On balancing competing needs (part 4)

What might this local diversity look like in practice? A cultural theory lens, one I’ve been developing with Matthew Taylor at the RSA,⁠1 looks at the power dynamics between the individual, the collective and the institution in any given social situation and is helpful in making sense of how we might think about a new social settlement that responds to these challenges. Three examples serve to illustrate these power dynamics illustrated below. 

The benefits system remains one of the more complex and hierarchical systems with its emphasis on conditionality and sanctions: play by the institutional rules and you’ll qualify for your benefit; transgress the rules and you’ll be punished. These approaches to welfare largely crush an individual’s sense of agency and ignore the power of the collective: there was little no place for mutual support and social relations in helping people when they most need it in their lives.⁠2 This is reflected in the diagram, showing that power is concentrated in the authority of government with little in the individual or community. Our work in Scotland⁠3 designing at a basic income experiment is seeking to rebalance this dynamic: by removing the conditionality around the benefits system with a universal payment the state power is being dialled-down; by wrapping place-based support around the individuals we are investing in community; and by stripping out the sanctions and rules regime we are attempting to free people up to exercise their sense of agency.  

Many will recall the attempt of the 2010 coalition government to introduce the notion of the ‘big society’. At its best this was seen as an attempt to liberate civil society to address local challenges without needing to rely on the state to do so. It could be seen as a shift in power away from authority and hierarchy and to the community, as illustrated. Of course, the reality was that many thought this a smokescreen for austerity and the retrenchment of the state, which favoured areas with higher social capital to respond to their needs. Whatever your views, it had little to say about the role of individual power. 

Fans of Mad Men might recall an episode⁠4 in which Don Draper and his family are picnicking in a 1950s New York park. Rather than carefully pack everything away as they head off, they pick up the rug, shake all the rubbish onto the grass, and walk off. I still remember the shock from watching this. The power of the individual was clearly dominant, outweighing the impact of litter on the wider community and the assumption that the local authority would clear it up. Thankfully we now live in an age where such individualistic behaviour is no longer acceptable. 

The Mad Men example gives us a further insight provided by applying a cultural theory lens: that the balance of the power dynamic changes over time in response to the changing context and social norms. We are at a point in time where it is shifting and, as a result, a new social settlement is needed to reflect a new paradigm of how we relate with the state and each other. Our insight is that the relationships between individual citizens, the various communities within which we all live, work and socialise, and the wider set of publicly-funded institutions on which we each depend to varying degrees for a variety of functions is fundamentally changing and the balance between these elements will vary in proportion and importance from place to place. So what might a new social settlement look like in practice? 

Developing a Dialogue in 21st Century Britain

Cultural theory suggests that each place – from the local to the national – will evolve its own unique balance between the needs of the individual, the community and the institutions that serve it: its own version of the social contract. Places are where we pursue our own dreams of success as individuals (‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’). They are where we come together to provide a range of informal support as a community (‘it takes a village to raise a child’). And they are where institutional policy, laws and regulations are implemented in practice (‘who can I hold to account for this decision?’). 

The critical task facing us all is to work through a new social settlement that enables people to meet their own needs and goals in the places in which they live, whilst mitigating the shadow-side effects that might emerge. Understanding these power dynamics will help us figure out what we might need to do at any one time to maintain an appropriate balance between individual agency and incentives, social norms and the needs of the collective, and institutional authority and levers. It’s a framing perhaps best understood by thinking through a specific issue. Consider smoking. Where is the limit of responsibility for the individual to look after their own health? What should the state do, from offering access to healthcare to limiting fast food outlets through planning regulations to a sugar tax? What’s the role of the community, from running sports clubs to offering mutual support? Other issues bear a similar thought experiment, from knife crime to air quality to recycling. These are crucial debates to be had around the future of the country and the kind of society we want to live in and our role within it. 

This is not a process that will be easy. It will require us to first create a safe space for dialogue that accommodates divergent views. It will require the willingness to ask searching questions. It will require a range of approaches and a range of skills – from how to host conversations to how to broker between differing values. Yet this might just be the important work of our time. Is there a bigger challenge than to find answers to the single question that a new social settlement needs to answer: what should the role and relative power of the individual, the community and the state be in 21st Century Britain? 

This is the fourth in a five-part series exploring how we might understand and maximise our quality of life. Click here for Part 3 and Part 5

1 Link to MT blog

2 My basic income blog

3 My blog on this

4 Season 2, Episode 7 – clip available here https://youtu.be/roREnVhd_og  Accessed 28th March 2019

2 thoughts on “On balancing competing needs (part 4)

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