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You can know buy a T-shirt with the phrase “Does my society look BIG in this?” on it. They are produced by Alison Gilchrist, RSA fellow and friend of Connected Communities. Surely the Big Society has come of age.

You can know buy a T-shirt with the phrase “Does my society look BIG in this?” on it. They are produced by Alison Gilchrist, RSA fellow and friend of Connected Communities. Surely the Big Society has come of age.

This month the Conservative MP Jesse Norman came to the RSA to present his take on the Big Society. I was struck by the extent that Jesse’s arguments echoed those of Philip Blond, the “Red Tory” who has also spoken at the RSA.

They both argued that the Big Society presents a challenge to British left wing thinkers and to neo-classical economics.

I think they are wrong on both counts. But more fundamentally, I think that they undermine their case by indulging in some pretty broad characterisations of their opponents’ views.

BIG GOVERNMENT

Both Norman and Blond argue that British left wing thinkers believe in big government and that big government has been one of the key causes of the decline in civic association in Britain since the war.

It is true that public services could do more to connected people with each other, but surely the relationship between public services and levels of association is much more complex than Norman’s argument suggests.

For example, in his seminal book Making Democracy Work Robert Putnam explains how higher levels of civic association leads to better performing government. In Britain, high levels of civic association (notably trade unions) were one of the forces which drove the expansion of public services after the Second World War.

Perhaps the thing about civic association and big government is, as the old song has it, “you can’t have one without the other”

Red Tories have a very positive view of the high levels of civic association in Britain at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. They talk in glowing terms about mutuals, co-ops and friendly societies. However, they talk in very negative terms about the establishment of the welfare state, something which many of these societies contributed to.

Perhaps the thing about civic association and big government is, as the old song has it, “you can’t have one without the other”.

ECONOMICS

Norman and Blond both argue that the Big Society presents a challenge to much current economic thinking. They argue that economics is based on the idea of individuals as atomised, rational beings pursuing profit. Since people are in fact more complicated than this, in particular they point to the fact that people value relationships very strongly, they argue that this position is untenable and wrong.

This is to fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of economic models. As Milton Friedman argued;

“Complete “realism” is clearly unattainable, and the question whether a theory is realistic “enough” can be settled only by seeing whether it yields predictions that are good enough for the purpose in hand or that are better than predictions from alternative theories.”

For example, criticising a map of London on the grounds that it is not exactly like London in every conceivable detail serves little purpose.

BIG SOCIETY

I think even supporters of the Big Society would admit that it is a nascent idea. The true believers are claiming big things for it (this blog makes some particularly wild claims, seemingly comparing the Big Society to impact of the printed Bible), but I can’t be the only one who feels uncomfortable by some of the wide ranging generalisations which proponents are making.

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