The Big Society

NYTimes.com – TheOpinionPages/opinion
Published: May 19, 2011.    By David Brooks, Op-Ed Columnist

Fifty years ago, Jane Jacobs published a book called “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” The book was not only an indictment of contemporary urban development; it offered a vision for a healthy community. Jacobs described a streetscape as an organic ballet, as the comings and goings of shop owners, office workers, cops and parents. She described the complex interplay of many different types of people on one city block.

Here in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government is trying to foster that sort of society. Until Cameron, Britain — like the U.S. — had one party that spoke on behalf of the market (the Conservatives) and one party that spoke on behalf of the state (Labour). But Cameron is initiating a series of policies, under the rubric “Big Society,” that seek to nurture community bonds, civic activism and social capital.

The Big Society started in part as a political gadget, as a way to distinguish the current Conservatives from the more individualistic ethos of the Thatcher years. It has turned out to be something of a damp squib politically. Most voters have no idea what the phrase “Big Society” means. But, substantively, the legislative package has been a success. The British government is undergoing a fundamental transformation.

Cameron inherited one of the largest governments in the affluent world (under Gordon Brown, the public spending reached 51 percent of G.D.P.). It was also one of the most centralized. The national government accounts for 70 percent of total government spending in Britain, compared with 55 percent in the U.S., 35 percent in Japan and 20 percent in Germany.

Cameron has unveiled a series of measures to decentralize power to local governments, to increase government transparency and to disburse welfare provisions to a variety of delivery mechanisms.

His government has boosted the number of charter schools. There’s been a welfare reform bill to encourage work and to get rid of the perverse incentives that induced people to remain on the dole. The police forces are going to have to start answering to the public. Twelve more big cities will have now elected mayors. Local communities have more control of federal money and run things themselves. There’s been a raft of provisions trying to use the insights from behavioral economics.

Cameron’s trying to get the British people to change their social norms. Many British governments have effectively said: If you pay your taxes you can sit back and we experts will take care of your problems. The Thatcher government said: Get off your couch and start a business. Cameron says: Get off the couch and take responsibility for your community. Cameron is trying to spark active citizenship.

The measures are not without critics. From the left, Polly Toynbee, a columnist for The Guardian, argues that the current centralized system ensures uniformity and fairness. But with localism and decentralization, she continues, the richer areas will outperform the poorer areas. Inequality and corruption will replace fairness and uniformity.

Others see the Big Society as the gentle mask to cover savage spending cuts. Still others see it as upper-middle-class noblesse oblige. Working-class families who have two jobs and who come home exhausted at 10 in the evening don’t need to be lectured by the government on why they should volunteer at the blood bank.

There’s some truth to those critiques. But the Big Society programs still have the potential to produce enormous benefits for Britain.

The people who thrive in a globalized information economy have the ability to process complex waves of information. They have the ability to navigate incredibly diverse social environments.

Where do people learn these skills? They learn them when they grow up in and are nurtured by rich social networks. They learn them when they live within vibrant institutions that pass down practices and habits. They learn them when they live in areas of high social trust, where people are able to reach out and work together.

By decentralizing power, and inciting local energies, Cameron’s reforms are fostering the sorts of environments where human capital grows.

Cameron still has to fight for these programs, especially against the bureaucracy’s bias for uniformity and control. And the big shortcoming is that the Big Society skirts commercial life. If centralized government weakens community networks, then concentrated corporate power weakens the networks of entrepreneurs and tradesmen.

As the scholars at the think tank ResPublica have pointed out, big corporations use the complex tax code, dense regulations and state contracting rules to stifle small-business competition. Jane Jacob’s vibrant sidewalks didn’t only benefit from flourishing community groups, they benefitted from skilled workers linking together to share capital and work. The Big Society needs to connect with economic aspirations and broadly shared prosperity.

But, even so, Cameron is doing something interesting. No other government is trying so hard to tie public policy to the latest research into how we learn and grow.

< http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/20/opinion/20brooks.html?_r=1&ref=columnists >

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