Cameron in Context

Ross ably addresses Andrew’s contention that Cameronism is more modest than the agenda sketched out in Grand New Party. I’ll add a few brief observations:

(1) Britain has an NHS. The Cameron Conservatives celebrate the NHS, and very understandably so. A modest, meliorist, incrementalist politics in Britain involves enthusiastically embracing the fact that the health care sector is controlled by the state. Even our most sweeping proposals on health care are vastly less statist.

(2) Britain has had a New Labour government since 1997. Under Blair and Brown, the British state has grown mightily, particularly the regulatory state. The Cameron Conservatives have explicitly stated that they do not intend to shrink this mightily expanded state in their first budgets.

(3) Andrew writes:

His policy prescriptions — more autonomy at the bottom of public services, more accountability within the public sector …

In the first instance, Cameron is proposing, among other things, that Britain move in the direction of having local governments control local police forces, that more big British cities put in place elected mayors, that Britain should embrace the much-celebrated Swedish educational revolution. In the United States, we have no equivalent of the British Home Office. State and local governments control police forces. In the United States, big city mayors tend to be directly elected. And in Grand New Party, we champion the weighted student formula, which is very similar to … the Swedish educational revolution. So in a sense, Cameron is hoping to emulate a number of existing American institutions as part of his reform project.

In Grand New Party, in contrast, we are talking about addressing some problems — involving health care, labor market interventions — on which the British, Cameron included, accept vastly more state involvement. Too much, in our view.

(4) A key part of Grand New Party is an argument against the hidden welfare state and for transparency. If you believe a social policy is worth pursuing, be willing to pay for it and be democratically accountable — don’t mandate employers or individuals to do your bidding. This is the essence of the case against corvĂ©e economics. We recognize tax subsidies as part of the welfare state — and propose shifting this expenditures towards smarter, means-tested programs that are flexible enough to respond to a changing economic environment.

(5) If Cameron embraced an agenda like the one outlined in Grand New Party, he would likely be accused of being a libertarian radical hellbent on destroying the most cherished parts of Britain’s welfare state.

(6) Over in Ross’s comments, Nicholas Beaudrot asks,

How is “tax credits for parents who stay home” any different from AFDC? Where are all the welfare-to-work conservatives decrying this dependence on the state?

“Tax credits for parents who stay home” are meant to parallel tax credits for working parents. The difference is several-fold — the credits could come in the form of pension or educational benefits that can ease re-entry into the workforce, they are generally smaller, etc. The idea is to eliminate a bias. Also, it is worth noting that welfare-to-work conservatives generally favored spending larger amounts of public funds to facilitate the transition.

What people fail to understand — what Jason DeParle noted in his welfare reform reporting — is that many if not most mothers on welfare were working all along. They were working off the books, however, to avoid losing various benefits. Welfare reform sought to change a strange and counterproductive dynamic in which parents were forced to lie about the fact that they were trying to better their lives and their children’s lives. It allowed people to be honest, and to enter the economic mainstream. Welfare-to-work conservatives like Ron Haskins were less worried about the dangers of statism per se and more about making sure the state rewarded work and thrift rather than punishing it.

If you are truly concerned about dependence on the state, your best bet is to target the panoply of subsidies that advantage the relatively affluent, from health care to housing.