Thursday, July 21, 2011

Big Society, Just Society

All people of good will, whether liberal or conservative, desire a society which is maximally just. The disputes between liberals and conservatives orbit around how best to achieve that common goal.

My friend Byron forwards an article by Jonathan Chaplin at Cardus which lays out how British conservatives are seeking to maximize social justice by implementing what they call a "Big Society" (as distinct from big government). The Big Society essentially draws upon the Catholic idea of subsidiarity and the Reformed notion of sphere sovereignty:
According to the UK government, there are three parts to the Big Society agenda, all of which will have their parallels in other countries: “community empowerment,” “opening up public services,” and “social action.”

The first of these (“community empowerment”) involves giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power over planning decisions. This amounts to a process of administrative decentralization within the sphere of government (from central to local), and a strengthening of democratic accountability (of local governments to the neighbourhoods they govern).

The second (“opening up public services”) involves an expansion of the existing policy of contracting out selected public services to non-governmental organizations (charities, social enterprises, private companies, and employee-owned cooperatives), where these might deliver a better or more efficient service. Such services will include not only routine tasks such as catering and cleaning but also specialist health services, employment support programmes, or drug rehabilitation centres. This amounts to a process of institutional devolution (from state to “third sector” civil society organisations or to commercial bodies operating in the market).

The third part (“social action”) is defined rather blandly as “encouraging and enabling people to play a more active part in society,” but takes concrete shape in three specific initiatives: the National Citizenship Service (a youth volunteering scheme), Community Organizers (a training scheme for local activists), and Community First (a fund for community groups in deprived neighbourhoods). This amounts to governmental enabling of voluntary action by individuals and local organizations. This is the smallest plank of the Big Society agenda and, while worthy enough in itself, is not likely to make that much impact.
In the U.S. the ideas comprising the "Big Society" have been talked about for a long time among conservatives. They were implicit in Marvin Olasky's book The Tragedy of American Compassion and in George Bush's abortive attempt to gin up support for community faith-based organizations which seek to deliver goods and services to the poor and the elderly. They were also embedded in his notion of "compassionate conservatism", a fine concept with an unfortunate name, suggesting, falsely, that most conservatism is flinty, niggardly, and hard-hearted.

Anyway, there's not much chance that the "Big Society" will catch on in the U.S. as long as Barack Obama is president and the Democrats control the Senate since the principles above (except the utilization of community organizers) run counter to the Democrat philosophy of a strong central government. If conservatives prevail in 2012, however, the principles discussed in Chaplin's article may have a real opening.

Chaplin says that the "Big Society" means both that people must never be allowed to fall below an agreed threshold of basic human dignity—a dignity shared equally by all and ultimately guaranteed by the state—and that they must never be denied the opportunity to exercise the full range of basic human responsibilities—a calling to which all must be invited in a society big enough for human flourishing.

This is precisely right. The social safety net has for too many become a hammock. One in seven Americans are on food stamps. Almost fifty percent pay no federal income taxes, essentially living off the largesse of the other fifty percent. We must continue to work toward a society where help for those who need it is seen as a kind of temporary loan to be paid back (or forward) and not as a permanent way of life.

After all, once people become permanent dependents of the state we can dismiss high-sounding talk of their dignity. Once an individual has lost his sense of self-reliance he'll have lost along with it whatever sense of dignity he might have had.

No Sacred Right

Victor Stenger is a retired physicist and active atheist who endorses an aggressive assault on all forms of religious faith. In a recent article titled Why Religion Must Be Confronted he argues that too many non-believers treat religious belief with a level of respect that it doesn't deserve and that therefore the public thinks that the case for the existence of God is stronger than it really is.

One sentence in particular sums up Stenger's attitude. He states:
It’s time for secularists to stop sucking up to Christians—and Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and any others who claim they have some sacred right to decide what kind of society the rest of us must live in or what a human being can do with her (or his) own body.
This sentence is interesting for several reasons. First, I know no one, at least among Christians, who claims a "sacred right" to decide the kind of society in which others should live. I doubt that Stenger knows any such people either. I do know people who believe that in a democracy everyone gets a vote and that if you're in the majority you do get to decide, within the constraints of the Constitution, what will be acceptable and what won't.

Stenger apparently thinks that Christians should not have a vote and that the only people who should are those who agree with him. He's tacitly arguing that Christians have no right to impose their moral views on society, but he's also deviously trying to impose on us his moral views by delegitimizing the opposition.

The second reason Stenger's claim is interesting is that if he's right and atheism is true then the whole question of "rights" is moot. A person has the right to do whatever he has the power - legal, political, or otherwise - to do. It's simply nonsensical for an atheist to complain that Christians are claiming a right they don't really have. On atheism, might makes right. If someone has the power to impose his will on others, either through fiat or the democratic process, then there's no moral authority that forbids him and no reason, other than perhaps prudential reasons, why he shouldn't do it.

The irony people like Stenger fail to perceive is that the only way it can be true that there's no right to impose one's morality on others is if there's a transcendent, personal, moral authority who prohibits such coercion. Stenger discounts the existence of such an authority and so should accept, if he's going to be consistent, that those insufferable, deluded believers do indeed have a "right" to do whatever they have the power to do.