What kind of state do we have?

26 06 2009

As we are are trying to work out what our approach should be towards the state and public spending, I would heartily recommend James Heartfield’s new essay on the nature of the modern UK state. In it he examines the way in which the state has  weakened its control over key economic developments by contracting out key aspects of its economic decision-making and responsibilities to consultancies and private companies,often in dubious circumstances.

Yet while the state has contracted out these key public services it has also created a more intrusive system of regulation over society through intervention in public and family life. This is one of the key aspects of the state that many of you objected to in the discussion of public spending we can do without.

James Heartfield’s conclusion is, 

All the time the established boundary between ‘state’ and ‘civil society’, between ‘public goods and private benefits’, is being redrawn, or broken down altogether. What emerges is neither an enhanced private sector, nor coherent state provision, but rather a hybrid, dependent on public finances to survive, and increasingly operating according to a mixture of political, administrative and business models that makes little sense.

 In his essay he looks in detail at some of the ways that state intervention into the banks, the railways and the NHS amongst others has acted as an indirect subsidy to private industry. More analysis along these lines would help us to understand what it is about the modern state that we object to and what we can do without.

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3 responses

26 06 2009
Michael Massey

Excellent article. A couple of illustrations from my own experience.

Some years ago when still in Whitehall I was at a presentation that showed the pre- and post-privatisation structures for the Rail industry: they were of the boxes and arrows type so loved by management consultants. The first had very few boxes and arrows. The second looked like a map of the brain. I observed that for every arrow there would be transaction costs for lawyers, consultants and so on, and it was impossible to work out lines of accountability. So basic message seemed to be that what was being introduced was a horrendously expensive system where nobody was accountable to anybody. Mutterings about private sector disciplines in response but basic reaction was I did not get it and was just being negative.

Second: A few weeks ago my 3-year receivd from his nursery a box provided by the Education department as part of efforts to encourage parents to read books to their children. All very laudable. The box was in form of a “treasure chest” – all very amusing – and contained a childrens’ book and a 10-12 page glossy with guidance for carers produced by the Education department, the then DWP and some other agencies. Fromw my experience in Whitehall I can imagine the time and energy that would have been spent in arguments about the drafting.

It was a classic of how to teach Granny to suck eggs – page after page of hints like “talk about the illustrations – practice counting” etc etc. In essence setting out all the things that in my experience anybody does when reading books to small children, whether their own or anyone else’s. The only bits which were not obvious, but to my mind over the top were suggestions to name household items with easy to read labels: MILK, JAM and so on, and to put together a props sack so you can make a theatrical production out of reading the book.

All well-intentioned and harmless one might say. But it made me wonder did nobody involved in the project ever stop and ask: what is the point? For all the parents who are already reading to their children this is at best a wste of time and at worst very patronising. And for those parents who do not read to their children, is there a hope in hell this will make a jot of difference? Is there any chance they will even open the glossy?

Was it a sensible use of tax-payer funded staff and other resources. I don’t think so. And in my experience it is by no means an isolated example.

15 07 2009
What’s the plan,man? « UK After The Recession

[…] it possible to reverse the trend for the state to play a greater and greater role in the economy?As James Heartfield and others have argued, the role of the state in the UK economy has encouraged flabby business […]

24 07 2009
Holiday readings « UK After The Recession

[…] This article by James Heartfield which looks at the interpenetration of the state and the private sector in the UK. […]

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