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Antonia Cox: The Conservative understanding of society

Coxantonia_1 Antonia Cox is a leader writer at the London Evening Standard and mother of three. She was previously a Commons research assistant, investment banker and banking correspondent of The Daily Telegraph.

Labour's David Miliband claims, in a recent Spectator article, that there is a contradiction between David Cameron's emphasis on people "turning to each other" rather than to the state, and the Conservative leader's call for state intervention on the environment. He is trying to dismiss Mr Cameron's thinking as a muddle. It's worth pointing out that he fails completely.

Conservatives - as opposed to extreme libertarians - have never had any difficulty in saying that, where the social costs of certain kinds of behaviour are not reflected by market costs, there is an argument for state intervention.  Environmental damage is a case where behaviour which is currently lawful may very well be doing great harm. If the worst predictions of rising sea levels come true, the impact on trade and migration could be significant, on a scale easily capable of justifying government action. There are questions about what form legislation should take but the size of the impact is so great that there is no difficulty - providing other states also take action - in justifying intervention.

So the contradiction Miliband claims to find does not exist. What Cameron is saying about "turning to each other" is that while state intervention may sometimes be necessary - as in the environmental case - it is not the only way to improve people's lives. To rely on government action predominantly is to undermine the other bonds between individuals - a line of thought that goes right back to Burke. And of course, state intervention often fails because the state is a poor spender of other people's money and its own power can corrupt it.

It is very clear from Mr Miliband's article that the left, even his New Labour social democratic left, still fails to address these limits to the state's effectiveness. His version of the idea of social justice, based on that of Bernard Williams, begs the question of how much compulsory
redistribution of wealth is necessary in order to "curtail unjustified inequalities". The reality, of course, is that if a society redistributes enough to get rid of every "unjustified" inequality as defined by the left, so much damage is done to incentives to work and save, and so much power sucked into the hands of those carrying out the redistribution, that it ends up leaving everyone worse off. Conservatives, including David Cameron, understand this while the left still does not.

In this article David Miliband has nothing to say about families, charities, social entrepreneurs and religious institutions, other than citing Tony Blair's notion of "interdependence", which, unlike David Cameron's idea of "social responsibility", is devoid of ethical content.  David Cameron's best formula so far: "There is such a thing as society - it's just not the same as the state" tunes in with what most people feel about the families, voluntary organisations and other groups to which they belong. That Mr Miliband should feel the need to attack the concept of social responsibility, and do such a poor job of knocking it down, is a sign of his and Labour's vulnerability in this area.

As a would-be candidate, I wouldn't dream of getting into philosophical territory like this on the doorstep. But for those Conservatives who feel anxious about the party's move towards the centre ground, it's worth drawing attention to the fact that under the present leadership we can talk usefully about mutual responsibilities without losing a distinctively Conservative vision.  Our vision of the state's role is still informed by an understanding of government's limitations, and of the power of other institutions - particularly the family - to increase human welfare. That is not a muddle. That is Conservatism.


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