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The power of the state is the root of the problem

Richard Reeves writes an article in the Telegraph called It’s not about the size of the state – it’s what David Cameron does with it that not only falls at the first fence (the title pretty much alerted me to the fact this was going to be filled ‘advice from the enemy’), it is overflowing with analysis that encapsulates the intellectual failing that underpin BlueLabour. Let me do a fisk-lette:

This week Cameron strayed further still, using the Hugo Young memorial lecture to attack Labour’s record on poverty and inequality. He said that a “re-imagination in the role, as well as size” of the state was needed to build what he called “The Big Society”. It is audacious stuff. Cameron has adopted Labour’s goals of narrowing the gap between rich and poor, reducing child poverty and promoting social mobility, and then damns Labour for failing to achieve them.

What is audacious about conceding the choice of battleground entirely to the nominal enemy? I say ‘nominal’ because in truth the philosophical/ideological differences between New Labour and the Tory Party (BlueLabour) are not that significant.

It is a bit like the ‘audacious’ plans by the allies in World War II to area bomb German cities to break morale by slaughtering enemy workers even though earlier German attempts to do that to Britain had been an abject failure. If “London can take it”, it did not seem to occur to the ‘audacious’ RAF and USAAF that, chances are, Hamburg and Berlin probably can “take it” too.

And so Cameron’s audacious stuff is to try and do what Labour tried, just ‘do it better’. Far from being audacious, this is just more of the same heard-it-all-before by-the-numbers political droning, tailored slightly to appeal to whoever he is talking to at the moment and which way the weathervane is pointing today. Audacious would require an actual meta-contextual shift and Cameron has made it clear he represents continuity, not radical change.

Labour’s response has been to accuse Cameron of advocating “Thatcherism or 19th-century liberalism”. Wrong on both counts. Mrs Thatcher was more likely to join the National Union of Mineworkers than to say, as Cameron did, that “strong and concerted government action” was needed to “remake society.

So if government action (i.e. the welfare state) has hollowed out civil society, it seems remarkable that the notion that more government action might far from “remake society” but rather just continue its unravelling. The brutal truth is that David Cameron (and I suspect Richard Reeves) do not really understand that society may be something governments can weaken and destroy but they is not something that states can “remake” because societies are not “things” in the same way states are, they are emergent collective properties produced by countless several interactions.

But for much of the 20th century, politics was defined by attitudes to the state: the Right against, the Left in favour. And in one area Cameron remains instinctively opposed to state action, which is financial redistribution to reduce poverty. Cameron claims that inequality has worsened under Labour. Actually, the picture is complex: on some measures the gap has narrowed. The fairest assessment is that income inequality today is roughly the same as it was in 1997.

The ‘right’ (a sloppy term really) is against the state? Like Ted Heath maybe? And just how many ‘right’ leaders in the 20th century actually shrunk back the size of the state, as opposed to just growing it a bit more gradually? Never mind that ‘inequality’ per se should not even be an issue (someone else getting richer does not make me poorer), the size of the state is the issue. The larger the state, the more civil society is circumscribed. The larger the state, the more wealth and opportunity is sucked out of productive sectors by confiscation and regulation.

The only think we need more of from government is inaction… we need less across the board, not more… Richard Reeves cannot see that because he is a regulatory statist who sees government in terms of the parties being competing ‘management teams’ rather like Soviet design bureaus… offering creative options within essentially the same ideological system and meta-contextual framework. But in truth we do not need ‘better’ government action, we need ‘less’ government action… dramatically less. We also need actual intellectual opposition, not a difference of management theories. In short we need a far less powerful and intrusive state vis a vis civil society.

It is very much about the size of the state.

10 comments to The power of the state is the root of the problem

  • cjf

    Then, when something gets large enough, it doesn’t seem to work as well.

    And, opportunities arise. Fake cops pulling people over is amateurishly common. With an almost unlimited supply of bureaus and ministries, who’ll notice another one, more or less?

    Fly-by-night is common. One day, an impressive office and staff, the next, an empty building. Police seem as mystified and unable to cope as anyone.

    I once created a bank department that was nothing but a folder, in my desk. Documentation, that’s the key.

  • Well, it is admittedly also about the role of the State for any given size. If my ‘betters’ nicked a third of my income so as to splurge it on champagne, exotic dancers, and portraits of themselves in big wigs on horseback, this would be a great inconvenience but I could live with it handily.

    Fortunately, people will not tolerate such naked theft. Unfortunately, plenty will accept it just fine when it is dressed up as the promotion of virtue. So my lords can still have a good share of champagne, fancy boys/girls/sheep, and golden vanities. But the price is that they have to nick, and spend, a thousand times as much on Liver Awareness Champions, Appropriateness Police, and Millennium Domes for the rest of us. These things make the baby Bacchus cry.

    A big State will be strident, bossy, and nose-into-everything – not only because its governing class are self-selected for getting off on power and status, but also because the taxpaying public wouldn’t stand the tab otherwise. It is always going to be spinach, and the hell with it.

    That shiversome ‘Broken Britain’ crap told me what David Cameron was about, right from the start. He will, of course, in many ways be an improvement – if only because it will take him a while to dig in as far as this bunch. But I shan’t be surprised if he also finds some nasty ways to reconstruct us – passive potter’s clay as we are – that even New Labour, with their somewhat different constituency, might still shy away from as unnecessarily provocative.

  • The purpose of the strategic bombing of Germany was to prevent Speer from ramping up war production as much as he would’ve otherwise, and to tie up the Lufwaffe on the Western Front so it couldn’t be used in the East. Its purpose wasn’t to break German morale.

  • The ‘morale bombing’ objective is very well documented.

  • John B

    Yes, Gary W, you are absolutely right, and then some. It is a very deep con trick. Deep because I think a lot of them actually believe they are doing the right thing and have absolutely no idea of the machine they are running. Even those close to the top. How deep can one get?!

  • I strongly recommend “The Collapse of the German War Economy 1944-1945 – Allied Air Power and the German National Railway.” by Alfred Mierzejewski UNC Press 1988.

    He described how, after must debate and wasted effort, the allies finally came up with a bombing strategy aimed largely at transportation and oil. Of course some ‘moral’ bombing still occurred but most of the effort was aimed at railyards and the synthetic oil plants.

  • Quite so Taylor. Frankly if we had just twiddled our thumbs until 1943 we would have been better off (and the ‘Oil Plan’ was only practicle once things like H2S and Oboe were in use). The term ‘agricultural bombing’ was not far off the mark until that point (even the ‘Transportation Plan’ was iffy to be honest, at least in the early iterations, but it at least made more sense than the preposterous national will ‘population’ bombing theory).

    Douhet defined his five target types as: national will, industry, transport, communications and government. And until later on in the war (late 1943 onwards really) accuracy was so poor that “national will” (i.e. population area bombing) was the only one really even nominally effectively (I say nominally because after GEE, it was at least possible to find and hit a city sized target at night or in 10/10 cloud). Early war strategic air theory was fantastical… understandable in 1939… inexcusable by 1942.

  • Oh course Douhet assumed that his notional ‘battleplanes’ would be dropping lots of poison gas as well as high explosives. Its hard to know what the effect of a mass gas attack, with the types he imagined which were mostly mustard and chlorine weapons would have been.

    Gee and above all H2S allowed for accurate bombing at night and in bad weather. Nothing like what we have now but still a major change.

    I wonder if twiddling our thumbs was a realistic proposal in 1942 when the Germans were on their way to Stalingrad. Sometimes moral bombing is done to buck up the morale of one’s own people. For example the Scud attacks on Israel in 1991 gave Saddam a legitimacy he could never have gotten otherwise.

    One other point , London could take it in 1940 and 1941, but by 1944 and 1945 when the V-1 and V-2 campaigns were underway and the people were sick of the whole thing the situation was pretty bad. Worse for the Germans, but not too bright in Blighty.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Cameron believes he can remake society by government funding of voluntary groups.

    Government funding would make them no longer voluntary (they would become dominated by paid hacks) and “remaking society” or “reshaping society” shows something very radical indeed – that Mr Cameron does not undersand what civil society is.

    It is not just that his polices would have the opposite of the effect he hopes (making society even more “broken” not less broken) although that would be the case, it is that the very effort to reshape society via state spending and so on shows a profound ignorance. In fact “ignorance” is too mild a word – for an ignorant man may know that he has very limited knowledge or may simply not hold with ordering folk about.

    What Mr Cameron is showing is a deep ignorance – mixed with a born-to-rule arrogance. He has been told (most likely at Oxford) that “society” is a good things – so he has decided to make one.

    When dealing with error of this scale it is difficult to know where to start.

  • Paul Marks

    In short.

    What matters IS the size (and scope) of the state – not the fluffy intentions of those who consider themselves in charge of it.