Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. … They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.”
The United States is at risk of creating a similar situation. Even prior to the recession, nearly 1 in 6 people relied on some form of public assistance, a figure that has dramatically increased as the economy has worsened. The government is trying to keep up, but its finances are already awash in red ink. By 2080, the CBO estimates that spending on Medicare and Medicaid alone will equal government spending on all its services and programs today. Simply put, there are limits to what the government can do.
As the government does more to help its citizens, Thatcher’s concern becomes all the more real. We are in danger of creating an entitlement society that will outlive the economic downturn. Power and responsibility have become too centralized and it has come at the expense of individuals. Building upon Thatcher’s ideal, current Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his “Big Society” initiative seeking to devolve power away from the central government and politicians to local communities and citizens. As he explains the initiative,
It’s about … redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street. … For years, there was the basic assumption at the heart of government that the way to improve things in society was to micromanage from the centre … but this just doesn’t work.
Cameron visited the United States this week. I’m hopeful that in between discussions of the Lockerbie bomber and the BP oil spill, Cameron was able to get a word in about his “Big Society” plan. Unfortunately, I think it would take a lot more than hope for Obama to take the idea to heart.
But he should. Our historic levels of debt and deficit illustrate the need for some sort of change. Moreover, a new Gallup poll finds that 11 percent of Americans say they have confidence in Congress--a historic low. The presidency does not fair much better with only 36 percent having confidence in the office, a 15 percent decrease since last year. It seems people’s faith in government, much less big government, is waning. But with a society that has grown dependent on Washington, something must step up to fill the void.
The underlying concept behind the “Big Society” could be just what America needs. Last week in addressing immigration I argued that we must change the tone of the debate, understanding immigrants can be job creators rather than job takers. A similar transformation must occur in how we view the role of government. As Cameron explained the change:
We need to turn government completely on its head. The rule of this government should be this: If it unleashes community engagement--we should do it. If it crushes it--we shouldn't.
In other words, we must reform and reduce the scope of the Washington bureaucracy. We must wean ourselves from our dependency on the collectivist machine. We must change government from a top-down organization that stifles innovation to one that encourages bottom-up thinking. Concomitantly, it must encourage, and even empower individuals and social groups to fill the void.
There is evidence to suggest that this could work. Unsurprisingly, when the government spends taxpayer dollars on charitable causes, people give less to charity. Arthur Brooks, author and president of the American Enterprise Institute, found that “numerous studies have demonstrated that a dollar in government spending on nonprofit activities displaces up to 50 cents in private giving.” This fact is played out in Europe where the high taxes and myriad government services of the welfare state lead to demonstrably lower philanthropic giving. For instance, while charity accounts for 1 percent of GDP in the United States, in France it is only .28 percent and in Italy a mere .09 per cent of GDP. The government is an inefficient and impersonal middleman. Forced philanthropy through taxation and redistribution reduces the inherent benevolence of society, while also sterilizing the pleasure of the giving process.
The federal government cannot do it all. In fact, if the CBO’s debt and deficit projections come to fruition, the government will be able to do less and less. That’s why society needs a jump-start. Bigger Washington has only decreased our satisfaction with its job performance and lessened our trust in their ability to do the right thing. Individuals and communities are ready to step up and fill the void. But we must let them. Thatcher may have said there is no such thing as society. But I agree with Prime Minister Cameron, “there is such a thing as society, it is just not the same as the state.”