Friday, 7 May 2010

To share or to shaft?: The inherent unfairness of the "Big Society"

Over the last 24 hours or so, in a state of mildly delirious sleep-deprivation, I've been mulling over the implications of a potential conservative government. It has not been enjoyable.

I find myself in a position of being fairly desperate to help create something akin to the Tories' "Big Society" vision. Not because of all the wonderful incentives they might introduce, but because I'm pretty sure if we don't do everything ourselves, their rolling back of the State in our time of greatest need could quickly lead to a dystopian nightmare if we don't pull our sleeves up and get stuck in. Sadly, they would likely try to take the credit for this community co-operation. Maybe it was always their intention to utilise the fear of disaster that is rising in compassionate, liberal minds in bringing about the "Big Society". Why else would George Osbourne still be in line to be Chancellor after all?

I'm also reminded somewhat of the Prisoner's Dilemma psychological experiment:

Robert Kilroy-Silk's interpretation of the famous Prisoner's Dilemma psychological experiment

If we consider the application of the Prisoner's Dilemma to a post-aTorylyptic political environment with a small state and low taxes there are three scenarios that might arise.
The first scenario is that everybody shares. Everybody suddenly becomes voluntary enthusiastic participators in their community and the community benefits enormously.
In the second scenario everybody shafts. Essentially society sits back and expects someone else to do the work. This scenario would go tits-up pretty quickly.
It is the third scenario that is the most interesting however, and it is by far the more likely of the three to become a reality. In this scenario the more compassionate, caring, selfless, generous individuals donate their time and money to causes and services where they feel they can contribute. The other members of society (the lazy, greedy, mean-spirited types) choose not to contribute their time and money, and yet they enjoy all the services the generous citizens help provide, and accumulate greater wealth as a result of the lower taxation.

Low tax, low spend "Big Societies" have inherent within them a financial incentive to be a greedy parasite upon society. If national insurance contributions are a "Jobs Tax" then the Big Society is a tax on generosity, compassion and general goodness. It is grossly unfair.

I wish we could find a way to make the mean-spirited, greedy people pay more, but the more that public services are funded by taxpayers and not charitable individuals, the more we can at least say they are paying their fair share.


Aveek said...

This is an interesting perspective, I have a few comments and observations.

1. Game Theory is predicated on a number of dubious and unpleasant assumptions (which is not say it's wrong, just that we should be aware of its tacit implications). anyone who ever invokes it should be made to watch this:
... See More
2. You completely neglect the possibility that compassionate, caring, selfless, generous people derive any pleasure from helping others. This seems rather implausible. Surely the very -definition- of these characteristics is to take pleasure in helping others. What I think the conservatives are hoping to do (taking the proposal at face value) is to tap into the underutilised potential for altruism society apparently has. It could be argued that the big society (if, somehow, it worked) would be as beneficial for those helping as for those being helped.

3. Forgive me if I have Marxian theories of justice on the brain, but I think they're relevant since you invoke the idea of the selfish exploiting the selfless. Marx appears to have two theories of justice. The first is that society is just if people are rewarded proportionately to the contribution they make to society. By this principle, the big society is clearly unjust, since selfish people are better off than selfless people, despite making less of a contribution to society.

But Marx rejects this principle, on the basis that some people are naturally able to make more of a contribution than others. The first principle punishes those who are mentally and physically weaker, as they cannot make such a big contribution, and so will be rewarded less. Marx proposes to replace the first principle with the famous maxim 'from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs'.

It seems to me that the big society doesn't necessarily contravene this principle. Some people are just imbued with a stronger sense of conscience, with a greater ability to take pleasure in helping others, with a closer identification of their good with others. Such people find it easier to be selfless, and so it is not unfair for society to expect them to do more.

Ewan Hoyle said...

2. I am fully aware that selflessness gives many people pleasure.

3. My argument is not about ability but willingness to contribute. The most financially rewarded by the big society are those not willing to contribute. The most spiritually rewarded are those presumably contributing most, unless of course their contribution is motivated by fear of ... See Moredystopia, which sounds like a fairly stressful state of affairs.

To address your Marxian stuff, with both high tax and spend and low tax and spend the "mentally and physically weak" are presumably contributing little. My argument centres upon the greedy and mean-spirited who at least have the financial ability to contribute in both circumstances, but are only compelled to do so in the (more fair) high tax and spend society.

I suppose you could argue that in the big society everyone's happy. Those who are financially motivated are rewarded. Those who are spiritually motivated are rewarded. The problem comes when these people meet and the spirituals realise the financials are taking the piss.