We are in my opinion as yet far from being able to grasp and define all the causes of that phenomenon of anarchic violence which has suddenly emerged around the world in the last few years. Still further are we from allotting to the various causes their relative importance and proceeding, if that were possible, to try to eliminate them. Nevertheless it is possible, I think, to point to some of the predisposing circumstances in the environment, which are common to the countries affected: the virus may be as yet undefined and without its antidote, but at least we can say that certain conditions are favourable to it. I want to select one of these for examination, because it is specially relevant to that policy of ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state’ to which the Conservative Party is deeply committed and which it is ever more precisely expounding.
The modern state is characteristically the welfare state; but that popular term covers two utterly different, and indeed opposite, meanings. It can mean that the state is the agency by which the community discharges its responsibility to ensure a tolerable livelihood to all its members. It can also mean that the state undertakes on behalf of its members the responsibility for meeting whatever needs of theirs it chooses to recognise.
In the last quarter of a century there has been a rapid and accelerating transition, here and elsewhere, from the first to the second meaning of the welfare state. Perhaps nowhere has the transition been so dramatic as in the United States.
The state which undertakes, and is accepted as undertaking, the obligation to meet the general needs of the citizens is particularly vulnerable to violent agitation, for one simple reason – the obligation it has accepted is by its nature unlimited. It follows that the material for dissatisfaction is likewise unlimited. Though the state at any given time will seek to delimit its commitments, by saying ‘Thus much and (for the present, at any rate) no more!’, there is no logical stopping-point, no tenable line of defence along the route. The state is involved in a series of rearguard actions by which it can hope to do no more than impose delay upon the advancing forces. A premium is thus placed upon agitation, since the way to more for every section of the citizens in turn is through political pressure, through acting upon the will of government; and the methods of doing so are quickly communicated, improved and refined. Whether it be farmers, whose income consists in whole or part of subsidies, or direct employees of the state, who stand to gain from a further extension of its operations, the method of agitation is to hand, commended by the sure knowledge that its effect will be magnified and intensified by the channels of communication and the latent self- interest of other sections. ‘I think the farmers have a good case,’ says the teacher. ‘I think the teachers have a good case,’ says the farmer. ‘Of course, the Government ought to be expanding agriculture, schools, hospitals, universities, pensions, and so ad infinitum,’ says a babble of voices all mingled together.
Not only does the unlimited role of the state provide unlimited fuel for dissatisfaction; it provides unlimited scope for the fostering of animosities between one section of potential recipients and another. I hold, as most of my colleagues do, a regular ‘surgery’ for individual constituents, and have incidentally always found that I learnt a great deal from doing so. I do not remember, in twenty years, a single constituent coming to complain that someone down the road had bought another car or a new television set. On the other hand, I hardly remember a constituent coming for advice and help on housing who did not quote me the case of someone else who got served before them: ‘they only went on the waiting list a few months ago and yet they’ve got a house already, though they weren’t living in conditions anything like as bad as what we are’. Wherever lines of division or fissure exist in a community, the sense of jealousy and deprivation which invariably attends on state provision can be relied upon to widen and deepen them.