Rehabilitate the state

Courtesy The Guardian World News by Roy Hattersley on 8/21/09

Those who decry ‘big government’ soon realise how much we need it when things go wrong

Seventy-six years after the New Deal eased America out of depression, United States congressmen – Democrats as well as Republicans – are rejecting President Obama’s healthcare plans on a matter of principle. Many were opposed to him bailing out the banks for the same reason. They believe government initiatives that influence the conduct of the economy and the welfare of ordinary citizens are, by definition, wrong. The more literate of them quote Thoreau. “The government is best which governs least.” The more rabid support another of their countrymen, John O’Sullivan, who simply asserted: “All government is evil.” The theory those 19th-century luminaries propagated is supported by an increasing number of people on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, patriots will claim it originated here with Magna Carta.

In continental Europe the state is more often assumed to represent the collective will and wisdom of the people and is, in consequence, expected to be benign rather than malignant. At this year’s G20 meeting, it was “rightwing” France and Germany which – having described the financial crisis as the result of Anglo-Saxon “light-touch regulation” – demanded more stringent government supervision of offshore banking and hedge funds, while “social democrat” Britain had doubts about the efficacy of interfering with the private sector. Ten years ago, Robin Cook used to tell the story of an argument between Tony Blair and President Jacques Chirac about the labour market. After Blair had insisted that the European Union’s restrictions on hours and rights of dismissal would reduce employment, Chirac asked him, “Am I on the right and you on the left, or is it the other way round?” He then added that “England” had a weakness for “social anarchy”.

The story may be apocryphal. But it represents the difference between the two political cultures. The distinction is not about the merits of private rather than public ownership, but about the necessity and propriety of government intervention – supporting the motor industry, ensuring the security of gas supplies from eastern Europe and, on the evidence of the last year, protecting its citizens against the greed and incompetence of the financial sector of the economy.. On this month’s evidence, the state’s intrusion into the economy works better than laissez-faire. France and Germany began to move out of recession – ahead of the UK.

There was a time in Britain when radicals believed that progress depended on following the continental model. Winston Churchill, in his progressive mode as New Liberal President of the Board of Trade, wanted to “thrust a big slice of Bismarkism over the whole underside of [Britain’s] industrial system” – a tribute to the German partnership between government and industry which had produced economic results that were the envy of the world. That ambition survived, in peace and war, until 1922. Then ministers regressed to the peculiarly British view of liberty – the belief that freedom is best defined by the absence of government activity.

In fact, active government, as well as being essential for economic success, is the only way of protecting the weak and redressing the balance of power between rich and poor. That is why the politicians and parties who represent profit and privilege want “to roll back the frontiers of the state”. And it seems that in Britain they preach the gospel of a free-for-all to a sympathetic audience. A stand-up comedian has only to mention welfare, health and safety to guarantee a laugh. Speed cameras are regarded as instruments of tyranny. People who have never heard of John Stuart Mill believe it is better for an individual to encompass their own destruction rather than for society to compromise with the “evil of allowing others to constrain him for what they deem to be his good”. Yet in modern society we are, inescapably, members one of another.

The time has come for “the state” to be rehabilitated. And that has to begin with the acceptance that when things go wrong, even the most passionate opponents of “big government” complain that the government is not big enough and should be doing more.

When a child dies of neglect or abuse, the local authority is accused of incompetence and negligence; if there is an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, claims about inadequate precautions are heard; former employees of companies which have collapsed during the recession demand to know why more has not been done to save their jobs. Those complaints are admissions that the state is, or ought to be, all of us working collectively for the common good. Europe believes that, Britain does not. But then, reluctance to learn from Europe is another symptom of the British disease.


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