The Big Society, Cameron, Nichols, Hayek and the Last Pope

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.”

Nichols said,

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 […]

I wrote,

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


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.

More from Toby Baxendale
The motive powers of destructionism
Its a great pleasure to wake up in the morning on holiday...
Read More
8 replies on “The Big Society, Cameron, Nichols, Hayek and the Last Pope”
  1. says: mrg

    The final chapter of The Fatal Conceit, RELIGION AND THE GUARDIANS OF TRADITION, contains some powerful insights, but I don’t see anything in it to suggest that Hayek reverted to anything stronger than deism. Here are the final paragraphs (emphasis mine):

    So far as I personally am concerned I had better state that I feel as little entitled to assert as to deny the existence of what others call God, for I must admit that I just do not know what this word is supposed to mean. I certainly reject every anthropomorphic, personal, or animistic interpretation of the term, interpretations through which many people succeed in giving it a meaning. The conception of a man-like or mind-like acting being appears to me rather the product of an arrogant overestimation of the capacities of a man-like mind. I cannot attach meaning to words that in the structure of my own thinking, or in my picture of the world, have no place that would give them meaning. It would thus be dishonest of me were I to use such words as if they expressed any belief that I hold.

    I long hesitated whether to insert this personal note here, but ultimately decided to do so because support by a professed agnostic may help religious people more unhesitatingly to pursue those conclusions that we do share. Perhaps what many people mean in speaking of God is just a personification of that tradition of morals or values that keeps their community alive. The source of order that religion ascribes to a human-like divinity – the map or guide that will show a part successfully how to move within the whole – we now learn to see to be not outside the physical world but one of its characteristics, one far too complex for any of its parts possibly to form an `image’ or `picture’ of it. Thus religious prohibitions against idolatry, against the making of such images, are well taken. Yet perhaps most people can conceive of abstract tradition only as a personal Will. If so, will they not be inclined to find this will in `society’ in an age in which more overt supernaturalisms are ruled out as superstitions?

    On that question may rest the survival of our civilisation.

    1. MRG, this is a difficult one.

      When I have spoken to people at the top of the Anglican and Catholic churches, never have I spoken to them in terms of a God that is anthropomorphic, personal, or animistic, although a lot of the ways they get their message out to a mass audience is via this use of language. This tends to be how a lot of people describe God i.e. by putting him/it in very human terms. A lot of religious people do this, some don’t. I believe it is a very grey area between theism and deism and a big gap between using anthropomorphic language to try and get people to understand God. Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas were great philosophers on whose shoulders a lot of the Catholic Church has been built. I sense Hayek was much more in their camp than that of the mystics and I believe this personal statement adds to that interpretation of the view that Hayek became closer to his Catholic antecedents.

  2. says: John

    Excellent article!

    I’ve long believed that, as a Catholic, there is a harmony between my faith and liberty. Indeed, there are some great Catholic libertarians who have helped shape my understanding of this relationship, such as Thomas E Woods.

    My only concern is that Catholicism (and Christianity in general) has been hijacked by the socialists, and their friends, to become almost meaningless and intellectually infantile – perhaps this was the intent of our social engineers? The notion that it is the “Christian thing to do” to ask the government to solve all our problems is, in reality, in complete contradiction to Christianity, properly understood.

    By the way, that quote by JPII in Centesimus Annus is great. It’s just like reading Hayek!

  3. says: Philip

    Excellent article. Let me add two things. The common good is about allowing to come about the sum total of conditions that lead to human flourishing. This is a very long way from central planning. Secondly, it is interesting that Mrs. Thatcher mentioned the concept of reciprocity (which is different from both contractual obligations and charity and also from state coercion): this is quite a theme of Caritas in veritate (the pope’s last social encyclical) and is what a big society is really all about.

  4. says: Chris Cook

    @ Philip

    The French distinguish between ‘contrats de mandat’ – which are the essentially ‘one way’ Anglo-Saxon legal relationships we are familiar with, of Statute Law, and judge made ‘Equity’ – and ‘contrats de societe’ which are reciprocal or ‘two way’ legal relationships entered into consensually.

    Such relationships are more common in the Middle and Far East. Islamic law is essentially consensual, while it is said that there are as many Sumo wrestlers in the US as there are attorneys in Japan.

    I would argue that the Big Society is – or could be – based upon networked interactive partnership relationships defined by protocols entered into consensually.

    In fact, direct instantaneous ‘Peer to Peer’ economic relationships within such partnership framework agreements will in my view make redundant existing dysfunctional enterprise models.

  5. says: Tim Lucas

    @ Toby Baxendale

    I cannot begin to think what it that Cameron will actively insert in any vacuum left by the state. The reason for this is that the solution is one that arises through market forces, into which all market participants have an input. Cameron – similiarly – should have no idea of the best substitute for the service provision in an area where the state withdraws.

    I should also note that unfortunately, in the areas where the state does withdraw, the level of service provision is likely to deteriorate rather than improve, the reason being that the State will have diverted scarce resources into a specific area through its action. On the state’s withdrawal, the effect on overall living standards should be to improve (as more consumer goods will be produced in closer approximation to the demand of customers). However, the specific area from which the government exits will almost certainly find itself poorer provided for.

    Should any government attempt to ‘improve’ a deterioration in standards in an area of government withdrawal through replacing this with a different non-market structure, then the government merely replaces one governmnent construct with another.

    This is not just theory. It is happening. The last government just before its demise (with the subsequent enthusiastic backing of the Tories) set up a structure in which the charities more successful at relieving social deprivation are able to apply for grants through the Serco ‘Flexible New Deal’ contract. This has been held up as an example of the Big Society by Maud and Iain Duncan Smith.

    Just watch how all these excellent charities change their behaviour in order to win more money and so comply with the government’s vision of ‘success’.

Comments are closed.