Decoupling the state and the third sector? The 'Big Society' as a spontaneous order

Working paper 101 (July 2013)

The Big Society has been a rather elusive concept. It has been viewed by critics as providing political cover for the Coalition’s deficit reduction programme and as a Trojan horse for privatisation. Others argue that it represents a significant recasting of the relationship between citizens and the state, as well as providing new opportunities for voluntary and community activity. This paper asks what the Big Society might mean for voluntary organisations, community groups and social enterprises, and in particular how changing relationship with the state might be understood.

The previous Labour government’s approach has been characterised as the development of a closer ‘partnership’ between state and the third sector. Whilst there are important continuities from this time, a partial decoupling may now be underway. To explore this dynamic the paper draws on Friedrich Hayek’s theory of ‘spontaneous order’, suggesting that the Big Society involves some implicit Hayekian assumptions.

Early signs suggest a fundamental shift is being attempted, based on a different view of the third sector. In policy-makers understandings, we move from interdependence between government and the third sector, to a world of independent and spontaneous social action. This understanding may be a mischaracterisation of actual, complex, relationships between the state and the sector, but arguably this does not matter. The vision of an independent third sector, with the state out of the way, is guiding some significant policy shifts.

Research contact:
Rob Macmillan