As the General Election approaches, we shall hear much about “rolling back the state”. Instances of bureaucratic bungling will be dwelt upon, to the exclusion of countless occasions where “bureaucracy” has fulfilled its benign and unobtrusive function of regulating our common life. The less thoughtful will be eager to pillory the “nanny state”, while simultaneously demanding that “something should be done” about their pet concerns.
This combination of subjectivity and illogic makes it difficult to debate the place of the state in ensuring justice and enabling progress. The political philosopher John Rawls defined the duty of government as “adjudicating where interests collide”. That concept is morally sound, but it requires sufficient ethical judgement to understand that the common good and personal gain do not always coincide. If the poorest in society are to believe that they have a stake in our common life, adjudication must give priority to the disadvantaged.
Where the interests of the weakest are protected, the prosperous and articulate often feel resentful, and protest loudly that the state has diminished their liberties. The claim of the American writer H. L. Mencken that “all government is evil in that all government must make war upon liberty” may seem like an adolescent squeal to liberal minds, but it is more widely held than advocates of the good society might care to believe.
Incompetence and over-centralisation are the enemies of progressive thinking about the creative role of the state. The unintended consequences of inflexible or poorly framed legislation fuel indignation among those who will not acknowledge that an abuse does not vitiate a use, and that reform of what is flawed is generally to be preferred to its abolition.
The state must therefore show itself to be both efficient and proportionate in action and legislation. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), which was designed to counter terrorism and organised crime, was so loosely framed that local authorities were able to use its powers to authorise covert surveillance of citizens suspected of allowing their dogs to foul footpaths.
Ill-written legislation feeds the prejudices of those who have a vested interest in opposing the active state. Even more damagingly, it arouses knee-jerk hostility from the very people who stand to benefit from intelligent and ethical interventionism in taxation, education, health care, employment, housing, and finance.
Equally damaging is the interpretation of secondary and unintended consequences as malignant conspiracies. Health-and-safety regulation sometimes veers towards the absurd, but it also saves lives. Speed cameras may be revenue-raisers, but they act as a curb on the criminal irresponsibility of those who think they should be permitted to imperil their fellow citizens by driving as they please. To present such legislation as instruments of tyranny is evidence of moral illiteracy.
Constitutional and electoral reform is also essential if voters are to have confidence in state decisions. Parliament must regain the authority to hold the executive to account, and some form of proportional representation must be adopted if elected politicians are to be the agents of a morally alert, reforming, and competent state embodying the will of the people.
Our society is more inclined to social democracy than to laissez-faire conservatism, and it is a measure of the timidity of this Labour administration that, after 12 years in power, it has failed to tap into that constituency and make the case for the place of the state in protecting the weak and holding the balance of power between rich and poor.
The financial crisis offers the ideal opportunity to promote the enabling state. When things go wrong on a massive scale, only governments have the power to respond effectively. Without intervention, the banking system would have collapsed last year. Wages would not have been paid, accounts would have been inaccessible, and it would have been impossible to pay bills or buy food. Social breakdown would have followed.
By intervening, the state did far more than save the financial system, and, by its action, gave the lie to those who believe that freedom is in inverse proportion to government activity.
Dr Johnson was right that the state cannot make us happy. But it can, and should, create a framework of greater equality, in which we are enabled to pursue fulfilling lives, make the most of our talents, gain new skills, and be protected from those whose wealth encourages disengagement from society.
We have perhaps six months in which to make the case for what Roy Hattersley has described as the “rehabilitation of the state”. This requires a long, hard look at who benefits from “light-touch regulation”, and a non-partisan debate about how the state may be made more efficient and accountable.
The alternative is capitulation to the callous credo of the libertarian Right: that the unfettered market must remain supreme, and that regulation is the enemy of freedom. It would mean acquiescence in an amoral free-for-all in which we cease to be members of each other.
Jill Segger is a writer, a Quaker, and a member of the Labour Party.