Friday, 31 May 2013

Conflating community and state

Libertarians and other people on the right are often accused of not caring about people, of adopting a laissez-faire attitude which protects privilege and confines others to the bottom of the income scale. In this school of thought the welfare of individuals within society is the responsibility of the state. The state ensures the wellbeing of citizens by providing. The degree to which the state provides varies by left-winger, but may include benefits in kind (healthcare, education, housing, childcare), benefits in cash (unemployment, disability, tax credits, pensions), and may extend to regulation of markets (minimum wage, job guarantees, state ownership of industry).

In contrast, libertarians do not believe in a large state providing all of these things for people. Libertarians believe in a small state providing the framework which allows people to do for themselves. Libertarians believe that a large state is inefficient, ineffective, and has perverse dynamic effects. Large states which intervene in the market reduce competition, innovation and growth. Large states which provide so much for their citizens help to make people lazy and irresponsible: a sense of entitlement with no sense of responsibility. Large state bureaucracies are inefficient and unwieldy, wasting tax payer’s money. Instead, the state should focus on providing a legal framework which promotes competition over monopolies, and social policies which allow people to engage in the market (e.g. many libertarians are passionate educationalists).

Disagreement over the role of the state leads to all kinds of accusations. These are particularly fierce in a society accustomed to handing over responsibility to the state. The left wing discourse suggests that anyone who does not think the state should do all of these things does not care about poverty or people, and only cares about privilege and maintaining the status quo.

That just isn’t true.
The point is that as a society – as a community – we are responsible for each other. We have a duty of care to our fellow citizens and human beings. We have a duty of care to our family, our neighbours and our wider community. In making the state responsible for so many things we have forgotten this duty. We expect a distant other to look after us and the needier members of society. We expect a distant other to pay the tax to foot the bill. We abdicate all responsibility and sense of power ourselves.

The state becomes regarded as an actor or a person itself. We forget that the state is just a collective expression of us all. The state is not above or outside of the community. The state is an expression of our national community.

The point is that we are responsible for each other. That is the principled stance. Depending on the need, the solution will be most effective at a different level. Sometimes that means the state is the most efficient way to provide. But sometimes it is the family, community, local government, or voluntary or charitable organisations. These methods of provision are not inferior or less principled. They too are an expression of our collective responsibility to one-another.

The problem is that we have now gotten so used to not being responsible for ourselves, our families, our neighbours, or our wider community. How do we restore a sense of responsibility and civic duty? Instead of thinking about what you should be entitled to, think about what you can do for yourself and for others. 

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