Jock Coats: Two Cheers for Mr Dave 

I like to think I understood [1] the basic idea and the potential [2] 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) [3]” (of which there is also an audio book recording, by me, here [4] and here [5]). 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 [6] 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.

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14 responses to “Jock Coats: Two Cheers for Mr Dave

  1. I don’t see anything of merit in that post.

    Cameron wants a semi-quangoised voluntary sector that is anything but voluntary and in fact an arm of the state. If the state is going to get out of various areas, then why doesn’t he suggest it do that? All grants to the lucrative “voluntary” sector should be stopped immediately.

    Of course I know that having destroyed the fabric of society, the public will to contribute to voluntary causes is diminished. But I don’t fancy being frogmarched into funding lucrative supposedly charitable money-spinners through my taxes.

    If I ever go bankrupt, I’m setting up a charity to get money from the public purse, much of which will go on my salary and pensions. If you think that is society and not the state, you are deluded.

  2. Big Society? That rings a bell! A bell that plays the tune “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”.
    “The civil government is not to save mankind; it is to protect residents from fraud and violence {domestic and international}. Nothing more, nothing less. But the State, in attempting to do more than this, has done less. We are no longer safe on the streets, precisely because the resources of the State have been misdirected into salvationary projects. Lyndon Johnson’s use of Graham Wallas’ ghastly phrase, “the Great Society,” illustrates the lure of political messianism. From Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal, to Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, to Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, it has all been one basic movement: the Raw Deal. Raw for taxpayers, entrepreneurs, and freedom-lovers; beneficial for the manipulators.” (Gary North’s Epilogue to “They Call It Conspiracy”.)

  3. Voluntary associations are just that, something that people create for themselves. As soon as they become an arm of the state, at the beck and call of some crack-brained politician, they become anything but.

    There are a multitude of things very seriously wrong with the activities of the government in this land that this particular crack-brained politician could busy himself with and yet isn’t. Creating a Tory version of the Hitler Youth, or whatever, isn’t one of them.

  4. The larger charities have been reduced to state sub-contractors because they all take taxpayers money. Many registered charities are also essentually political lobbyists because they blatantly break the “no politics” rule and get away with it, especially those engaged in pc-approved sectors such as ecology and immigration.

    To those faults can be added their wasteful fund raising methods – 25-50% of the initial payments chuggers take goes to the fund raising private firms which employ them – and their incessant mailing of those who have contributed; the mailing of those who have contributed to other charities which have sold on their client lists, the large proportion of money spent on staff wages and expenses, the frequest cases of embezzlement of funds which often goes unchecked for years because of the lax auditing requirements of charities and their howling general incompetence.

  5. It is, as you say, a move in the right direction that should be encouraged.
    Whatever the limitations and compromises, circumstances did get a lot free-er under Margaret Thatcher.
    The enemy takes power by directing events to destinations that are not obvious at the outset.
    The way the initiative went back to Labour under Blair from the from the Conservatives being a case in point.
    Now Cameron should just start making some serious moves to get power back from Brussels and genuinely reduce government!

  6. Jock writes on LAF in defence of his article:

    “Why on earth would one go to the trouble of writing and referencing
    such a thing for it to be a joke. Nowhere does it say I approve of
    the methods of implementation of “Big Society” and if you actually
    follow the links to my other pieces on it you will see I’ve given it a
    deal of consideration and still come out sceptic.

    “But in the last analysis, in Nock’s terms, what they do appear to be
    doing is promoting a “recession” of state power in favour of social
    power. And some of their rhetoric on it, and the impression that
    opposition like Tristram Hunt are getting is that they really do
    believe in this rolling back of the state.

    “Indeed, one might even say that if the opposition are determined to
    attack it on the basis that *they* understand it to be an
    ideologically driven program of rolling back the state and allowing a
    “thousand flowers to bloom” then we ought to take some notice and try
    and help it along in a way that would be more revolutionary.

    “Once they start saying yes to various twee Big Society projects, I
    think they would begin to have a hard time refusing more ideologically
    state-reducing ones if pressed because the way they handle these sort
    of requests has to be seen to be “fair”.”

  7. @Robert Henderson | 15 February, 2011 at 9:40 am
    “Many registered charities are also essentually political lobbyists because they blatantly break the “no politics” rule and get away with it, especially those engaged in pc-approved sectors such as ecology and immigration.”

    In fairness, exactly the same applies to ‘charities’ that push a neoliberal/corporatist message — the desired status quo — such as the ASI.

  8. Is the Adam Smith Institute a charity?

  9. To say that Dave’s Big Society project leaves me somewhat underwhelmed could be construed as somewhat of an understatement. I not only considered it entirely worthless (like the man himself) but empty and insubstantial as well. That was until I saw that following article, one of a series, when the whole thing started to look as though it might be distinctly sinister and not at all insubstantial:

  10. Dr Sean Gabb | 15 February, 2011 at 11:01 pm
    Is the Adam Smith Institute a charity?

    It’s a joke, I know, but yes.

  11. That isn’t the Adam Smith Institute, but some fairly unimportant subsidiary.

  12. Sean wrote: That isn’t the Adam Smith Institute, but some fairly unimportant subsidiary.

    Really Sean? You obviously haven’t read their annual report. If I can refer you to printed page 16, you’ll find a section entitled “How to support us”. Read it, paying particular attention to the third paragraph. I don’t just make this shit up, you know.

  13. Patrick, Sean is absolutely right that the link you gave was concerning an unimportant subsidiary of the Adam Smith institute.

    Oh, and the link you just gave, it doesn’t give any mention of the Adam Smith institute being a charity in the third paragraph on page 11 (not 16)

    As it happens the Adam Smith institute is a registered charity but your links were wrong and when Sean pointed that out you should simply have given the correct link, not started talking ‘shit’.

  14. @C H Ingoldby

    I’m sorry, but my pointer to their annual report was just fine. If you read the third para of the section “How to support us” on printed page 16 — as I stated — you’ll find this text:

    In either case, if you are a UK taxpayer, please consider ‘gift aiding’ any donations to the ASI. That way, we can reclaim an extra 28% on your donation from the taxman. Higher rate taxpayers can also reclaim tax relief on their gross donation at 20%. The relevant forms are available from our website – all you need to do is print one off, fill in the details, and return it to us. Where it says, “name of charity” please write “Adam Smith Research Trust”.

    If the Adam Smith Research Trust is not the primary charity that the ASI is sheltering under — and you do confirm that they using at least one — would you mind telling me/us what their registration number(s) with the Charity Commission are?