All Commentary
Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Society and State in Modern Britain


[A]n innovation which is a response to some specific defect, one designed to redress some specific disequilibrium, is more desirable than one which springs from a notion of a generally improved condition of human circumstances, and is far more desirable than one generated by a vision of perfection.  
—Michael Oakeshott
When the State seeks to perform the duties that ordinarily would be carried out through people’s voluntary social bonds, it damages these bonds and weakens civilization. 
Under normal conditions, there is a clear line of demarcation between the State and society. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once famously declared that there was “no such thing as society.” Her remarks referred to the nonexistence of a collective entity. 

No Society, Lady Thatcher?

Many on Britain’s left attributed a kind of moral bankruptcy to these remarks. Unfortunately, taken out of context, the phrase provides ammunition for collectivists who wish falsely to portray libertarians as uncaring, egotistical individualists interested only in maximum economic efficiency (or worse—profit). According to such critics, libertarian-minded individuals believe, contra John Donne, that each man is an island, and that what “society” exists at all is only a disconnected assortment of competing atoms, zealous only for their own interests at the expense of all others.
This straw man has proven to be a dangerously effective way of scaring many into collectivist thinking. In reality, any sound description of practical liberty places great importance on the role of society. Society consists of a complex array of fundamental structures, such as the family, as well as myriad other voluntary associations and institutions that tend to grow up organically—that is, without central planning. In fact, the path of modern history demonstrates that unwarranted and immoral State intervention has been the actual cause of social atomization. 

Welfare State Atomization

While both classical liberals and conservatives stressed the importance of separate roles for society and State, the twentieth century saw tremendous growth in the latter at the expense of the former. 
One prominent—but by no means solitary—example of this diminution of society is the replacement of private charity with the welfare state. From 1987 to 2012, in Britain, State funding of charities rose to such an unprecedented level that some 27,000 charities are now dependent upon the government for more than 75 percent of their incomes. The so-called “voluntary” sector receives more money from the State than from private donations.
This unnatural intervention weakens the sense of duty, custom, and manners that animate an organic system of civil society. State intervention has not only debased the very concept of charity, but reduced individual responsibility to others to what Kenneth Minogue has called mere “politico-moral posturing.” Such involves merely the desire to project one's decency. By having the correct socially approved opinions, one needn’t act at all. The morality of crowds is replaced by the burgeoning of bureaucracies. Once we have signaled our rectitude, we can go on behaving as atoms.


Proponents of the welfare state tend to ignore the plain evidence that wherever State interference hasn't cramped or enervated them, voluntary assistance and mutual aid have been the norm. Before the advent of the welfare state, this assistance came in the form of charity and mutual associations called friendly societies. 
In 1911, the year the Liberal government introduced compulsory national insurance, around 9 million people (of the 12 million covered by the scheme) were already members of such mutual aid associations. That’s 75 percent. During the nineteenth century, there had been a vast proliferation of friendly societies, which sought to provide social security and sometimes medical assistance to their members. Sadly, the imposition of the welfare state, particularly with the post-World War II Labour government, helped undo much of this positive work. (There are similar stories of crowdout in the voluntary sector in the United States.)
The Coalition currently governing Britain has just reached the halfway point in its term. In that time, there has been much debate over the respective roles for society and the State. Prime Minister David Cameron has made much of his flagship policy (known as “The Big Society”), which is ostensibly aiming to “create a climate that empowers local people and communities” that will “take power away from politicians and give it to people.” While this policy sounded to many like a refreshing change, few commentators cottoned onto the inherent contradiction in a bottom-up, grassroots movement being started by a Prime Minister. 
Despite the quasi-Burkean rhetoric, the “Big Society” still places the State in role of Nudger. Like most political approaches, it ignores the very edifice upon which a genuine functioning society truly rests: liberty. People do not require prodding from the State to fulfil the roles that society has traditionally performed. Left alone, people in “society” will function entirely naturally because they are capable of crafting effective civil society from the bottom up. Whenever the State assumes a role in this sphere it will have the opposite effect: Voluntary service will be viewed as superfluous, local non-State authorities redundant, charity itself corrupted.


It is remarkable how a once-liberal (i.e., liberty-loving) country could be so steadily inculcated with social democratic ideals. What was once considered healthy and good has come to be seen as aberrant and alien. Thankfully, a persistent germ of the individualist spirit still remains in Britain. Given adequate support, liberty could flourish once more. If Britain is to recover its former freedoms, the voting population must be informed and convinced of the superiority of spontaneous order over statist planning. The Big Society notwithstanding, government will not likely inspire its people to voluntarism.

  • Alastair Paynter is a masters graduate in history, from the University of Southampton. He lives in southern England.