus for civic pride and responsibility.
This decentralisation of power from the central to the local will not just increase responsibility, it will lead to innovation, as people have the freedom to try new approaches to solving social problems, and the freedom to copy what works elsewhere.
But the fact remains that community enterprise (pity he didn’t mention cooperatives! is worth supporting. I was very heartened to read in another blog about the continuing success of the Mondragon Cooperative in Spain which has increased its enployment in the last 20 years from 20,000 to 90,000.
I remember visiting Mondragon in 1990 in an endeavour to bring its lessons back to Scotland.