Unfettered Bigness and the Pursuit of the Bland

As I write this, journalist Bruce Guthrie has just penned a piece about politicians and the spectre of the nanny state. Guthrie’s article notes the trend whereby “conservative” politicians (by a contemporary definition of conservative) oppose any action by government which limit “individual freedoms” in pursuit of a social goal.

Guthrie’s inspiration for the article is the recent comments by senior Liberal Party of Australia politicians (the LPA is currently dominated in its thinking by “dry” policy proponents or “conservatives” – by that same contemporary definition) that any attempts by government to limit self harm through gambling pre-commitments would be resisted by them and any such law rescinded if they gained control of the government.

This is the “nanny state” argument. “Big” government steps in in pursuit of a better social outcome; Individuals become used to having their lives directed by “big” government; They gain a dependency on such institutions (as a child has a dependence on a nanny) limiting individual responsibility and freedom.

I suspect there are glimmers of truth in this idea. I suspect the sameness wrought by large scale institutionalism does indeed undermine a culture of responsibility and commitment. I suspect it can rob people of the belief that they can offer their voice and hence that it limits freedom.


....the problem with “the nanny state argument” is that contends that only one form of institution – “big, interfering” government- can have this effect. In reality the same loss of responsibility, commitment, voice and freedom can come about as large businesses – increasingly unfettered in their actions – exercise other forms of power over individuals. It occurs to me that these "forms of power" are potentially more subtle in approach but more powerful in effect than many direct government actions.

Contemporary “conservatism” contends that one form of “big” is evil (government) and another is “holy” (business). It labels itself conservative to bring credence to that very argument – “That’s the way it’s always been; big government undermines the freedom of people; let’s get back to that basic, god-ordained principle; let’s conserve what is inherently true”. But this isn’t really conservative at all. It’s radical. It allows the unconstrained growth of certain other institutions - particularly corporate entities. And it eventually produces a powerful institutional oligoculture. Basic biology seems to suggest to me that this is not the way the world works best. It seems to point to a diversity of forms in a healthy ecosystem. To be truly conservative seems to suggest carefully monitoring and proposing ideas to counter the bland excesses of “bigness” – of whatever kind.

As Deborah Frieze and Margaret Wheatley write in their book Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey Into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now many of us have readily subscribed to the fundametal operating assumptions of a global transactional culture. Contemporary "conservatism" has harnessed those assumptions and the willing subscription to those assumptions. It argues - "See, that's the world works, so let's let the transactional culture ride as it will." But that's not the way the world works and in various ways around the planet, we're starting to experience the profound imbalance from getting our assumptions out of kilter with the reality of life.

1 comment:

  1. Spot on, Adrian. Thank you

    There is an interesting juxtaposition among the "conservative" idea of reducing government bigness by decreasing dependency upon commodities while alternatively increasing corporate bigness via individualistic dependency and consumption.

    The latter (corporations) places control of commodities in the hands of mostly private, profit driven organizations and results in inequitable use and distribution of resources.

    The former (government), if not controlled by special interests, places control in the hands of the masses who hold government accountable for equitable distribution of resources.

    Without considering Adam Smith's "invisible hand" or Keynesian Economics, I conclude by asserting that unilateral, dominating power without a counterbalancing relational, shared power -- an equitable and collaboratively wise distribution of resources -- society will insatiably consume its resources until smallness is the only way to survive.