Wednesday, August 04, 2010

For the 'mixed economy'

David Cameron has intimated that the cuts are not a short-term measure to reduce the deficit but will remain in place at the top of the economic cycle too. It's part of the whole 'Big Society' initiative, which assumes - in a way that they haven't quite been honest enough to spell out - that the state has 'crowded out' the bounty of volunteerism that lies dormant in this land, waiting to be unleashed, like some kind of Anglican Prometheus, if only the dead weight of the evil welfare state can be made to wither and fall under the sword of righteous budget cuts.

Here's an argument that is designed to appeal to no-one, being as it is conservative with a small 'c'. Because regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum - these days it doesn't do to be anything other than 'radical'. Or 'progressive'. Both, if you can manage it. It's one for the interregnum - that space between this present darkness and the collapse of capitalism under the weight of its internal contradictions/the advent of that last great untried utopia - the completely free-market [delete according to preference]. How should we arrange things in this brief interlude in human history that has lasted for, ooh, nearly two hundred years?

I have a suggestion, which I'll be self-indulgent enough to introduce by the way of personal anecdote. My father was an academic who specialized in Soviet education. In this capacity he visited the USSR several times. I was invited to to come along when I was about sixteen or seventeen, which I declined on the teenage grounds that a house free from parental control for a week was preferable to what seemed then an unappealing foreign holiday. How was I to know that freedom from parental control would prove to be a more enduring feature of my existence than the Soviet Union? Anyway, I asked my mother what it was like. She described it as, 'public opulence amidst private squalor'. Glorious public buildings and trains that run cheaply and on time - but the people traveling on them can't get a decent pair of jeans for love nor money - unless the money in question was US dollars or British pounds.

This is what you get if the state is too large. And if it's too small? America I have been to. The reverse is the case: private opulence, public squalor. My sister lived in California for five years. America's richest state had the parents of publicly educated children exerting themselves in various fund-raising activities because their local schools couldn't afford to employ PE teachers.

The alternative? While we're waiting for the End of History, I would say the compromise that continental Europe has settled on is the best. Not private squalor and public opulence nor its opposite but something in-between. I appreciate it isn't very fashionable to make this argument but in the midst of all this rhetoric that promises us 'newness', I'd be very suspicious of anyone who has forgotten to say that there is nothing new under the sun.

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