1. Today’s post will be a bit more fragmentary than my usual column. I’m writing this after getting back from presenting at a Fabians
seminar on child poverty with Sue Bradford
. It’s the first time I’ve done a formal public presentation of that type, so getting it right has been my main focus over the past few days. (The powerpoint slides will be available on the Fabians website and/or here before too long.) It was a satisfying experience - I felt the presentation was well-received and it was a pleasure to follow Sue (whose credentials in this area are unrivalled). The questions were well-considered and thought-provoking, too. A big thank you to everyone who attended!
2. I’m looking forward to part 2 of “Reconceiving the welfare state” arriving from David Craig in the very near future. I hope you’ve all had the chance the read part 1, which was published here last Thursday. It’s a great piece of work, with some really cutting-edge conceptual thinking. David’s one of the very top academic brains writing on these sort of issues in New Zealand, and it’s really great to have him contributing to Policy Progress.
His post raised the pretty provocative idea that maybe, when confronted by ideas like David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, progressives (while justifiably suspicious as to hidden agendas) shouldn’t just reactively “spring to the defense of the state’s role”.
Instead, perhaps we should accept there is some genuineness and maybe some merit in attempts to “see what can be leveraged from wider elements of the social, local government, communities: elements imagined to be ‘closer’ to individuals and families, and as more flexible and people-oriented than ‘the welfare state’ . . . there’s a real will to see “communities” take up aspects of the social contract that the state has had.”
At the risk of misjudging where David is headed in part 2, I’d like to just add a few brief comments in response to this.
I certainly think there are merits in an honourable effort by progressives to engage with the things like the Big Society in good faith. A case in point is Matthew Taylor, who used to be an advisor to Tony Blair and is now chief executive of the RSA. He’s outlined his critical engagement with the Big Society on his blog in a number of posts including Big Society – ideas but no washing line, The Big Society – news from Downing Street, Big Society – Fair Society and The night watchman state?
And let’s not forget it was critics on the progressive side of things in the 1960s and 1970s who first pointed out the statist and disempowering tendencies of the postwar welfare state.
But I have a big reservation whether going ‘beyond the state’ really offers a way forward on the big issues. I don’t disagree that sometimes community-based service providers can meet people’s needs better than a government agency, but that’s still the state providing the financial resources. It’s just a matter of the state thinking differently about who it uses as its delivery agent (and maybe engaging/consulting more on what should be delivered and how.)
On the resourcing side of things, however, I just don’t see any other actor in society — not business, not communities, not social networks — that has both the will and the wherewithal to take responsibility for a prominent role in providing the resources for areas such as health or education or income support.
But maybe I’m missing something, or have misconstrued what this is all about. Anyway, I look forward to seeing where David Craig takes his line of argument next.
3. And while we’re talking about welfare state issues, I might just add a brief coda to my Understanding the purpose of the welfare state post from last Tuesday. One of the historical ideas I discussed was “decommodification”, which involved important services like health and education being taken outside the logic of the market. I ended by arguing:
If progressives are to recapture the debate, however, and both secure and further advance the institution of the welfare state, then we need to turn back to ideas such as the social wage and decommodification. We should look at both of these concepts again, and consider whether some version of one or both of those can serve to underpin a revitalised 21st century welfare state. And if so, we would need to think about what changes to the current practice of the welfare state that would imply.
On further reflection, and after engaging with David Craig’s post, I still think that it can be useful to conceptualise the welfare state as a ’social wage’, but I do wonder to what extent decommodification works even as an aspiration in the 21st century.
I alluded to this last week when I wrote that “the logics and practice of private market activity have increasingly been seen as something to emulate, even for non-traded services provided by the public sector, and even within the core Social Democratic regions such as Scandinavia.”
Do we really still seek to expunge market logics from, say, our school system, or do we rather seek to control which market dynamics to give free rein to and which to restrain? For instance, we might seek to incentivise innovation, but regulate competition between schools for pupils. I’m reminded of John Kay’s “disciplined pluralism”, as outlined in this post, back in April.
As always, your thoughts are welcome!