In the absence of a clear vision of her own, Theresa May seems to have fallen back on the status quo – the austerity programme. This post looks at the vision and political philosophy behind austerity.
Austerity cuts and privatisations have been applied across all public services, including welfare, health, social care, schools, libraries, the police, prisons, and even parks. These changes, such as the welfare cuts and NHS privatisation reforms, aren’t just issues about efficiency and value-for-money. They raise moral and philosophical questions, challenging our view of society and what it means to be a citizen.
The NHS is one of the last bastions of social solidarity – a way of organising crucial resources as an expression of the moral obligations that most citizens feel for each other …
… by contrast, the moral assumption behind the NHS reforms and the way social care is delivered is that we are defined by our individual choices …
… the debate we need to be having is not simply about the technicalities of restructuring and the pursuit of integrated care. It’s really a question about how we want to live together.
– Bob Hudson, Professor of Applied Social Science, Durham University, 20 June 2013
Austerity and the Big Society: negative freedom
The question of “how we want to live together” was addressed directly by David Cameron in the 2010 manifesto, before he gained power and implemented the welfare cuts and NHS reforms.
We need to change the whole way this country is run … a change from one political philosophy to another … from big government to Big Society.
– Conservative party manifesto, 2010
The political philosophy the manifesto referred to was not new. The attack on “big government” was reminiscent of Reagan’s assertion that “government is the problem” and Thatcher’s determination to “roll back the state.” This in turn rested on the ideas of Thatcher’s favourite political philosopher/ economist, Friedrich Hayek, and his definition of liberty, or freedom, which in turn had foundations in classical liberalism.
For Hayek, an individual is free in so far as they are able to act without interference (from the state, for example). A person’s freedom is constrained when he is “forced to act not according to a coherent plan of his own but to serve the ends of another.” Any redistributive tax (which transfers resources from the rich to the poor for example), is seen as coercive and infringing the freedom of the tax-payer.
This so-called ‘negative freedom’ is also defended by libertarians like Robert Nozick who, as a result, tend to argue in favour of a small, or minimal, state. Taxes in a minimal state would only be raised for things everybody needs like defence and law and order, with few public services and no welfare. As a result, they would be just and fair taxes.
It’s easy to see the parallels with austerity here and David Cameron’s dislike of “big government.” Take welfare payments for example, probably the clearest example of redistribution, with direct money transfers from the state. Cuts to these payments, and the subsequent removal of taxes that fund them, would be consistent with prioritising the negative freedom of the tax-payer and reducing the size of government.
So, what did Cameron mean by the Big Society? This wasn’t a new idea either. If you roll back the state, then what do you put in its place? Neighbourhood groups, charities, and social enterprises. Volunteers basically, or what Cameron called the “little platoons” of civil society. Anything, as long as it isn’t government agencies.
Classical liberals and libertarian thinkers, like Hayek and Nozick, tend to accept that in a society with a minimal state, the moral obligation to perform voluntary acts of charity would be high.
This is exactly what has happened in the wake of welfare cuts. Foodbanks, run by charities and volunteers, have stepped in to provide free food for citizens who have had their state benefits cut or delayed, or are homeless and sleeping rough without any support network. These foodbank volunteers aren’t being forced by anyone to provide this service, so their freedom isn’t being infringed.
What happens when you need more professional support though, rather than volunteers? For medical treatment for example. That’s where the free market comes in. State funded public services infringe the freedom of tax-payers. Individually funded, privately provided, services do not. From this perspective, Cameron’s privatisation reforms in the NHS, and elsewhere, make sense. As does the new legal requirement for the government to provide only ambulances and emergency care: the minimal state provision.
Despite having a first-class degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Oxford, Cameron had difficulty communicating his Big Society vision: the public didn’t seem to understand what he meant. By 2013 he had stopped talking about it altogether. By then the stated necessity of austerity cuts to pay off the national debt (left by Labour of course) was embedded in the mind of the public, benefit cuts for “welfare scroungers” were broadly popular, and the NHS privatisation reforms had become law.
The implementation of a political philosophy that defended negative freedom and free markets over “big government” was well underway. The complementary message of the “little platoons” of volunteers, “the institutional building blocks of the Big Society”, had been quietly dropped.
The NHS: positive freedom
What makes you most proud to be British? Here are the top five answers from a survey in 2012.
The armed forces
Team GB (Olympics)
The Royal Family
If the British people feel that their freedom is being infringed through coercive taxation, it’s not reflected here. From this list, only taxation for the army and the voluntary funding of Team GB (via the lottery) would be acceptable in a minimal state.
The NHS has long been a source of pride. Over a decade ago, the Conservative Nigel Lawson described the NHS as “the closest thing the English have to a religion.” The writer AA Gill, who died recently of cancer, said the NHS “represents everything we think is best about us.” Given the priority of NHS funding as an issue in the EU referendum, it seems that many Britons may feel the same way.
My sense is that this belief in the NHS is based on the founding principles of the service being just and fair: it is free to all and based on clinical need, not the ability to pay. As Bob Hudson put it, it’s about “social solidarity” and our “moral obligations” to our fellow citizens.
The underlying principles of the NHS provide another answer to Hudson’s question “how do we want to live together?”: in an egalitarian system, based on the values of solidarity and cooperation. Which sounds like a broad-brush definition of socialist values – as Conservative MP, David Ruffley, quipped in 2011: “we are all socialists when it comes to the NHS.”
Acting collectively as a community, to share and redistribute resources to those in need, presents a problem if you prioritise negative freedom and favour a small state. Freedom doesn’t have to be defined only as the absence of interference though, as being ‘free from’ something. Freedom can also be understood as a power or capacity to act: being ‘free to’ do something. This view is called ‘positive freedom.’
We shall probably all agree that freedom, rightly understood, is the greatest of blessings – that its attainment is the true end of all our effort as citizens. But when we thus speak of freedom, we should consider carefully what we mean by it. We do not mean merely freedom from restraint or compulsion … we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that, too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others.
– Thomas Hill Green, from Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract, 1881
If a person is unable to walk without crutches, which she does not have, her negative freedom is not threatened. She is free to walk, even if she is not able to do so. Providing her with crutches will not be required in the name of freedom, though it may be a charitable thing to do. However, if we take the view that freedom should be understood as the positive capacity to act, then providing her with crutches will be required to maximise her freedom.
This may seem like an abstract philosophical debate about definitions. However, the government is currently planning to remove £3.7billion of welfare payments to people with disabilities that support independent living, including the provision of funds to aid mobility. Your philosophical view of freedom will influence your political position on this issue.
The conception of freedom we hold will have normative implications: it will influence our thoughts on what the state should and should not do. In particular, it will influence our thoughts on the appropriate distribution of wealth and resources in society.
– Phil Parvin & Clare Chambers, Political Philosophy, 2012
Defenders of positive freedom emphasize the effective ability of people to make choices from options that are not forced upon them by poverty or lack of resources: its scope goes beyond the individual, emphasising the social, political, and economic context in which choices are made. For example, if I ‘choose’ to do two jobs to pay the rent, I might say I have ‘no choice’ – my choice has been forced on me by economic circumstances.
These concerns lead to a preference for redistributive taxation to fund welfare payments and public services (health, social care) that support people with low incomes and few resources. It’s a perspective held by socialists, social democrats, and social liberals like TH Green. The importance of context in shaping choices dates back to the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau and is highlighted today by feminist thinkers.
As we’ve seen previously, austerity cuts during downturns aren’t supported by mainstream economic theory or evidence. However, an analysis of David Cameron’s underlying political philosophy reveals a more coherent set of ideas and motivations for austerity. The cuts, privatisations, and Big Society volunteering vision make clear sense when looked at from a classical liberal, or libertarian, perspective. The focus on the negative liberty of the individual, free from state interference and “coercive” taxation, leads naturally to favouring a small state with free markets and volunteers taking the place of public services.
The principles of the welfare state and public services, like the NHS, represent elements of socialism and egalitarianism. The emphasis on positive freedom, of the ability of people to act, leads naturally to favouring a bigger state where resources are shared and redistributed to maximise positive freedom and equality across society.
These principles stand in direct opposition to libertarian ideas and Cameron’s vision of a “smaller state”. As Home Secretary, Theresa May played her part in realising this vision, making big cuts to police budgets. As Prime Minister, she has maintained the funding squeeze on the NHS and appears to support Cameron’s privatisation agenda. May has also pressed ahead with the £12billion of welfare cuts designed under Cameron, including cuts to disablility allowances.
Cutting welfare and marketising healthcare are central to a policy like austerity, diminishing England’s remaining collectivist and egalitarian institutions and moving towards a more individualistic and libertarian approach.
Sources of information
Political Philosophy: a complete introduction, Phil Parvin & Clare Chambers, 2012
A History of Political Thought, BBC World Service, 2002
Liberalism: a very short introduction, Michael Freeden, 2015