It’s not just David Cameron’s pitch for a ‘Big Society’. It connects with recent discussions about faith schools, adoption agencies, universities, the right of government to impose a particular form of sex education, and much more.
Is the government responsible, top-down, for every form of social provision? Is the relationship between government and the institutions of civil society one of ‘contracting out’ services that it cannot itself provide? Or are these civil institutions constitutive parts of society with their own particular motivations, purposes and values?
This is what the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales wrote in their recent document Choosing the Common Good:
Have we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the myth that social problems are for the government to deal with? Politics are important but there are always limits to what any government can achieve. No government can solve every problem, nor make us more generous or responsive to need. The growth of regulations, targets and league tables, which are tools designed to make public services accountable, are no substitute for actions done as a free gift because the needs of a neighbour have to be met.
Acts of willing generosity to help others are not taken because the rules and regulations say so, or because money can be made out of them. Both regulation by law and market forces have a role in modern society. But what has been increasingly overlooked is this third form of motivation, the offer of time, energy and possessions out of the spirit of good citizenship and genuine neighbourliness. If we are to have a society worth living in, this third form of motivation is crucial. Local institutions expressing good citizenship and neighbourliness, which are not beholden to the government, form a vital part of civil society. Without solidarity and the friendships that express it, many of those living alone – now Britain’s most common form of household – become still more lonely and isolated.
Many factors lie behind the decline in this spirit of solidarity of one with another, without which society starts to break down and life becomes intolerable. An excessive emphasis on each person simply pursuing their own interests is no doubt one such factor. This flows from a limited understanding of ourselves as human beings. Far from being self-contained individuals, we are, in truth, always mutually dependent. We are made for one another. This is verified by the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction we experience when we act in generosity and solidarity with those in need. We are not isolated individuals who happen to live side by side, but people really dependent on one another, whose fulfilment lies in the quality of our relationships. [p.7]