Stress testing society

8020758086_fc194a9c87_nIn today’s Observer Sir Hugh Orde argues that the cuts to police funding being proposed by the Conservatives for after the election, layered on top of the cuts that have already happened, put the ability of the police to fulfil their basic functions at risk. He argues that the police force is near a ‘tipping point’.

No doubt someone somewhere in the bowels of Conservative HQ is crafting a rebuttal that will argue this is special pleading from a high profile representative of an interest group, seeking to make a splash on his way out. Or something like that. The rebuttal may have been launched already.

But Sir Hugh’s comments do raise an interesting and important analytical question. Where is the tipping point? And what happens when we pass it?

We know that the Conservatives are proposing to continue savage cuts to non-protected services for several years to come. And the plans of the other parties, even if a little less savage, are not much more generous. The focus of the argument is on shirking the state and what might be the most sensible timescale for aiming to achieve a budget surplus.

But the whole strategy only makes sense if you assume one of two premises. Either it is assumed that you can keep cutting budgets without affecting services in ways that are materially significant – public services can take advantage of effectively infinite efficiency gains. Or it is assumed that the public services were doing lots of things that are of no social value and so stopping doing them will make no difference to anything.

There is also, it would appear, relatively little consideration of whether cuts to some parts of the public services are of greater significance than others – or whether all are equally required to swallow unpleasant medicine in order to ensure that pensioners can continue to be bribed to vote Conservative.

But all of this seems to fly in the face of even rudimentary thinking about society and the institutions that are necessary to underpin it.

I have in mind here particularly the sort of institutions that even the most libertarian of thinkers, who subscribe only to a nightwatchman version of the state, would concede constitute legitimate state action. The state has to be able to keep the peace, ensure property rights are protected and contracts are honoured. This requires a functioning legal system and an effective means to enforce the law.

We can set Sir Hugh’s comments alongside other indicators, such as the collapse in the number of cases being taken to Employment Tribunals, the curtailment of Judicial Review, or Lord Faulks’ comments that “litigation is very much an optional activity” as the Government raised the fee for civil litigation by 600%, thereby put it out of reach of many of those who need to use the system to seek redress. We might then ask how far away from a tipping point are we? If the police are unable to respond to crime and enforce the law or if vast swathes of rights lie disregarded and unexercised because the mechanisms for their fulfilment are no longer accessible then at what point do we conclude these institutions that sustain our economy and society are no longer able to fulfil their basic function? At what point do we conclude that their legitimacy has been undermined because they are only accessible to the rich?

And what happens then?

When we look at social development – be it the perpetuation of disadvantage in less developed countries, the process of development, or processes of transition like the movement of Central and Eastern European countries from state socialism to market economies – the role of state capacity and strong basic institutions emerges as a vital part of the picture. It was in part weaknesses in systems of property rights, democratic structures and the rule of law that meant some countries transitioned from state socialism to kleptocracy or plutocracy rather than liberal democracy.

We know that society cannot exist without regulatory mechanisms. In small social groups these regulatory mechanisms often take the form of peer pressure. In complex societies with robust social institutions formal legal frameworks fulfil some of the same purposes. But in countries with weak states instead of the state imposing order and dispensing justice inpartially we see paramilitary organisations, religious leaders, warlords or Mafiosi filling the gap. The process of development is often one of strengthening the state, removing nepotism and corruption, increasing accountability and transparency, and ensuring functioning systems of justice and law enforcement.

But I’m not sure we’ve got quite such a clear understanding of what happens to a country with robust institutions which sets about systematically undermining them by starving them of funds. What sorts of alternative, parallel arrangements will emerge to regulate social action and interaction? It’s clear that in part we are going down the privatisation route that has played out so well in other contexts. But that is unlikely to be a sufficient solution.

I’m not seeking to be unduly apocalyptic. But the current strategy is incoherent and we might like to think a bit harder about the risks it runs and the damage it is doing.

That isn’t necessarily an argument against budget cuts. But it is an argument against complacency. It is about being smarter about budget cuts and recognising that government is about stewardship. It means recognising that not all cuts are equal: to undermine the legal system in order to ensure all pensioners keep their winter fuel allowance may seem politically expedient in the short term, but it is potentially catastrophic in the long term.

Image: via Flickr.com under Creative Commons.

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4 replies »

  1. “That isn’t necessarily an argument against budget cuts. But it is an argument about being smarter about budget cuts and recognising that government is about stewardship.”

    But the UK context is that there is no ‘smarter’ nor much likelihood of ‘smart’ ousting blinkered ideology. The argument surely then must indeed be against cuts per se? The increasingly discredited Lib Dems offer little more than whimpers against the cuts they help facilitate, whilst Labour offer only a diluted version of austerity.

  2. This article is spot-on from the experience of someone who has lived most of his life in the 3rd world. A major problem of most 3rd world countries is the weakness of the state, those with a Confucian background excepted, as Fukuyama and many others have argued.

  3. Well, we do have some historical examples of the gutting of state institutions by people in power, and the dismantling of state institutions — and the parallel powerbases they were replaced with.

    The most famous one is the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Government officials whose departments were “self-funding” turned themselves into noblemen who collected taxes — with the rights and powers of the offices becoming inherited.

  4. The issue here is some kind of systems thinking – and it’s something the PPE education of most of our politicians and major civil society figures (e.g. civil servants, journalists) is generally weak on.

    I really don’t know how we fix that structurally.

    The lack of systems thinking amongst the press is a killer, because it kills even asking systems thinking questions about how cuts and restructuring are put into process.