Thursday, April 14, 2011

Goodin and the Big Society

From PEA Soup

Posted by Jussi Suikkane

As anyone who reads Leiter Reports or follows the Philos-L mailing-list knows, there has been a big uproar recently in the UK about the AHRC’s (a government body which funds Arts and Humanities research) ‘connected communities’ funding scheme. One problem is that, in advertising the scheme, the AHRC has adopted the current government’s notion of the ‘Big Society’. This raises a variety of important ethical questions about on what grounds public research funding should be distributed. However, in this post, I want to focus on the question of whether the Big Society is a good idea in the first place. It seems to me that, contrary to what some people at the AHRC and the government seem to think, there’s already plenty of good philosophical research done to show that it is not (which has unfortunately been ignored in the public discourse). So, to do my part of the unoriginal academic research on the Big Society, I want to lay out Robert Goodin’s argument against the Big Society from his wonderful 1988 book Reasons for Welfare – the Political Theory of the Welfare State.....

There’s one assumption in the debate which all sides currently accept (which of course the followers of Nozick will contest). This is the idea that, if there were only completely free markets and nothing else, this would make the position of many individuals unpalatable. We are not necessarily talking here about only our physical needs such as food, shelter, and health, but also perhaps our educational and cultural needs and the like. Because of this, justice requires some kind of government intervention – regulation of the markets and some redistribution.
The main debate then is about how the state should alleviate the position of those who will not be able to do well enough on the completely free markets to provide for their needs. Defenders of the welfare state like Robert Goodin (and myself) think that the government should intervene directly. It should set up centrally governed organisations such as hospitals and healthcare centres, jobcentres, housing projects, schools and colleges, theatres, youth centres, swimming pools and so on. These organisations should help everyone to meet their basic needs when they are unable to do so on the markets.
In contrast, the defenders of the Big Society think that the state should act onlyindirectly. It should buy the required services from private companies, or give vouchers for citizens to buy the services from them. It should also give resources for charities, voluntary organisations, and local communities so that they could satisfy the needs of those who fail on the markets. In this way, the state would step one back. Here’s why, on the basis of Goodin’s book, I think that this is a bad idea....

The comments are also quite interesting for those interested.]

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