Commentary

Plato’s Britain

Tony Blair may be entering the last year of his premiership, but his zeal for social engineering remains undiminished. The latest policy proposal from Britain’s Labor prime minister aims to deal with poverty among the people at the bottom of Britain’s economic ladder. To help the indigent, Mr. Blair wants to move beyond cash handouts and increase the government’s role in rearing their children.

An increased state role in children’s lives may seem like a strange culmination of Blairist legislative agenda, but the nanny-state has been at the heart of Blairism since the beginning. In a recent speech, Mr. Blair wondered about the bottom “21/2 percent of every generation [who] seem to be stuck in a lifetime of disadvantage.” To help them, Mr. Blair backed increased government intervention in their lives. “Intervention can sound very sinister,” he admitted, but the “objective of what we are trying to achieve is timeless: We want to expand opportunities so that nobody, whatever their background or circumstance, should be left behind.” Increased intervention would include “intense health-visitor programs,” “parenting classes,” “help with drug or alcohol abuse,” “placing of families… within a proper, disciplined framework,” and “foster care.”

Mr. Blair’s solution to what he perceives as a serious social problem is not new. In his “Republic,” Plato’s vision of a utopian society included taking of children from their parents and raising them in state nurseries. Plato’s goal was to increase the unity and strength of the society he lived in — a leitmotif that would be taken up by other utopians throughout history. To Mr. Blair’s credit, unity and strength are far from his mind. Rather, Mr. Blair believes social exclusion is an ill that must be combated with all force. He has even created a new Ministry for Social Exclusion and appointed Hilary Armstrong, one of his close allies, to administer it.

Social exclusion is a nebulous concept. A social engineer sees anyone whose life deviates in any perceived way from the norm as socially excluded. He sees all deviations, including lower graduation scores among members of a particular ethnic group or higher incarceration rates among people below certain income level, as ipso facto evidence of social exclusion. The high priest of the social engineers is Anthony Giddens. He is the former director of the London School of Economics, the founder of the Third Way (a philosophical viewpoint that strives to navigate the midway between capitalism and socialism), and Tony Blair’s guru.

According to Mr. Giddens, the relative economic freedom Britain continues to enjoy must be accompanied by policies that ensure everyone’s equal opportunities. Historically, equality of opportunity has meant removing legal obstacles to individuals achieving their goals. In contrast, Mr. Giddens and his followers see equal opportunity as a stepping stone to equal outcomes. As David Held, one of Mr. Giddens’ fellow travelers at the LSE writes, social exclusion occurs whenever “outcomes, be they assessed in terms of education levels, jobs or a range of cultural activities, are biased in favor of certain groups or interests.”

Nigel Ashford, a British-born political scientist, warns against legislation that goes beyond equality before the law in his book “Principles for a Free Society.” As he writes, “One of the greatest sources of unequal opportunity is the family, when there is a difference between warm, loving parents who care deeply about their children, and indifferent parents who care more about their own selfish desires. It is impossible to ensure that every parent is kind and loving, so the strict application of the principle of equal opportunity would require taking the children away from their parents and bringing them all up together collectively. … A full commitment to erasing any differences in opportunities would require a totalitarian society in which the state was able to control every aspect of life to ensure that no one obtained an ‘unfair’ advantage such as a better teacher.”

A full commitment to erasing any differences in opportunities is exactly what Mr. Giddens is committed to. As he wrote, social exclusion “refers to circumstances that affect more or less the entire life of individuals, not just a few aspects of it.” As such, the scope for government action has to be all-encompassing.

But, must a runaway nanny state lead to totalitarianism? Britain was the first European country to limit the king’s power. As such, it was the birthplace of modern freedom. Tony Blair’s Britain teaches us it may be possible to combine democracy with unprecedented levels of state interference in citizens’ private lives.