Liz Truss is back in the news, but a small state is out of fashion – or at least with the punters. The new British social attitudes survey finds that seven in 10 of us think it’s definitely government’s job to control prices, up from three in 10 in 2006. Only 30% wanted public spending increased in 2009; now that’s 55%.
This has libertarians turning in their Tufton Street graves. But they should relax. Partly that’s because the surge in support for big government shouldn’t be a surprise and may be temporary. The survey was carried out in autumn 2022, when people faced unpayable energy bills without government support. And it followed a pandemic posing health and economic challenges individuals couldn’t hope to address alone.
But it’s also because sensible state support doesn’t actually turn people into dependent zombies. Confident assertions that furlough caused the recent rise in labour market inactivity are garbage: those furloughed were no more likely to exit the labour market than others.
Indeed the state being there for us when we need it is a big part of what binds a country together – as deference has declined, it’s central to modern patriotism. Recent research examining Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal proves the point. This was a huge expansion of the state, doubling federal spending and providing work at a time of 25% unemployment. Rather than sapping Americans’ energy, the research shows those people who received federal help stepped up when Uncle Sam called in the Second World War: they volunteered to fight in greater numbers, bought more war bonds and won more awards for heroism.
So remember, there’s nothing patriotic about leaving people to sink or swim.
• Torsten Bell is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation. Read more at resolutionfoundation.org