Tuesday, April 24, 2007

‘Ask not what my policies are…’

Yesterday David Cameron gave a speech on ‘social responsibility’.

His line is that when government tries directly to make society better, not only does it usually fail but also it erodes the space in which ordinary people can act themselves to make society better; so, government should pull back and allow people to take more of this responsibility for themselves. In many ways it’s a presentational revamp of the ‘cut red tape/shrink the nanny state/support marriage’ outlook, phrased much more nicely than Peter Lilley ever put it.

He wants politicians to resist the (media-driven) urge to “do something” – which can be a very fair point. But at the same time as he’s trying to promote a more minimalist state, he can’t help reaching for state solutions here and there.

For instance, in terms of raising children, he argues that parents must understand “that it is their responsibility, not the school's responsibility, to bring their kids up with the right values”. He also criticises the previous Tory government for “the over-prescription of the national curriculum”. But he goes on to say that he is developing “plans for a national programme for all sixteen year-olds that helps teach them the responsibilities of adulthood”.

And on law and order, he complains about ASBOs but refuses to scrap them. He ridicules the idea of putting “a policeman on every bus” but says that the police should have less paperwork so they can spend more time “engag[ing] directly with the community they serve” and stopping people in the street.

Indeed, the logic of his argument, if taken seriously, points towards the position that any state enforcement of laws distorts people’s incentives, changing their behaviour from mutual civility into punishment-avoidance. But of course he doesn’t take it that far; there is, even though he doesn’t say so, a trade-off to be made. And because he keeps this quiet, he can claim on any given count that his approach is simply about “trusting people”.

The reason Cameron’s analysis fails (depsite several fair points dotted around the speech) can be seen here:

“What builds society, what encourages civility, is people taking responsibility. Putting each other before themselves.”

There’s a vast lacuna between the first and second sentences. Yes, putting each other first will encourage social civility. But “taking responsibility” isn’t the same as doing that. “Taking responsibility” doesn’t in itself mean anything without specifying what it is you’re responsible for (but the phrase sounds good, and it works as cover to justify any amount of state-shrinkage).

But what he seems to be saying is that society will be nicer if people take it upon themselves to be nicer. The thing is, though: being able to decide to be nice is not the same as being nice. And giving people more control over how nice they can be isn’t the same as getting people to be nicer.

As an example, he wants businesspeople to understand “that it is their responsibility, not just the government's responsibility, to think about the social and environmental consequences of what they do”. Which, at face value, means that working standards and environmental protection would best be advanced if the government resorted to gentle cajolery and hope rather than statutory compulsion.

At one stage he kicks away the apparent optimism that his vision stands on:

“I believe that government has a vital role to play in changing social behaviour. Not by trying to control it directly through initiative, regulation and law. But by creating a framework of incentives that encourages people and organisations to behave responsibly.”

Now, if incentives for responsible behaviour have to be created by government, then the faith that he likes to place in human nature would seem misguided. But whether this is true or not, he ignores (when it suits him) his own guidance on the insidious effects of state involvement in people’s personal lives.

He identifies the most important institution in society as the “strong family”, deserving of state financial support. (His concept of family strength – two married parents – remains wilfully simplistic.) But if he wants to subside marriage, that risks skewing incentives to get married away from love and towards money.

One of his early starting-points is that “target[ing] specific instances of bad behaviour with specific state interventions… is just treating the symptoms, not the cause”. But in bribing people down the altar, regardless of their personal qualities, he clumsily targets a specific instance of supposedly good behaviour – a symptom of responsibility – without making anyone more responsible.

(One final quibble. At one point, he cites the recent Unicef report [PDF] on children’s lives: “the only measure where we didn't come at or near the bottom was health and safety. We have miserable, badly behaved, badly educated children – but we keep them safe from cuts and bruises.”

It’s a cheap shot, and if he or his speech-writers had spent two minutes online, they’d know that the indicators the report used to create the “health and safety” rankings were: “number of infants dying before age 1 per 1,000 births; percentage of infants born with low birth weight (<2500g.); percentage of children age 12 to 23 months immunized against measles, DPT, and polio; deaths from accidents and injuries per 100,000 aged 0–19”. Are any of those things really worth the sneers?)

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