Monday, 21 October 2013

The true value of the public sector

Sometimes it's hard watching the disassembly of all that you've thought solid. All that you've believed in. The dwindling numbers of shared public spaces in Britain - both a literal and a figurative decline, for instance reflected in the long-term decline in the areas used as sports fields - is a case in point. You could pick lots of others.

But the real frustrating thing is that this represents a puzzle. We are actually crying out, as advanced societies in the ageing West, for more communal facilities, not less - as this blog has pointed out again and again.

Take Higher Education. The Minister of State responsible, David Willetts (above) has himself now come out and said that it's going to have to grow. A lot. But he isn't promising to put (some of) his our your money behind that effort. Oh no. Students themselves are going to have to pay - for a good investment, most of the time, but still an investment that society as a whole also gets a lot out of. On consumerist lines that our housing market, our banking system and the physical state of our High Streets are all telling us is basically running out of steam. I can't put it better than the recent cry of rage issued by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books:

Future historians, pondering changes in British society from the 1980s onwards, will struggle to account for the following curious fact. Although British business enterprises have an extremely mixed record (frequently posting gigantic losses, mostly failing to match overseas competitors, scarcely benefiting the weaker groups in society), and although such arm’s length public institutions as museums and galleries, the BBC and the universities have by and large a very good record (universally acknowledged creativity, streets ahead of most of their international peers, positive forces for human development and social cohesion), nonetheless over the past three decades politicians have repeatedly attempted to force the second set of institutions to change so that they more closely resemble the first.

Here's a radical way of thinking about all this - what do want out of life? For a shared public sphere can help to give us what almost every theorist who's ever looked into this - in a literature my old tutor Avner Offer has summarised (opens as PDF) - has picked out as the crucial part of our lives the need to be validated, accepted and valued. Not only that: the public sector gives us a vital risk-sharing 'pool' (opens as PDF) or insurance against our bad luck and bad decisions. What if your university course suddenly isn't valued as highly as it once was? It'd be a good idea to make some funds available to support more mature learners, wouldn't it? What if you grow old and have to blow your savings on helping your children to afford a (ludicrously over-priced) house? Guarantees setting a limit on how much residential care would cost might put your mind at rest. And so on.

We need to value and lionise the goods that our shared public services provide, before it's too late. President Obama has recently spoken far more eloquently about this than 'Public Policy and the Past' can, so we will let him make the case that he presented after the end of the federal government's shutdown:

I’ve got a simple message for all the dedicated and patriotic federal workers who’ve either worked without pay or been forced off the job without pay these past few weeks, including most of my own staff: Thank you. Thanks for your service. Welcome back. What you do is important. It matters. You defend our country overseas. You deliver benefits to our troops who’ve earned them when they come home. You guard our borders. You protect our civil rights. You help businesses grow and gain footholds in overseas markets. You protect the air we breathe and the water our children drink. And you push the boundaries of science and space, and you guide hundreds of thousands of people each day through the glories of this country. Thank you. What you do is important. And don't let anybody else tell you different.  Especially the young people who come to this city to serve - believe that it matters.  Well, you know what, you’re right. It does.

We would gain immeasurably from a shot of that eloquence and precision here in the United Kingdom, wouldn't we?

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