Monday, September 24, 2007

Thoughts on Reinventing the State

I have written for the first time on LibDem Voice. 'Commissioned', indeed, to write 500 words on the new Liberal book, Reinventing the State. I'll wait for the cheque. As the book's nearing 400 pages, that means I had to write the equivalent of no more than 1.25 words per page. And, of course, I had far too much to say. In fact, I found it stimulating to the extent that I came up with various different reviews, plus my own reflections on some of the ideas in the book. What I post here are not the 'out-takes', but my own personal view on the ideological issues the book raises. Here's what I typed:

Perhaps the most effective virtue for a liberal is inconsistency. We do not believe that the state is always the right solution, or that the market invariably has the answer. We know it depends on circumstance. And – this is the crucial point – circumstances change. There are times when the state needs to intervene, and there are periods when its power needs to be constrained. If we ask when intervention is necessary, the simple response is when our society is in crisis – when inequality is so stark that local or charitable solutions can not be sufficient. The contention of Reinventing the State is that we are at one of those moments of crisis. And, what is more, we have to battle not only with the old enemies of poverty, lack of opportunity, unequal life expectancy but also with a new foe: climate change and the destruction of our planet. To my mind, this challenge is also the impetus to a new perspective on our ideology.

Liberals have in their mind a concept of the individual, the essential, irreducible unit of society. When we think of individuals, we do not imagine each of them to be isolated. In each person clusters various communities, of which they are member by birth (gender, race, for instance), by circumstance (physical inhabitance, career) and by inclination (sexual orientation, political persuasion). So many communities that the individual naturally has to choose which of those to privilege in their own self-definition. Those choices and some of the communities themselves will change over a person’s lifetime. This is a liberalism with which we might be familiar. But it is not enough, as the challenge of the environment should remind us. That is a challenge which we have to tackle for our own generation but all the more for future ones – not just for today’s children, but for theirs in turn. In other words, the individual of whom the liberal conceives is a member of the various communities already mentioned, and of a community which includes the not-yet-living.

Does this matter? I think it does, for two reasons. First, because it has relevance beyond that of the environment, providing a longer-term perspective on some of the other issues that we face. Previous generations of liberals, including the New Liberal thinkers of the early twentieth century, had confidence in a concept of progress. In that mindset, future generations could be expected to enjoy an ever better existence which, perhaps, meant that their welfare did not have to be of concern now. Progress is the god that died; we think beyond our own graves with a sense of anxiety, not confidence. But in protecting the heritage we leave, we face another problem and that is the second reason why this matters. We have to ask ourselves how far the ‘not-yet-living’ can be used as a trump card? How do we ensure that our stewardship for future generations does not create unacceptable brakes on our freedom in our own lifetimes?

I don’t pretend I have the answers to those questions yet. But we should be asking the questions.


Mark said...

The idea of progress is an interesting one. The idea of one generation having a better standard of living than the previous is of course a recent phenomenon. Sadly probably a temporary one.

One could also start with an anthropological view of our origins, and say much of what we refer to as community is really descended from tribal roots - but I'll leave that train of thought alone.

The concept of multiple identities, with people from similar backgrounds living in different locations but sharing much in common has probably always existed.

However a generation back those individuals had less opportunity for the deep and regular communication that created a "community".

The last 50 years' improvements in technology means virtual communities can replace/supplant a local community.

On a personal level I'm not (even remotely) part of the facebook generation, but I've found visiting US/Canadian friends that we share similar technology based sources of reference.

We read the same (online) papers, have access to podcasts of radio programmes of current affairs. When we talk we have a shared understanding - that's much more than just a shared language. That's a significantly closer relationship than with many people in my own locality.

At the same time the ties of local community can be weakened by the way we organise work. Moving every five years to take up different jobs means we have fewer developed roots in a locaility.

Perhaps no wonder we hold onto the communities of interest which have the potential to be more long-lived.

Lyons made the point in the introduction to his recent report around 30% of people (figure quoted from memory) had little feeling of local community identity. Much bureaucratic effort is going into trying to get local government to create "places" to address this.

But perhaps its a canute like fight against a technology driven paradigm shift. Countries will remain but their citizens increaingly look across to other communities.

Unfortunately I recall such perceptionsexisted in Edwardian Britain, subsequent events reinforced a feeling of national identity that shaped much of the 20th century.

We must be careful what we wish for.

Anonymous said...


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