Will We Notice When the State is Gone?

By Professor Gerry Stoker, Politics & International Relations

Will we notice when the state is gone? The plans of the current UK Coalition Government revealed in the Autumn statement to shrink the  size of the state  back to its standing in 1948 suggest that this is a pertinent questions for British citizens.  The capacity a resourced and fully operational state provides tends to be hidden from view.  The danger is we won’t know what we are missing until it’s gone.   Chancellor Osborne’s speech  on January 6th about “hard truths” provides an opportunity for some robust reflection.

Many have not noticed the impact of the cuts so far. A BBC poll in October 2013 found that across a range of public services six out of ten thought that quality had been maintained or improved; allowing Coalition leaders to claim that you can make cuts and improve public service delivery. A stronger claim would have been that the BBC like many other media outlets cannot be relied on to report survey data since looking at the poll   you could just have easily argued that at least 6 in 10 of citizens feel that public services have   got worse or stayed the same. Nevertheless it is fair to say that across a range of public services when faced with the choice between judging them improved, the same or getting worse only in the case of road maintenance did a clear majority agree that the service was getting worse. You might  think that those who are most vulnerable to experiencing the impact of cuts are not so satisfied, yet the same BBC  poll also showed that those who use a particular service are more likely  to be positive than the general population about its performance.

Several factors can explain these findings.  It may be that frontline services have been protected by a ruthless cutting back on backroom staff, preventative and policy work. There is a sort of built up capital of delivery which is slowly be eroded. It may be that big society shifting of responsibilities from the state to the citizen has picked up some of the slack. It may be that forms of intervention using behavioural and other insights mean that government has got smarter at doing what it does.  The poll did not ask about some services that have experienced big cuts such as youth services. It may be that talk of savage cuts has so downplayed expectations that if any kind of service remains people are excessively grateful.  The media environment has been generally supportive of the austerity programme and the public’s individual experiences of cuts will be slow and incremental, based on personal experiences, and so the accumulation of   “hard truths” will only gradually start to be seen.

Crucially more cuts are on the way; as only about a third had been implemented at the time of the survey. It takes time perhaps for experience of cuts to bite. As they build their momentum the impact on a wider range of services will be significant. I suspect that the public have barely started to feel the cuts that there have been so far – and will be slow to react to those that will follow too. Some of the effects of cuts will be either heavily lagged (i.e. effects of policies that are felt downstream in twenty years) although the channels of causation are always complex. The additional factor that I want to focus attention on here though is that what the state does much of its best work in a way that is not obvious but is vital.

We can look at the public services in terms of what they provide to us as individuals but we also need to focus on what they state does for collectively. The choice for the voter is not just which bundle of spending/taxation directed at them do they prefer but what kind of community or society they want to live in. The debate about “hard truths” should be about collective as well as isolated choices.

The state as an institutional device in our society is essential for: authoritative co-ordination, long-term thinking borne out of its institutional longevity, the ultimate source of legitimacy and key to balancing future needs with current needs. No amount of market competition or networking can by-pass these essential functional advantages of the state. Markets deliver a narrow efficiency; network partnerships a capacity to share visions and resources- so that should be part of our governance mix- but we need the state more than we know. Our world is both more complex and more demanding then in 1948 so to shrink the state to an institution with a limited or no capacity to govern is taking a big risk.

Not convinced? Arguments about the essential attributes of a functioning state are admittedly slightly esoteric! I could say visit a stateless society and you might begin to shift your position, that’s if you survive. Less threateningly I could encourage you to reflect on the incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina in the US a few years back.  For now let me offer some concrete examples of what will be missed if we shrink the state so that it loses its governing capacities.

Remember those high tides and storms on Norfolk and Suffolk in December 2013 the damage and the loss of life was far less than feared. Why? The answer is because the authoritative co-ordination capacity of the state’s various local and national institutions managed the situation.

The North appears to be slower than the South in recovering from the last recession but if that disparity is going to be addressed the long-term institutional thinking and investment from local and regional state organisations is going to be essential. Cuts that destroy the built up expertise, inside knowledge and hard one experience about how to achieve development will undermine the recovery of the economy.

A democratically controlled state is the essential source of legitimacy in our society. It keeps a lid on community tensions, supports reconciliation and encourages an ethos of live and let live. We have all benefited from local and national agencies quiet work in this respect to the extent that we still boast about Britain being a tolerant society. But a resource constrained state will not be anything like as effective at these processes of give-and take that oil the diverse parts of our societal machine: cue more social unrest, low level antagonism, no go areas and ingrained injustice.

Finally the state does plan and act for the future. We are the largely unwitting    beneficiaries of investments by Victorian local government, Edwardian welfare reformers and the builder of our modern welfare state in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Shrinking the state too far is in that sense a further betrayal of future generations in era when intergenerational inequalities are forecast to increase. More generally we are letting preventative work slip away that could support flood prevention, environmental protection, citizenship, care for the elderly and so in the future.

An ultra slim state will fail. We need politicians brave enough to make the case for the state. That’s not an easy job against the tide of neo-liberal thinking but we need a political debate to address  not only the on-going impact of cuts but also the more hidden threat posed by a loss of state capacity and its impact on our collective infrastructure. Otherwise as Joni Mitchell  sang in Big Yellow Taxi: ‘Don’t it always seem to go  that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’.

3 thoughts on “Will We Notice When the State is Gone?

  1. This is a thought provoking piece of writing. Some of us are more sceptical about the capacities of the state because of repeated examples of government failure, some of which are systemic in origin. I am sceptical about the state’s capacity for long-term thinking given the electorally driven horizons of politicians. In his interesting memoir Richard Rose tells the story of how a White House aide in the Reagan administration pointed out that there would be a fiscal social security crunch by 2010. The response from Reagan’s point man was ‘we’re not here to solve the problems of 2010.’ What the article might have tackled as well was the increasing reliance on contracting out functions to private providers where the record has been decidedly mixed.

  2. I find nothing to disagree with in the article but surely a large and increasing role for the state is to provide a check on the runaway destructive effects on society, individuals and families wrought by the profit-driven juggernaut of free market forces. Even the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for the (contested) wealth-creating benefits of competition and consumer-led growth have to admit that there are detrimental side-effects that need regulation, planning and management by an effective and accountable state. The size of the state is less important than its effectiveness and its accountability.

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