The Big Society, from England

Here is Wikipedia on The Big Society.  Here are my impressions:

1. It is nice to have a conservative movement which is pro gay rights and reasonably socially liberal, while still fiscally conservative.

2. Their person in charge of naming should be fired and sent to study Orwell.  The words "Big" and "Society" make each other sound much worse.  I would have preferred "The Small Non-Society," "The Small Society," or "The Big Non-Society," or "The Medium-Sized Hook-Up," among other options.

The only worse name I can think of is Big Society Bank.

3. From a distance, it seems that almost everyone in the UK hates the program.   

4. Most of the important market liberalizations in the Britain have come through expressions of centralized political power, but for market liberal ends.  Margaret Thatcher is the classic example, but you could go back to the repeal of the Corn Laws or for that matter the abolition of slavery.  The Big Society pretends to have found a new formula for British liberalization and I suspect they are simply misguided.

5. John Kay put it well: "The Big Society might in the end mean no more in practice than the encouragement of volunteers to supervise public libraries, just as stakeholding ended up only as the name for new tax breaks for private pensions. If an emphasis on hybrids is to make the transitions from sound bite to political philosophy to practical policy, the largest group of questions that need to be answered concerns the closely related issues of hybrid capital structure and governance. Faced with opportunities to review these issues in the establishment of new regimes for hospitals, schools or railways, the Treasury resisted giving answers, because to do so would make the transfer of autonomy to the newly established bodies real."

6. The Big Society may create lots of decentralized power structures with the worst aspects of the private and public sectors, and those structures may in the longer run thwart true liberalizing reforms.

7. Admittedly this is from a critical source, but I don't think it is a terribly biased article.  Doesn't this make it sound…lame?: "The initiatives being championed include a local buy-out of a rural pub, efforts to recruit volunteers to keep museums open, support to speed up broadband supply, and giving residents more power over council spending."  

8. Since they presumably have read both Bryan Caplan and Matt Yglesias, why would they push for direct election of police chiefs?  Is there any good argument for that practice?

9. I hate local councils.  Might the disproportionate reasonableness of the British population be partially related to the fact that they don't spend so much time in local politics?

10. The cutting and consolidating of benefits is the best part of the whole scheme.  It is long overdue.

11. The real UK economy is in any case badly ailing, and for reasons which have nothing to do with the current government.  Finance is a far iffier venture than in times past, the tax haven gains for London will persist but may not be a source of future growth, British manufacturing has long been weak, their fossil fuels have not so bright a future, and British pharmaceuticals seem to have hit a dry spell.  What do they make?  The economy is in for a tough time no matter what, and the policies done in the meantime will receive a bad name, whether they deserve it or not.

12. England probably has the worst health care policy in Western Europe.  Still, whatever payoff will come from the proposed NIH reforms probably will take quite a few years, even if all goes as planned.  It is difficult to drag a health care system out of its established pathologies.  In the meantime the system will cost more and make the preexisting faults of the British health care system, including its inequities, more visible.

13. Unlike David Leonhardt and some other commentators, I don't blame fiscal austerity for their output and adjustment problems; their monetary policy has been fairly expansionary and they are not in a liquidity trap.  Scott Sumner is the best commentator here.

As it stands, I don't see the whole thing ending well.  It's not targeting what are actually their biggest micro problems, which are increasingly polarized labor market outcomes, a paucity of competitive export sectors, and some deteriorating educational institutions, at multiple levels.  I don't much care whether a citizens group shows up and feigns a Tocquevillian approach to running the local library.


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