Diffusion everywhere: Cameron’s “Big Society”

David Cameron’s “Big Society” is a project aiming to reinvigorate British civil society in the context of drastic cuts in public spending. In the October 25 issue of the New Yorker, Lauren Collins writes:

Francis Maude [the Minister for the Cabinet Office] was unconcerned about the unevenness of services that the Big Society is likely to entail. In his view, one of the program’s key virtues is its potential for heterogeneity. “People will associate to form a bigger, stronger society in many ways which will be random,” he said. “It’ll be fantastically different in different places.”

“What if it’s fantastically better in some places?” I asked.

“The advantage of where we are with technology is that it becomes much easier for the ones where it isn’t fantastic to look a what’s going on where it’s fantastic and draw from it,” he replied.

This is a standard argument in favor of decentralization. The idea that it fosters innovation and the spread of best practices was famously formulated by US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis as follows in 1932:

It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.

However, the diffusion literature teaches us that learning is only one possible way in which policies spread, and even when it happens, learning needs not lead to normatively desirable outcomes. So Francis Maude’s hopes may well be exaggerated.

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