What David Cameron’s guru Steve Hilton doesn’t get: You need to shrink the state to make it human

Graeme Leach
Hilton rails against the problems of big bureaucracy, whether corporate or government (Source: Getty)
Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former chief strategist, recently published a new book, More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First. From a powerful mayor in every town to self-build housing, from radically new models of education delivery to “Patients Like Me” social networks in health, Hilton has whizz bang ideas across most public policy areas. There is now speculation as to how many of Hilton’s ideas will find their way into government policy.

More Human is all about radical decentralisation and giving power to communities. Hilton rails against the problems of big bureaucracy, whether corporate or government, saying that we are designing and building a world that is inhuman. “Big is bad, small is beautiful” could have been Hilton’s mantra.

But is he saying anything new? I don’t think he is. When he attacks big corporates, there is a simple solution. If the market isn’t responding to consumers, then more competition – with easier entry and exit of firms – is required. When he attacks the problems of government, the solution should be the same: more market forces.

Radical decentralisation should really be all about radical downsizing of the state. If you want public services to respond to people as individuals, you have to put power in their pocket, and the way to do this is to give them control of the purse strings. Hilton may pontificate on the insights from behavioural economics, and how it might shape future policy, but no amount of “nudging” will change the simple truth that private sector markets are best able to meet consumer needs. We may try and nudge behaviour through policies such as auto enrolment, but if we’d had a smaller state, much less taxation and a lack of government interference over the past 30 years, would we have the pension mess that now faces us? I think not. All too often behavioural economics treats the symptoms not the cause.

More individual responsibility flows naturally from a smaller state. Hilton is not anti-market, far from it, but in his long list of policy ideas, he appears to have lost confidence in the market being capable of providing the solutions to his impersonal world problem. When he says the raison d’etre of big government no longer exists, then surely we should try much smaller government instead?

I suppose my biggest beef with Hilton’s book is that it identifies an endless stream of ideas for decentralising government, in order to make the statist beast better behaved, when I’d just kill it. You can’t personalise Leviathan. It doesn’t do cuddly.

Tim Montgomerie, the political commentator, says that inequality is more important than the Left realises, because it’s more about love than money. In other words, avoiding family breakdown and instability is the most important element in inequality. Here again, Hilton has lots of whizzo ideas, but I’m doubtful. The root causes of family breakdown are either beyond government or attributable to it.

Few would disagree with Hilton’s desire to create a more personal society, based on a richer set of relationships across families and friends. I differ in the means to this end. Surely the way forward is to get the government off our backs, in order to retain more of our income and have far greater opportunity to decide how we split our time between work and leisure.

More Human is packed with noble intentions, but it fails to see the wood for the trees. Maybe his next book could be entitled More Human: Designing a World Where Governments Come Last.

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