Friday, November 05, 2010

David Cameron's "Big Society"

I found this New Yorker magazine article fascinating: "All Together Now!"
The topic is Britain's new conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, and his plan to solve the country's budget woes by having average people pitch in to help in small ways with things the government can no longer afford to do. Say the government can't afford to keep a playground well-maintained-- his concept is that local residents would get together in some sort of committee and assign each other tasks like raking, sweeping, painting, etc.

The article points out all sorts of weirdnesses to this-- why is a Conservative politician championing collective labor that sounds like it belongs in a Communist country? How does the Government expect to just totally back off from responsibility and not even provide any funds for getting these community schemes set up? Who's going to take charge of these local programs, and do people really want it to be the neighborhood busybody with too much time on his hands?

There's something to be said for the "niceness" of community participation but a lot of people just don't want to deal with the reality of it. As one man comments, more or less, he doesn't have time and prefers to pay other people to do this stuff-- the payments are called "taxes," and the "other people" are called "the Government."

But here's what didn't come up in the article that I'm curious about. Many of the the sorts of things the Government is looking to crowd-source are the kinds of programs that don't even get a lot of public funding in the US, like arts programs. Here, they get a lot of funding from rich people who want nothing more in return than social prestige and the satisfaction of doing something for others, and often, their name etched in stone on some building.

Why is David Cameron trying to get all the "little people" to volunteer to rake parks instead of getting a billionaire to pay the salaries of park-rakers in exchange for some warm fuzzy feelings and a bench with his name on it? Perhaps that sort of thing just doesn't play as well for P.R., especially in a country like the U.K., which has such long-standing class issues. Cameron is from the upper class himself, so I suppose he thinks he has to take this "we're all in it together" attitude rather than a top-down approach... but it doesn't sound very efficient to me.

It's not that I think the answer is for everyone to live off the charity of rich people whose whims dictate what services and enrichments the rest of us are allowed to enjoy. We'd probably end up with free eco-friendly dog-grooming salons on every corner (of terribly pot-holed roads) in some states, and free gun-shooting lessons for toddlers (but no public K-12 education) in others. As far as I'm concerned, taxes and government and elections are a pretty good way to provide the basic standard of living we've all come to expect as Americans living in the 21st century, with some private funding icing the cake. But I do wonder why the U.K. seems to have such a different approach to these things...


Nick D. said...

this is thought provoking, I've always been a fan of keeping the government small and out of my life as much as possible, on the other hand, as you stated, there needs to be something completed by the government. I will say this, education could benefit from being would see thousands of wealthy people spring up everywhere to create the best schools, because whats better your name on the side of a building or a whole generation of kids who have you to thank for their education....something to think about.

emily said...

I read this article too and found it interesting. I live in London (born and bred) and also find this concept completely strange. With all the other cuts that have taken place recently, it does seem strange that so many who are losing their jobs/income are now being asked to effectively work for free (a lot of the jobs going are public sector ones). I appreciate that what Cameron is saying is that we've been living above our means for so long, but I'm not sure he has an understanding of how people outside of the privileged class here feel/think/survive - & I'm not sure he & his government actually care.

I could talk for hours on this (we've had some lengthy conversations in the pub!) but basically right now the sentiment seems to be that the poor should help themselves and the rich should stop having to help them. Given the social care system we have here, it's a harsh change that will almost certainly only really be felt by those less well off. Our Chancellor, for example, keeps his money stashed off-shore, and also waived 6.2 billion GBP's tax owed by Vodafone. I also find it interesting how here we just get on with it and in France they strike and stamp their feet. Maybe the French feel their government still serves/represents the people there, but it doesn't appear to be the sentiment here.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts - It's always interesting to hear a different point of view.

Anonymous said...

i saw this article this morning ( and thought of this discussion. i actually think this is a little more appropriate although many may disagree. there is the debate that people shouldn't be forced to work for free with the threat of losing their benefits, but in reality those benefits are a form of payment in my minds. The added benefit is that the programs will give individuals the motivation to make a difference, contribute to society, gain experience, and network to find a more permanent and paying solution. They suggest the same for graduates who can't find work either, so why can't they suggest the same for those who haven't been in work for over a year??

Lisa said...

I think there used to be a time when you did take care of your neighborhood. Now we just leave it to the government to do everything. At what point do people take responsibility back and start doing something with themselves. I know this sounds harsh, but the more we seem to give the more people take.

Fraser Mitchell said...

This is just one of a whole waive of money saving ideas being implemented. The biggest problem is that although everybody knows cuts have to be made nobody is prepared to change their own lifestlye or behaviour, or vehemently protest if a cut might effect them in some way.

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Anonymous said...

The entitlement mentality is so deeply entrenched these days. Will Mr Cameron's ideas work. Somewhat.

It does anybody good to get involved in the community and I don't think he's saying anyone will be forced to make this sort of contribution.

I think he's also saying the cuts will run so deep that a lot of facilities will be suffering from lack of maintenance; so if you want your neighbourhood park to be well taken care of, get involved and do a share of the work. It will benefit you directly.

PPI said...

You are right, but don't you think that the credit crunch is still not yet over. Someone has to find the solution to get over it.

Anonymous said...

Charitable giving is considerably less in Europe than it is in the US. People overseas are simply accustomed to the government providing everything instead of philanthropist's donations. Plus the wealthy don't get charitable tax breaks in England/Europe like they do here.