14/09/2010

That society thing: Big, small or no such thing?

Society in all its forms is getting a bit of an airing at the moment with Dave's Big Society generating all sorts of discussions. Most of them centre around how vital it is that the state does everything. This morning on R4 there was a discussion on Library funding and the use of volunteers.
We've also had talk of parents running independent schools on a voluntary basis as part of the big  society. But they are all missing the point .


If we quickly go back to first principles we find that we hire the state to do the things that we can't do individually. Defence and crime and justice being the main two functions we need to hire people to do for us and these people we now call the state. The defence bit means we need to have relations with other countries so it also makes sense for the state to do that as well, we can't all be ambassadors for ourselves with every country much is we'd all like the perks that go with the job.

So, having hired a state we have found that there are other things that we would like it to do. Public health is a big issue as we can all be affected by a small minority not pulling their own weight and causing disease and other health problems. In response  we have decided that we will hire the state to empty the bins. It doesn't have to be done by the state and isn't in Ireland. All it needs then is a few rules to make sure its done properly and everyone complies. Those rules can be based on the do no harm axiom, so if you don't put your bin out an pay for it to be collected  and someone is harmed you get punished.

We have also decided to hire the state to provide and deliver health care, it doesn't have to be delivered by the state, many other countries have far better health care than us and all the state does is make sure it is provided, it stays well clear of delivery. The same has happened with the two areas mentioned above, libraries and education and there is no reason at all why the state should provide these, they can be done quite easily by a private company if that is what we want.

But something strange has happened over the past thirty or forty years or so. Rather than us hiring the state to do things we can't be arsed to do or just can't do ourselves the state is now dictating to us what it will do and how much it will charge us rather than us deciding how much we want to pay.

The need for spending cuts is now giving us the opportunity to re-look at what we get the state to do for us and whether or not we want them those things doing collectively and if so is there a better way, cheaper and with higher quality. To which the answer has to be yes, because if this is as good as it gets it time to emigrate.

Lets start with education. I think we can all agree that up to a certain age, lets say 16, education is a good thing and we something we all benefit from. People who are educated to a basic standard are better behaved and more likely to be able to look after themselves in the world of work and be a nett contributor. So how should we provide each child with that education? We could hire the state and let them do it, as we do now, or we could ask the state to collect some money from all of us and give it to those who need education, well to their parents as we can't trust anyone under 16 with a cheque for £8k or whatever it is we decide to give them each year.

The only stipulation we say is that the money must be spent on education and that the education must provide the basics. So maybe we should have a few people to help us decide what the basic minimum a school must provide and then let them get on with it. As it happens I reckon parents will pretty soon decide what it is they are looking for and we won't need that much regulation.


This has been tried in other countries, most notably Sweden, and there they don't rely on volunteer parents setting up schools in their spare time, companies have been formed and parents hire those companies to educate their child. If they don't do it properly they take their children elsewhere. Its worth noting here that those social democratic Swedes don't have a problem with those companies making profit either.

So now we've established that we don't need the state to do everything for us, we can organise ourselves in many different ways can now thank a lot of those people for all the help they have given us in the past but we, the tax private payers, have decided that there are other ways to organise ourselves and whats more we can still call it a society. And at the same time we can tell Unison, Unite and all the rest of the trade union leaders who want to use those we hire to inflict misery on us to fuck off and we'll do it differently from now on.

What we really need now is for the debate on the Big Society to be be a debate on How Big Society and then how we deliver it. For me it should be a small society, but I understand the politics. But anyway, call it what you will, it can't be about the state telling us what it will deliver and how much it will charge us, whether we want it or not.

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