Saturday, January 08, 2011

Big state little state

Having followed up on the one state/two state issue, this post picks up another thread from my “Influential left-wing ideas” meme: the big state/little state issue. Sorry to be self-indulgently self-referential. I think this will be the last post on this stuff, and then I’ll probably not be posting or commenting much for a week or so. Continue beneath the fold...


In my post, I suggested that mutualism, co-operatives and self-management, as well as the small state, are ideas that should be more influential on the left. Flesh (actually it was her that planted mutualism in my mind) similarly included mutualism and cooperatives in her list. On the other hand, Sarah included statism in her list.
Statism Like ‘neocon’ this is a word usually used by its enemies.  But having just read Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, I found myself irritated by his implication that just because excessive and authoritarian statism is bad, the opposite of these authoritarian movements – small state conservatism, laissez-faire capitalism – is automatically the right solution – it’s just another extreme. Goldberg is very good at depicting the excesses of state interference, but brushes aside the horrors of too little interference.
Flesh makes a similar counter-intuitive move by including the nanny state in her list, as an alternative to the “libertarian paternalism” of the current Coalition regime. Carl kind of weighs in on the statist side too, praising “democratic socialism” in explicit contrast to “libertarian socialism”, and condemning anarchism by claiming that “common cause can be achieved quicker with a conservative who believes in asset-based egalitarianism than an anarchist who believes it necessarily follows that a state leads to dictatorship and private property protection”.

My instincts, as you will have guessed, are firmly libertarian. But I also instinctually sympathise with these folks’ statism in an age when, in the UK and globally, we are seeing the dismantling of the already flimsy safety nets and securities provided by the social arm of the state.

Paul in Lancashire nicely resolves to square this circle:
By the end of 2011 I intend/hope to have: 
1) Resolved some outstanding intellectual incoherencies around a) the current limits vs. the desirability of social democracy; b) leftwing small statism in the context of the necessary shorter term defence of the welfare state; c) libertarianism vs. using social and economic power to take liberties; d) how the best bits of Modern Monetary theory might be adapted to the socialist cause.
From myself, clearly I don’t have the right sort of brain to think this through properly, but I guess that it’s not, as they say, the size of the state as such which matters. It’s about how to provide the kind of safety net the state has traditionally provided in the social democratic model, while also respecting individual dignity and deepening democracy, and on the other hand avoiding bureaucracy, dependency and the concentration of power.

I think this is why alternative economic models, which return to an older socialist tradition, the tradition of mutual aid, self-help and voluntary co-operation, are having something of a revival: offering the hope of social solidarity outside the state. See, for example, the rather dense two part argument from the IWCA on economic democracy (1, 2), Allan Engler’s book of the same name, its libertarian critique here, and Will Davies’ interesting take on mutualism from a social democratic perspective.

3 comments:

Sarah AB said...

Interesting post - yes, I was being a bit consciously contrary in including 'statism' - though it was a genuine response to Goldberg too. The word 'statism' really doesn't give one a warm glow, and I think it's a good influence only as one mechanism for delivering services fairly and well and limiting inequalities. As I see it as a means rather than an end I'm perfectly receptive to trying to reduce the state along the lines you indicate. This is not an area I have read much about and I haven't followed all your links, which might clarify your position further, but one anti-state position which makes me uneasy is the suggestion that charities could replace some of the state's functions. This is perhaps because I have across so many negative fictional representations of the way in which charities in the past performed some of the functions of the modern welfare state.

Would you support some form of a citizen's income as a way of increasing personal freedom and reducing bureaucracy while still providing a safety net?

schalom libertad said...

The books reviewed here might be worth a read: "The State of Statelessness" http://www.the-american-interest.com/article-bd.cfm?piece=916

bob said...

Sorry for very slow reply!

I liked that you were being contrary, and sympathise with it. I broadly agree with you.

On charities, well, I have absolutely no problem in principle with stuff the state does being done by charities or by the so-called "community sector". But in practice it is fraught with problems, from the faith base of many of the charities, to the paternalist and patronising way many treat the objects of their charity, to the lack of accountability and democracy involved. The pre-welfare state point is very relevant: it seems to me that in the post-welfare state Big Society we are returning to the worst of Victorian paternalism. It is interesting how many of the institutions of Victorian philanthropy and muscular Christianity (e.g. settlement houses) are coming into their own again!

Citizen's Basic Income: I think so.