David Cameron wants us all to be part of a ‘Big Society’. What this means is using the state to galvanise families, individuals, charities and communities to come together to solve social problems themselves. But what will motivate people so to do?
Ancient Athenian citizens (male, of Athenian parentage and over 18) felt highly motivated to solve the problems they faced because in their radical, direct democracy, they met in Assembly every eight days to make all the decisions, executive and legislative, that parliament makes on our behalf today. Their commitment to this style of rule is demonstrated by the speed with which they rallied to restore the democracy on the two occasions on which it was (briefly) replaced by an oligarchy. Further, it was felt to be an enormous success. The maritime empire they ran poured wealth into the city and made it, as Pericles boasted, ‘the education of Greece’. Athens was the place to be, and the people rightly took immense pride in what they, personally, had achieved. The gods were clearly smiling on their efforts.
Romans developed a similar sense of achievement. They, too, had a direct hand in government, voting to pass every proposal that the Senate came up with. Their citizen army, hardened by two cataclysmic engagements with the Carthaginians on sea and then on land in the 3^rd C BC, was almost invincible. It was responsible for growing a vast empire whose tribute provided Romans with virtually anything they wanted, making Rome and the great cities they built like Alexandria and Constantinople the envy of the world. What it was to be a Roman! They had faced dangerous challenges and successfully overcome them. Pride mingled with patriotism and the conviction that the gods were on their side.
Since most people do not feel like this about Britain, let alone government, any more, what will motivate them to charitable activity is the feeling that they really can make a difference, by their own unhindered efforts, to a cause they value. The idea that a government-driven, bureaucratically-controlled initiative can create the circumstances in which such activity can flourish is a contradiction in terms. If Cameron really wants society to change, it is government that is going to have to change first. Do not hold your breath.