I like to think I understood  the basic idea and the potential  of “Big Society” early on; in fact before the brand name even reached the airwaves, when we heard mutterings about free schools, I wondered if that idea was going to be cast wider to encompass other policy areas.
I have an advantage in this: I am an admirer of Albert Jay Nock, and in particular of his short book, “Our Enemy the State (pdf) ” (of which there is also an audio book recording, by me, here  and here ). Nock was one of the first libertarian thinkers I ever read, mainly because apart from considering himself a thoroughgoing anarchist, and an admirer of Thomas Jefferson, Herbert Spencer and Franz Oppenheimer, he was also a fan of the Henry George’s Single Tax and I was at the time also convinced of his arguments.
In “Our Enemy the State” he posits that the “state” and “society” are diametrically opposed constructs and that any increase in state power or functions necessitates a lessening of the effectiveness of and appetite for social power to produce solutions to social problems:
It is unfortunately none too well understood that, just as the State has no money of its own, so it has no power of its own. All the power it has is what society gives it, plus what it confiscates from time to time on one pretext or another; there is no other source from which State power can be drawn. Therefore every assumption of State power, whether by gift or seizure, leaves society with so much less power; there is never, nor can there be, any strengthening of State power without a corresponding and roughly equivalent depletion of social power.
…and with the example of the great relief effort that was mobilised in the infamous Johnstown flood disaster, he illustrates that not only is social power itself diminshed by the state’s encroaching on it, but that we would tend to roll over and let it:
When the Johnstown flood occurred, social power was immediately mobilized and applied with intelligence and vigour. Its abundance, measured by money alone, was so great that when everything was finally put in order, something like a million dollars remained. If such a catastrophe happened now, not only is social power perhaps too depleted for the like exercise, but the general instinct would be to let the State see to it. Not only has social power atrophied to that extent, but the disposition to exercise it in that particular direction has atrophied with it. If the State has made such matters its business, and has confiscated the social power necessary to deal with them, why, let it deal with them.
All this was written in 1935, against the background of the rise of totalitarian states in Europe, and in the US, the Great Depression, which was prompting the government to ever more state intervention which Nock and others at the time thought might lead them in the same direction as Russia, Germany or Italy. In fact, he considers the New Deal as a sort of a coup d’etat, but conducted by purchase not by violence: by purchasing the votes of millions through the creation of a client state; a vast increase in the number of bureaucrats; and a similar increase in the number of people dependent on state welfare or indirectly through state regulation (for example, if you think the state’s looking after you by mandating a minimum wage or some kind of safety regulation).
So, many people will just say “well so what? If we vote for more state intervention, if we think that creates a fairer world, where’s the problem?” And may will simply not agree when I say that it simply doesn’t create a fairer world, and more often than not creates a less fair world. A world in which some people get to live off the productivity of others for a start. And throughout the history of states, as Nock and Oppenheimer say, that has meant the wealthy and connected living off the production of the poorer and less well connected. Indeed it is the origin of states – a more powerful group expropriating the production of a less powerful group. And so insidious is it that they would have us believe that the only thing standing between civil society and “might makes right” is in fact the state, whose origins are in exactly that, “might makes right”.
And so, to Big Society. There are some of us who passionately believe then that “social power” can deliver all the social goods some people think only “state power” can provide: security, equity, a safety net for when we cannot cope, and most importantly greater freedom and respect for individual preferences. But can we believe that Cameron, Clegg and so on believe this also? After all, they are part of a group of people who have sought, and gained, control of all that “state power”. Nock does not believe that states ever hand back power: that only by its ultiamte collapse having consumed all the production of society and still not sated itself to the extent that people begin to have to serve the state for nothing – slavery in effect – can we hope to reclaim that lost “social power”.
He feels that even when you vote for a different party, you’ll tend to find that that different party simply accepts the current status quo of the balance between state power and social power and may reduce the pace at which the state seizes further power, but in general will not begin to hand it back. It may occasionally appear to be handing back power, by, for example, switching from direct subsidy, to imposing regulations that have a similar effect. One might suggest that the Thatcher era privatisations were such an illusory transfer of state power back to social power. But ultimately it still keeps its friends in privilege at the expense of the least well connected.
But Big Society appears to be different. I noticed in Any Questions on Friday Tristram (“I’m not a Jeremy”) Hunt criticised Cameron and Clegg in the context of a question on Big Society, for believing ideologically that the state should get out of people’s lives and that a “thousand flowers would bloom” to replace its functions. Then we hear Clegg on Sunday  telling us that “You should not trust government – full stop. The natural inclination of government is to hoard power and information; to accrue power to itself in the name of the public good.” These are unequivocally good signs it seems to me.
I still have many qualms over the way this great hand back of power, if that is what it really is, will be implemented – after all, even as Prime Minster and Deputy Cameron and Clegg are but two people within a vast bureaucracy that has huge vested interests in holding onto power, and I’d rather people power stole it back from the state rather than the state controlling that hand back. But if we, those who are affected by overbearing state power, and those who would benefit from increasing social power, can grasp this opportunity, then perhaps, just maybe, we can make it happen.
But people have got to be persuaded that the state is bad at doing many of these things and that “we the people” could do them better, more efficiently and with a greater respect for the needs and preferences of individuals. That in itself is an enormous task, so conditioned are we to believing the state does so many things better than local or private provision could. That is the challenge of Big Society. And its inauspicious start makes it all the more difficult.