Tuesday, February 05, 2008

State size and active citizenship

Does a big state crowd out the space for a thriving voluntary sector, sap citizens’ engagement and erode ‘social responsibility’ (as that nice man on the telly puts it)?

Apparently not, according to the Demos paper I mentioned last week. The think-tank’s new ‘Everyday Democracy Index’ looks at “how important democratic principles and practices are to the cultures of workplaces, to people’s community life, to the way they interact with public services, and even to the way they talk to their friends and family”.

It’s quite interesting:

The primary problem with our political institutions is… that they have become cast adrift from the rest of our lives. That’s why attempting to solve our current democratic malaise through institutional reengineering, without due concern for the cultures that surround and support those institutions, will not work. … So we would do well to pay much more attention to which particular patterns and arrangements of everyday life tend to give rise to democratic habits, and which do not. …
If we want to renew democracy, we need to reconnect representative politics and the informal sphere of people’s everyday lives, so that the two support and sustain each other. No model of democracy can succeed in the long term if the effect of its nominal success is to anaesthetise its citizens from the awareness of collective possibility that made it possible in the first place.

One of the strands of their index is called ‘Activism and Civic Participation’, which they measure across the countries of the EU using four indicators, based on whether survey respondents had recently (a) signed a petition, (b) joined a boycott or (c) taken part in a legal demonstration, as well as (d) the average number of civic groups people were members of or volunteered for.

Demos’s international comparison yields this:

One interesting question… is about the controversial relationship between the size of government and the vibrancy of the civic sphere. Some on the right… have blamed the expansion of government for the oft-noted decline in associational life and other forms of social capital. The theory is that as government gets bigger it ‘crowds out’ active citizenship, community spirit and voluntary initiative. What do the results for the Activism and Participation dimension add to the evidence about these claims? Broadly… this relationship is nowhere near so clear cut, and that in fact bigger government is associated – although probably not causally – with a higher degree of active citizenship. Figure 5 plots countries’ score on the EDI Activism and Participation dimension against their government’s tax take as a share of GDP. The relationship is positive, if only moderately consistent: bigger governments have more, not less, active citizens. To reiterate, this does not mean that legislating for bigger government will lead to a more vibrant civil society. But it does suggest that simply legislating for smaller government probably will not.

That nice man off the telly also says that there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state – which is true enough. But that doesn’t mean that ‘rolling back the state’ will leading to the ‘rolling forward’ of society – it’s not a zero-sum game.

The two are utterly interdependent. The state (at least, the democratic state) can’t exist without reflecting the views and needs of society, and a free society can’t survive without the state to guarantee some level of order and support the position of the vulnerable.

(Likewise, to add the third face of the indivisible trinity, the market can’t function without the framework of rules and institutions provided by the state, nor without the values and customs prevalent in society; and the state can’t function, nor can society flourish, without the economic growth provided by the market.)


Cassilis said...

Planning on posting on this myself if I find the time - interesting paper.

Here's a contrary thought though for you in the meantime:

"...in fact bigger government is associated – although probably not causally – with a higher degree of active citizenship"

..based on those four indicators of course - have respondents recently signed a petition, joined a boycott or taken part in a legal demonstration etc.

How does this point stack up if those petitions / boycotts & demonstrations are about big government?

Tom Freeman said...

Ha! I hadn't thought of that!

Clearly, then, the state needs to become so big that it can crush all signs of protest.

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