It was Albert Einstein who once said: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time.’ He did not have social policies in mind, but he might as well have had.
As soon as the first window was smashed in this summer’s riots, the social policy community reliably repeated their usual mantra: government spending cuts have caused this. We need to invest more in these neighbourhoods. We need to spend more on social housing, social services, youth services, childcare, education, training, mentoring, counselling, care, advice – you name it. We need to offer these kids perspectives, alternatives, a stake in society.
As if nobody had ever thought of that.
Quite the contrary is true. The idea that deprived neighbourhoods can be turned around by pumping loads of money into them and having armies of social workers roam them has been tested to destruction, especially during the New Labour years. The LSE’s Anne Power (who is sympathetic to these policies) provides the following account:
‘[The government] carefully targeted programmes at the most disadvantaged areas, setting up Health and Education Action Zones, welfare-to-work programmes, and Drug and Youth Action Teams. It continued the Single Regeneration Budget [...] focusing government reinvestment [...] on many of the poorest areas. It also announced initiatives for literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools, anti-crime initiatives and a new regime of “Tsars”, such as “Drug Tsars”. It was not always clear what the multiple zones and the hyperactivity of overlapping initiatives would do [...] but they seemed to respond to a need and generate an atmosphere of change.’
One could think of a number of responses to explain away the failure of this approach. The most obvious one would be that the scale was still not big enough. If only there had been even more Tsars, more Action Zones, more Action Teams and more X-Y-Z-initiatives, these riots would never have happened. We need so many government programmes with the word ‘Action’ in them that it makes Arnold Schwarzenegger jealous.
Alternatively, one could argue that these initiatives will work eventually, provided we give them enough time. Or maybe one could blame poor implementation: too many Action Teams doing A and too few doing B. Too many Action Zones in neighbourhood X and too few in neighbourhood Y. Too many C-Tsars and too few D-Tsars. Surely next time we will get it right.
But why take the trouble when there’s a much easier way to rescue the conventional case: simply ignore the vast amount of resources that is already being pumped into the likes of Hackney, Tottenham and Brixton; simply pretend that nothing has ever been done to improve these areas; simply style your more-of-the-same demands as novel and ‘courageous’. Talk about the modest cuts in social services taking place now, not about the long expansionary period that preceded the cuts. That, unfortunately, is exactly how a lot of commentators respond to the riots. Let’s do the same thing all over again, because surely the results will be different this time.
Except they won’t. Failing areas can be turned around, but not by social workers and government money. We need an altogether different approach, based on local knowledge instead of technocratic expertise, personal responsibility instead of excuse-making, open debate instead of stifling political correctness, competing solutions instead of master plans, work instead of welfare dependency, and parental choice instead of state schooling.
Kristian Niemietz is Poverty Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs