Anne McElvoy is annoyed with Islington council. It has told her she has to recycle her food waste to help the council save money and that, if she doesn’t, she will be fined. Her irritation seems to be not so much with the initiative itself as with the way it has been communicated and the lack of consultation. But this is a brash assertion:
It is not up to a local authority to demand that we behave in a certain way because its budgets are being tightened.
Isn’t it? Isn’t that exactly what a cash-starved council, providing services free at the point of consumption, needs to do?
Commenting on the changing nature of fatherhood, novelist Andrew Martin noted:
In the traditional model, the father intimidated the child. In the literature of modern fatherhood, it seems to be the other way round.
Old Fashioned Father expected obedience from his children and, if he gave them anything at all, he expected them to be grateful. Modern Dad is under constant pressure to deliver the latest must-haves and has to persuade and even negotiate with his children.
Something similar seems to have happened to our relationship with the state. In the 1940s the state told us what to do and punished us if we didn’t do it. Nowadays we make ever higher demands of the state and shout at our politicians on Question Time when it doesn’t deliver.
It is fashionable in some quarters to claim that the state has become more authoritarian in recent years. This is complete rot. The state of the immediate postwar years forcibly relocated thousands of people, shipped children to the other side of the world and conscripted all able-bodied men into the armed forces for two years. Nowadays, the state makes us fill in forms, stops us from using inflammatory language and tries to get us to eat better food. Old Fashioned Father told us where to go and when, expecting us to jump to it. Modern Dad tells us to play safely, eat healthily and not call each other horrid names.
The trouble is, Modern Dad is running out of money. A number of separate studies have concluded that, over the long-term, the state will either not be able to provide services at the current level or will have to increase taxes. The 2020 Trust, NIESR and the IFS Green Budget all conclude that, unless the British get used to paying higher levels of tax, even George Osborne’s cuts will not be enough to restore the UK’s pre-recession fiscal position. (See my commentaries here and here.) The pressures of an aging population and climate change are only going to increase the strain on central and local government. We will probably not see such generous social provision again. The Peak State point has passed.
We already have indications of what public services will be like in the future. Rationing by price will be a way both of controlling demand and reducing the strain on the public funds. We will have to pay for things that used to be free and, if we can’t afford them, we will have to do without them.
But what about those services where we don’t have a choice? It would be insane, for example, to make refuse collection optional. If one person on the street refused to buy it, their house would become a health hazard for everyone else. As the price of landfill increases the only way to make refuse collection cheaper is get people to behave differently. The Modern Dad way of doing this is to persuade, consult and offer incentives. All these things take time and cost money, though.
The Economist recently published an article praising Singapore’s public services. The city state has excellent schools and hospitals, it says, all for only 19 percent of GDP. Now there could be all sorts of reasons for this. Comparing welfare systems across cultures and continents is fraught with difficulty. But the Singaporean state looks a lot like the British state of the 1940s, which is hardly surprising because that’s what it was modelled on. It’s a lot more Old Fashioned Father than Modern Dad. It fines people for dropping litter, canes them for more serious offences and even forces them to save a certain amount of money each year.
In Britain, we’ve got used to the Modern Dad approach. Most years, the state has increased its spending on us. If it wants to change anything it consults, persuades and even offers us bribes. But all this is costly.
The pressures on state resources may lead it to take a more authoritarian approach. It may soon start telling us we have to recycle our waste and fining us if we don’t. In the longer term it may tell us which cars we can and can’t drive. Sometimes price alone can’t protect scarce resources, as we see with summer hose-pipe bans. As the cost of resources increases and the availability decreases, will the state go back to telling us what to do again?
Anne McElvoy’s belief that the local authority has no right to demand that she behave in a certain way to ease pressure on public finances reflects an attitude that is unique to a certain time and place. Developed economies after the 1960s saw an increase in state provision and a decrease in state coercion. Deference declined and demands increased. That shaped a view of the state as a provider but one that had no right to make demands in return.
But the all providing, consultative, persuading and incentive-giving state we have been used to is expensive. The strain on our public finances and public services is only going to get worse. We might start seeing more of Old Fashioned Father and a lot less of Modern Dad in the years to come.