Amongst Liberal Democrats, the debate about where to cut, and where to invest, is a knotty one. Social liberals take the stance that now is an opportunity to invest, as a means of driving economic growth and repairing sorely neglected public infrastructure. Economic liberals see this as an opportunity to withdraw the state from significant areas of activity.
And yet, I find myself torn. I'm a small state kind of person, who believes that government is there to enable, to hold the ring if you like, balancing the tensions of the market and the public interest (whatever that is). Ironic really, given who I work for, but there you go. I believe in sound money, public accountability and that sense that we, as a society, should look out for those less able to look out for themselves. Yes, it's kind of contradictory, but then nobody ever said that being a liberal was easy.
However, all that said, the current budget crisis offers a genuine opportunity to return to basics in terms of what we want our Government to do and why. Not about more versus less, or public versus private, because that's more about delivery than about the fundamentals. No, I mean the question of what you want to do as a community, what you want to leave to the market and what you should reasonably expect of individuals.
We have, as a society, become increasingly of the view that government, at whatever level, should be responsible. For example, we expect our local council to keep the streets clean, so they employ roadsweepers, funny little machines that sweep the gutters, or drive on the pavements vacuuming up litter, or men with steam jets to remove chewing gum. They remove graffiti, flyposted gig posters, little postcards offering the services of unfeasibly attractive women, that kind of thing. And we pay for them.
The fact that we pay for the service seems to have the effect of encouraging a belief that, having paid for that service, we might as well take advantage of it. So we litter, drop chewing gum, generally abuse our environment, and think little of it. No, not quite. We moan about the terrible burden of council tax, and the utter inefficiency of our local council. So what if we took our litter home, punished graffiti artists, and educated our children to learn from our folly? Why, we would reduce the number of people needed to clean our streets and buildings and cut the cost of government.
Call it a compact if you like. I, the citizen, agree to behave in a sensible fashion, take an interest in my community. In return, I expect the government to punish those that transgress, and punish them in such a way that doesn't burden me overly. How about restorative justice, for example? Don't imprison them - fine them, or get them to repair the damage they have done. And not just a token fine, a fine that reflects the true cost of the damage they have done. If that means they end up paying over twenty years, so be it, it will be a salutary lesson to them, and to anyone else who thinks that burdening me with clearing up behind them is a good thing.
The libertarian in me takes the view that, if people are genuinely to bear the consequences of their actions, the penalties should be transparent and honest. Now I know what you're thinking. Life is more complex than that. There are interrelationships to consider. The problem is, we allow that to override what should be a sense of anger.
This Government takes the view that, in order to solve the problem of anti-social behaviour, increasingly precise legislation is necessary (the aim is precise, rather than the legislation itself, in my experience). The impact of that legislation needs to be measured, breeding a cadre of people whose job it is to count things, rather than do anything about them. Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition believe that problems of anti-social behaviour are best solved by imprisoning everyone under the age of eighteen (alright, I exaggerate a bit there, but you get the drift...).
This leaves a bit of a gap for us to exploit, if we're up for it. Enough of the wet liberalism. The public don't like it, and we just look weak if we talk about social deprivation and the ineffectual nature of imprisonment. Let's talk about economic restitution, about cutting the cost of government, the kind of things that are thoroughly liberal, resonate with the public and, as a handy side effect, will be electorally popular.
Curiously, I suspect that thinking like this will cause me to be associated with the 'Liberal Vision' tendancy within Liberal Democrat circles. Ironic really, given that I seem to find myself on the opposite side to them on most issues. However, they specialise in allowing people to do things. In this instance, I want to give a community the opportunity to do something. Call me a reactionary if you like, but...