One of the contradictions that Conservative politicians have to navigate, at least in the current era of fast-moving media, is that they constantly have to have new policies. A true Tory would probably prefer to have the same policies today as he had last year, and the year before that. And a small-state conservative would probably prefer to have fewer policies altogether.
Spare a thought for David Cameron, as he is forced into coming up with a policy on teens, beyond the rather peculiar one of hugging them. His announcement of a "national citizen service" for 16 year olds enables the Tories to have something to say, when accused of not caring about unruly kids on the street. That is its main function, and it should work for the time being. The question is whether one pretty flaky policy is enough to get through 10 minutes of assault from Paxman or Humphries, but good luck to them.
What is peculiar about this particular problem is that nobody has thought to re-target dependency theory, away from the welfare state, towards the (lets call it) 'civilising state'. I argued as much in this paper [doc]. The argument of dependency theorists in the 1970s was that the welfare state undermined the possibilities for the working classes (in the US, black families in particular) to develop independence, self-respect and recognition from others. The welfare state was scaled back - or transformed gradually into a 'workfare state' - in order to reduce this alleged dependency culture and the stigmatisation that accompanied it.
Whatever one thinks of this argument (and it remains controversial, although decreasingly so) it at least challenges the assumption that good intentions are sufficient to warrant State activity. Blair was particularly famous for his 'politics of good intentions' - I wonder if Jonathan Myerson's radio drama has the nous to represent how dangerous well-intentioned people can be. The particular dangers of an interventionist 'civilising state' run in parallel to those of the welfare state, but with an added contradiction. The contradiction is that the desired goal of such policies is less government and more peer-to-peer, voluntary engagement. But having the State there to enforce it means that it isn't peer-to-peer and isn't voluntary. Cameron has only moved slightly further on from his absurd idea of paying children to behave.
The dominant political-ethical vision today, shared by Brown and Cameron, is of civic laissez-faire. Yet they are unable to go through with this, because of their compulsion to make policy announcements. Imagine a neo-liberal, free market economist who recommended that employers had to be regulated to develop a hire and fire culture or that consumers had to be incentivised to max out their credit cards. We're living with the civic equivalent.
Where the analogy to the welfare state may have real purchase in the future is the possibility that the State is polluting social relations in this domain. I am very suspicious of the Tocquevillian, Robert Putnam vision of American community, in which the State recedes to allow leagues of volunteers, neighbourhood groups, bowling teams and the like to emerge. But the problem is not that these groups don't exist, but the structural and ethnic injustices that this vision conceals.
That's a separate issue. For the sake of analysis, think about what these groups look like when they do exist. Here's where I went on Saturday:
The key word is written on the white plastic buoy: free. A voluntary group called Hudson River Recreation was formed, simply to allow people to, err, go Kayaking on the Hudson. Why? Who knows. But the overwhelming sense of encountering this sort of voluntary project is how ungoverned it is. It's a form of anarchy, lacking rationale or quantified outputs. How much does it cost? I doubt the organisers know. What do people get out of it? They get to go Kayaking. What are the social benefits that result? Who gives a shit.
There is little way that this could possibly benefit from any form of government intervention, be it well-intentioned or otherwise. Whether this type of activity is ever conceivable in Britain is open to question. It fills the spaces left by the American legalistic, dispassionate State, partly out of disgust for the rampant money-making and social indifference that is afoot elsewhere in this society. Yet a State that intruded further into civil society would only succeed in pushing this sort of activity further to the margins. After all, a great deal of antisocial behaviour (in contrast to most crime) is not-for-profit.
So this is David Cameron's problem. Proper Toryism might be the best way of pursuing his (and Gordon Brown's) goal, admittedly dressed up in the theory of Edmund Burke than Alexis de Tocqueville. Leave people alone for a moment. See what they come up with. Then leave that alone as well. But that's not really an option in Britain right now.