The Agenda

Smaller State, Bigger Citizens

The Economist has a wonderful dispatch on how the Conservative Party intends to foster a post-bureaucratic transformation of the state. 

In a speech broadcast to the rarefied TED conference in California on February 10th (a kind of Bilderberg summit for the worlds of technology, entertainment and design), he announced that all government contracts worth more than £25,000 ($39,200) would be published online. Businesses could pore over them item-by-item in an effort to undercut established contractors. A watchful public could prompt ministers and civil servants to drive a harder bargain with firms.

The idea is that the public, and not the state, will create various tools for monitoring this activity. It’s worth noting that competing providers will keep a particularly watchful eye on government contracts.

Then, on February 15th, came the elucidation of Mr Cameron’s three-year-old plan for public-sector organisations to be run as co-operatives. Nurses could manage their clinics, job advisers take over their employment offices and teachers run their schools. The state would fund them and ensure compliance with basic standards. But the freedom to innovate and set management structures would belong to the workers, as would any surplus income they generated.

The co-op concept has the potential to dramatically expand the scope of private provision of public services. We’ll see.

The Cameron Conservatives have flipped the idea that they care only about slashing the state — they argue that they want a small state and bigger citizens, which is to say a larger, richer, denser network of voluntary associations that can meet social needs at a more local and human scale. It sounds warm and fuzzy. But it also resonates with core principles of classical liberalism and the best kind of conservatism.  

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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