Big State vs Little State

Obama and Romney face their final electoral countdown in a race that all commentators are claiming is still too tight to call. Bad news for the 20 out of 21 countries who, when asked, expressed a preference for Obama’s Presidency.

The choice between them both has often seemed slim to this outsider – but crudely, appears to come down to their opposing ideologies of Big State vs Little State.
This country I live in, Scotland – the country of my birth – is politically left-of-centre and could not be more different from America.

I’ve never understood the ‘America, Land of the Free’ descriptor. It always seemed a bit of a misnomer to me. Free? Maybe. But perhaps only if you’re rich, white and powerful?

What freedom does poverty offer? Opportunity surely becomes meaningless when inequalities are as stark as they are in the US. Wage inequality has never been greater; homelessness figures show disproportionate numbers of men, blacks, veterans and the disabled; 21% of all children are in poverty… (

I struggle to understand the vehemence with which even my closest US relations will defend as unquestionable the ‘fact’ that free markets and individual achievement are the primary factors behind economic prosperity. They will favour laissez-faire economics, fiscal conservatism, and the promotion of personal responsibility over public welfare. They want less Government not more. They view my expectation of Government proactivity as dangerous communism.

It’s a clash of worldviews.

Those friends and relatives who want less regulation argue that if you remove government restrictions, the free market will force businesses to protect consumers, provide superior products or services, and create affordable prices for everyone. They believe that the government is inefficient and creates nothing but a big bureaucracy that increases the cost of doing business for everyone.

But I argue that government regulations are necessary. They are required if we are to effectively protect consumers, protect the environment and the general public. I state in opposition that corporations are not looking out for the public’s interest – they are looking out for their own interests – and that’s why regulation is required.

It seems crazy contradictory to me that I would vote into power representatives whom I cannot trust – or will not trust – to act in my best interests. But that I’d actually rather place my trust in undemocratic corporate bodies who very clearly have vested economic interests in policies which promote and strengthen them – and not necessarily me. The reality is that I vote in representatives with a mandate to follow policies which they have outlined in their manifestos. I understand they may not be able to implement every policy. I may not even agree with every policy. But the management of a country is achieved through pragmatism and compromise – consultation and negotiation.

Take News Corp. It is global. Massive. It has commercial interests which dwarf the economies of entire countries never mind other companies. Will News Corp be altruistic? Will it campaign for policies which will not benefit it? Will its power and influence be used as a force for good in the world – if News Corp will not directly benefit from the ‘good’ it campaigns for?

When a media corporation becomes the electoral kingmaker who then is king? And whose interests does that ‘King’, who is made by News Corp, ultimately protect?

The phone-hacking scandals which led to the closure of the News Corp newspaper, News of the World, in the UK reveal the extent to which a corporation will go in order to determine policies which will benefit it.

Take Private Healthcare companies. Do they pay for the nurse and doctor education which they parasitically rely upon in order to offer their ‘goods’? Do they take the complex difficult cases or the health cases which are not ‘profitable’? Will they treat you if you can’t pay? What price health and medical care? Should life and death decisions be left to the market – or to whether I or my neighbour can afford to pay for treatment? And why on earth would I need a choice of provider? One State provider accessing medical excellence offers to remove my tumour and treat my cancer – why do I need a private provider to offer the same service?

Consider Goldman Sachs or Lehmanns or RBS or any of the Banks whose reckless unregulated acts led directly to economic disaster. Would these turkeys have voted for a more heavily Regulated Christmas? Though of course I can’t ignore the fact that RBS – along with others – states it acted wholly within UK banking rules and yet there was still a major disaster…

I wouldn’t trust these companies with cleaning my toilet let alone running the society I am part of…

Of course, I challenge the Laissez-faire politicians and am directed to the role of Charities and the voluntary sector.

But who checks their objectivity I ask? Is the advice or assistance they provide to be meted out only to those who satisfy their rules? The poor and those in need divided into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’?

What then for the woman who seeks an abortion? And who is sent for counselling to the provider who in reality is a Pro-life campaigner. Or is she to find herself a pro-choice provider? Be certain of the ideologies underpinning the organisation she seeks assistance from?

Is homelessness not our social shame? The inability to feed our children not a reason compelling collective action?

When I work in an unsafe non-unionised mine and suffer an accident which cripples me, what interest does a corporation have in improving conditions when there is a pool of the unemployed ready to take my place? That same pool of ready labour, the existence of which ensures wage levels are kept low. And no, the answer is not fear of litigation – because litigation is expensive and no poor person can afford it – and the no-win no-fee is a win generally only for the solicitor who will take on only absolute certainties.

And if the practices of the mining company are such that they manage to achieve a monopoly what pressure can we bring to bear upon them to change their practices? There is no economic argument which can be made – nothing which will override payment (and maximisation) of the shareholder’s dividend.

When Scots vote they vote – overwhelmingly – for those political parties which offer a collectivist solution. If not Socialist, the visions on offer are influenced by Socialism. We vote for policies which promote equality of opportunity.

There is general belief in and acceptance of a State which is informed by the desire to promote public welfare. A State whose paramount consideration is the health and welfare of the populace and the promotion of that collective voice to centre stage.

It is taken for granted that it is via Government action that we deliver effective protections for our citizens.

It was Hobbes who famously said that ‘in a state of nature’, human life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

Locke stated:
IF man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.

 In Scotland we ‘sign’ our Social Contract on the understanding that it is for the greatest social good that our individual ‘freedoms’ have limits placed upon them.

But we agree that there are some basic rights which must be recognised and delivered – whether via the UNCRC or the ECHR or from social precedent. Shelter; food; heat; healthcare; employment; freedom from discrimination; freedom from torture; right to a fair trial; freedom of expression/right to free speech; right to family life and to privacy…

Dod eat dog – survival of the fittest – these are concepts that belong to theories of evolution where there is no mindfulness or morality involved. It seems unspeakable to me that I would blame my neighbour for his mesothelioma and refuse to contribute to a society and a public welfare bill which would ensure he recieved treatment and was cared for. It seems utterly incomprehensible that I would condemn my neighbour’s children for their misfortune in having a father who contracted a terminal illness. That I would shrug my shoulders, say ‘bad luck’ and just walk on by. And remember – the healthcare insurers and providers have a myriad ways in which they limit liability – they do not want to maximise their payouts! There is no moral imperative operating for them – only the economic imperative which will ensure their continued existence and their profitability.

Nothing is perfect. No system is faultless.

There is a need for contribution to society (financial or less tangible) to be the bedrock of our civic relationships. An emphasis upon the need to pay taxes. The importance of finding a way to work and to take care of ourselves.

But do not tell me that the children of the so-called ‘feckless’ or the ‘Benefit scrounger’ should suffer as a consequence of their Mother and Father’s social ‘sins’. For too long it has suited the world of Capital to have a pool of poor – whose existence drives down wages and increases fear. Ultimately poverty begats poverty.

And of course, sometimes our politicians will be caught with their pants down… they will deviate from a manifesto on the basis that it was unrealistic and now does not fit the circumstances of government. But ultimately in a democracy there is rule by a consent which can be removed.

Our Scottish (and UK) politicians are variously lauded and despised. They sometimes cheat and they often do the right thing. They commit fraud and yet they sacrifice their careers for the sake of a principle. They are bad and they are good. They are often castigated for not telling the truth and yet are punished at the ballot box when they do. Their private lives are public property. Their wives are pitied for their thick ankles or admired for their Sunday Roasts ; their children’s transgressions are forever the stuff of editorials, headlines and camera angles. They are – when it comes down to it – just ordinary men and women on a small national stage. There is integrity for some. And there are others who are corruptable – if not corrupted.

When it goes wrong -as occasionally it does- then are the attack dogs brought out. The pundits pronounce their moral indignation and ask the question again: who is fitted to represent us?

Good question. Who is fitted to that job?

Better question, given the viciousness of the scrutiny and criticism, Who on earth would want to perform it?

Clearly Obama and Romney…

14 thoughts on “Big State vs Little State

  1. I'm collectivist.

    I'm also worried that 'the state' has morphed into a 'company' model with aims far divorced from the provision of services essential for civilised living.

    What used to be the pool of labour has now become a pool of potential votes at the AGM….feed your shareholders just enough to keep them turning up in hope of better.

    I used to be a Rural District Councillor in the days when such things existed…the days when all the Conservatives stood as Independent…and have to say that my colleagues were honest and dedicated to doing their best…as they saw it…for the people of their area, but we didn't have to cope with an avalanche of instructions, regulations and directives of all sorts which, I think, do nothing to improve the delivery of services but everything to maintain central 'head office' control of the peripheries.

    The financial, political media nexus worries me too.
    Step out of line and you will be pilloried in the press.
    No wonder decent people don't risk it, nomatter how much they would like to try to put things right.

    Which is how we get Cameron, Osbourne and the no Balls Millibands.
    No wonder the U.S. will get Obama or Romney.

  2. You're right Fly. The never-ending 'focus-groups' and opinion polls which determine policy depress me. There is such a shallowness at the heart of the political life now – and I really don't think it was always like that because I remember dedicated principled people who genuinely believed in public service.
    I am old enough to have caught the tail-end of that old practice – canvassing – when you actually faced your electorate and defended (or attempted to) the record of your party. That's a thing of the past.
    Yes, centralised control is charaterised by the plethora of rules and regulations by local democracy is strangled. Though I am often depressed by the local jobs-worthies who would rather preserve their own positions and powers than simply 'do the right thing'.
    Being Scottish and born in the 60s I was brought up with Labour as the party of power. Tory candidates stood as Independants here if they were standing in predominantly Catholic seats – they stood as UNIONIST (the capital letters were all theirs) and Conservative Party is standing in a Protestant (Orange) seat.
    There used to be a left wing to the Tories. There isn't any longer. No 'One Nation Tories' now. And it will be the death of them – because No-Balls-Milliband have filled the One Nation ground.
    I was asked to run for the Scottish Parliament that first term in 1999. I turned it down – really because I felt too young and inexperienced to offer anything of any value – but also because I was afraid of what the media and the pressure might eventually do to me (and to my family and my life).
    I am wholly unelectable now of course. I have too much of a past!

  3. You know what really bugs me Fly? The fact that 'the Left' has become synonymous with benefit scroungery and economic profligacy.
    I am also sick to the back teeth of a failure by many on the Left to look to mutual aid, self-help and co-operatism.
    Nobody WANTS to be dependant on Benefits. But for too many it becomes an inescapable way of life. But there are some fantastic and successful projects using the old almost forgotten and unfashionable vehicles of mutual societies and credit unions and co-operatives which could offer a different way.
    Jeez. I need to get off the soapbox!

  4. There a a whole number of charitable, NGO groups…what I used to refer to as 'outdoor relief for the children of the middle classes'…whose existence and thus acces to central government grants depends on keeping people in need away from mutual societies, co ops and credit unions.
    Their need meshes with that of government to have dead horses to whip.

  5. There is so much in your outpouring with which I can agree and about which I have ranted long with those academic socialists with whom I mixed. There is so much of the cynicism with which I can and do identify. There is so much that I would have loved to have had the ability to say from the heart instead of from the head which takes so much longer and has so much more considering to do before the words come.

    To pick on one point amongst all your words: the mines. I don't know whether that was occasioned by the Pike River Inquiry Report which was issued in New Zealand today. The big issue here at the moment is the fact that de-regulation (in this particular case of the mines) has not worked. It was supposed to work on the basis that if there was less government interference mine owners would be self-regulated by safety considerations on the basis that it was in their best interest to be safe (and that they could be sued if they weren't). This has patently not worked and the Pike River disaster was a prime example of profit before everything or, in this case, survival of the company before everything.

    I could go on….and on….

  6. Being a generation older than you, Yvonne, I can still remember attending pre-election night hustings when the local parliamentary candidates would be given a right old grilling by a very knowledgeable and involved crowd. Have these disappeared completely, I wonder?

    Being brought up in a working-class family in Lancashire, birthplace of the modern co-operative movement, and living now only a few miles from the birthplace of Robert Owen, co-operation and collective action are bred into me and I cannot stomach the dog-eat-dog or raw commercial competitiveness or rampant individualism. My Christian faith too leads me to a belief in our mutual responsibility for the welfare of others. Here I stand, i ca do no other.

    A fine, heart-felt manifesto.

  7. I was a Factories Inspector – really an H.M.Inspector of Health and Safety by the time I joined the service – and saw first hand what unregulated workplaces did to their employees. The UK has the best industrial safety record in the world for fatalities and non-fatal accidents (International Labour Organisation reports on this) – it has the tightest H&S rules and effective enforcement. I did read about Pike River – but hadn't read the report. I jumped the gun and made the connections… Profit will trump the throwaway lives of workers if it is left to its own immoral devices…

  8. They were still holding them when I was a teenage activist. Then there was a move away from that in favour of an ever-increasing distance between politician and electorate. They half-heartedly hold them now – but the attendances are very very low…

    I live in Robert Owen's model village of New Lanark! Coincidence indeed!

    I also studied liberation theology and marxist theology and socialist theology…to Honours during my first degree (joint with English Literature). I loved Boff and the base communidades and all his writings. Along with a whole lot of others. It always seemed to me that Christ was a socialist, Perpetua. But I know that's controversial.

  9. My Mum always taught me as a child (who went to Sunday school from the age of 4 for many years) that Christ was a socialist. I read political theory and institutions as a subsid and, from what I can recall, spent a lot of time arguing that there was little difference between the theory of Roman Catholic political thought and Communism. The one thing they did have in common was a desire to kill everyone who didn't agree with them.

  10. I have always rather liked the sound of your Mum GB. A very sound and impressive woman!
    But yes – generally we humans have such a sad inability to hold a belief without wanting to defend it to the death…

  11. You wrote..

    But do not tell me that the children of the so-called 'feckless' or the 'Benefit scrounger' should suffer as a consequence of their Mother and Father's social 'sins'.

    Very true and often a missing element in our public assessment of benefit payments, for surely there are some who are irresponsible and less than fulsome in their efforts and contribution. But their children didn't chose this, and they deserve better from the State as well as their parents.

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