John Pugh has ignited an important debate about the role of the state in Liberalism. In his article for Lib Dem Voice John sought to reconcile a policy of deficit reduction with support for the idea of what he described as a 'strong state'. The posting has attracted a large number of responses and the discussion has broken out in other parts of the blogosphere notably over at Liberal England.
John would have excited less reaction if he has used the term 'democratic state' rather than 'strong state'. Liberals are suspicious about any concentration of power whether that is in state's or private hands. After years of New Labour abusing civil liberties or aggrandising state power liberals have sharpened up their critique of the state, it is therefore not surprising that there has been a reaction against the implication that can be drawn from John's piece that a strong, powerful state is good. As Lord Acton famously said to Bishop Creighton 'power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. All the checks and balances that we seek to impose on the state -democratisation, decentralisation, separation of powers, law etc are all to guard against the legitimate fear of what a strong state could do.
As Jonathon points out :
However, even in some future Lib Dem utopia with PR and proper local control of public services, I would be wary of talking about the state having aspirations. People have aspirations - often widely differing aspirations - and it is the role of the modern state to allow them to live in harmony while seeking to fulfill those aspirations.
To attribute aspirations to the state or to argue that it can meet all human ambitions strikes me a sort of Hegelian state worship. Rather than encourage reform, it tends to mystify the nature of government, which is a tendency that will appeal to traditional Conservatives but should not appeal to us.
Liberals have always been keen to that the State should not occupy space which the citizen can control. J.S. Mill strikingly expressed the view:
A State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.
And so it is that Liberals have always felt-even in the context of the democratic Utopia that Jonathon describes- that the state is not the same as the community or the focus as the only form of collective action that free citizen can be involved in, hence we have campaigned workers' common ownership, friendly societies etc and pluralism at every possible turn. Beveridge was very angry when the post war Labour Governement turned its back on his proposal for an enhanced role for friendly societies rather than a state monopoly in administrating and developing the welfare state. The essence of community politics is that citizen should 'organise themselves into communities to take and use power' not that they should put their trust and invest their hopes in the state.
All of which does not detract from the view that their are things that the state can do, especially in the economic sphere that we should not turn our back on. I, for one, wish to see deficit reduction done but only in the context of an economic policy that has as its guiding light the objective of producing full employment. In the coming months this will become important as the public sector-locally and nationally -sheds tens if not hundreds of thousands jobs. When this is combined with the VAT rise and the impact that might have a the recovery there needs to be a plan B. More information about a programme for energy consevation on a scale not previously imagined and house building could be componets of plan B but deficit reduction even combined with the 'fairness' initiatives we have seen is not enough.