We are told in this weekend’s Sunday Telegraph that:
Listening to David Cameron’s first speech on the steps of Downing Street, Archbishop Vincent Nichols says he nearly fell off his chair at the Prime Minister’s pledge to work for “the common good’.
His surprise was down to the fact that only a few weeks earlier, Catholic bishops had published a document offering election advice to churchgoers called “Choosing the Common Good”. Archbishop Nichols is “encouraged at the echoes of Catholic teaching emerging in the language of the new Coalition Government.” The article goes on to say “the Archbishop appears filled with an infectious optimism that the country could be on the cusp of returning to a more cohesive, united society.”
If we can generate that sense of volunteering and the sense of fulfilment that comes from it in our society, then we would be better for it. The Big Society is a step in that direction.
It should come as no surprise to our Catholic leader in the UK that a Conservative Prime Minister should be in tune with large parts of Catholic Social Teaching. One of the greatest influences on Thatcher for example was F A Hayek, who was born a Catholic Christian, although he later became agnostic. The final sentence of his last book, The Fatal Conceit does seem to offer up a legitimate view that re reverted to his Catholic Faith.
In 1993 the Hayek Memorial Lecture “Two moral ideas of business” run by the Institute of Economic Affairs, Michael Novak in his book of the same year “The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” revealed to us that Hayek had been having extensive conversations with Pope John Paul II who wrote the encyclical “Centesimus Annus.” Chapters 31 and 32 are very Hayekian.
As Karol Wojtyla, the old Pope’s doctoral Thesis, “The Acting Person,” is replete with observation that it is the creative and dynamic interaction of free citizens that causes social co-operation. This idea of course underscores Hayek’s conception of the spontaneous order of social co-operation.
Could this be David Cameron or F A Hayek writing? Is this the same as the spontaneous order of human co-operation or the mutual co-operation of The Big Society? Are they the same?
By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending, In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them who act as neighbours to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need.
Well it is from Centesimus Annus, by Pope John Paul II No 48 1991.
Archbishop Nichols should be aware that the Cameron modernised Conservative Party, which (whether it knows it or not) sits on a great body of thought that is deeply rooted in Catholic Social Thought.
I have written here about the Thatcherite view of society contrasted with the Cameronian one here. It is worth highlighting some of these points again.
Thatcher’s Infamous Quote
From an interview given by Prime Minister Margret Thatcher to Women’s Own magazine, October 31, 1987:
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation [...]
It would be ignorant to say that there is no such thing as society. Society is the purposeful actions of all the individuals who participate in it. As such it is simply the sum of all its parts. Delve a little bit deeper and you will see that is in fact the most liberating and fulfilling invention of mankind discovered by the use of reason. The ability for man to cooperate and pursue his ends is society. Working within the societal structure of mutual co-operation to facilitate exchange of goods and services, you get the additional benefits of friendship and a sense of belonging or togetherness. This is often hailed as one of the greatest benefits of living and cooperating together.
The principle of the division of labour that allows us to avoid providing individually for all our goods and services, shelter and warmth, with the necessary impoverishment this would mean for the majority (and probably death), make us what we are as human beings. We are lifted out of the survival of the fittest war of all against all.
The Darwinian nightmare is not writ large in the human species as it seems to be for most other life forms.
Mrs Thatcher was taken out of context, as can be seen when you read the full text of the talk. However I suspect she, or her speech writers, displayed little understanding of the true benefits of the discovery of mutual human co-operation. I think they were also of the school of thought that would quite rightly argue for less government, as is Cameron, one of her successors. However she did not have much of an idea of what to put in its place. The transition from a government-run, welfare-providing, rule-making, centralised decision-making society to individual responsibility, local-community-led society is quite a painful process. To be smoothly transitioned to a society more compatible with liberty, I fear warrants only a constructivist approach to getting top-down government out of our lives and to rebalancing responsibility away from government and to the individual and the family. Cameron is spot on the money with regard to this.
Consider these extracts from “The Big Society” (delivered on the 10th Nov 2009) speech by David Cameron our aspiring PM.
I believe that in general, a simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life unbidden is wrong. Instead we need a thoughtful re-imagination of the role, as well as the size, of the state.
The size, scope and role of government in Britain has reached a point where it is now inhibiting, not advancing the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality, and increasing general well-being. Indeed there is a worrying paradox that because of its effect on personal and social responsibility, the recent growth of the state has promoted not social solidarity, but selfishness and individualism.
This is an extremely important point. Absent personal responsibility and the mutual bonds that bind us together through the universal division of labour fall away. The selfish, those who do not take individual responsibility, the person who says he has a “right” to a job, a house, an income etc, these people believe others must provide for them. This is selfishness in its extreme, if they are fit and ready to work. We all suspect that with 2.7 million people on Incapacity Benefit, there is extreme selfishness and little societal / individual responsibility at play. In war, enemies have tried their best to bomb the hell out of us and incapacitate as many of us as possible, but I suspect in 1945 there were not 2.7m people incapacitated in the UK!
Cameron goes on to say
And here lies the rub.
The paradox at the heart of big government is that by taking power and responsibility away from the individual, it has only served to individuate them. What is seen in principle as an act of social solidarity, has in practice led to the greatest atomisation of our society. The once natural bonds that existed between people – of duty and responsibility – have been replaced with the synthetic bonds of the state – regulation and bureaucracy.
Our alternative to big government is the big society.
But we understand that the big society is not just going to spring to life on its own: we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen.
Archbishop Nichols should be not surprised the modern Conservative Party has moved on and improved from the raw Thatcherite approach in its positioning of the free society with that of the Modern Catholic Social Teaching that it has so much in common with. When the Pope visits the UK this September, we trust that his advisors and Cameron’s celebrate the great vision of the last Pope, Hayek and Cameron himself on these matters.
Some related articles that go deeper into some of these issues mentioned above are listed here
- Catholic Social Conscience Talk, Philip Booth
- The Ethics of Capitalism: A Secular and a Theological Justification
- Time to Celebrate the Entrepreneur
It is a great shame that the Pope will not be visiting Northern Ireland as there is a large Catholic minority that has little in common with its political representatives who are largely statist, interventionist top down socialist meddlers who have little in common with Catholic teaching. Those Catholics actually have more in Common with The Big Society vision of Cameron and no political representation.