21 February 2018

George Monbiot, conservative


Conservatism is one of those pesky things that creeps up as one gains a richness of maturity. No one is safe. It is even happening to Guardian columnist George Monbiot as he gains wisdom one day at a time just like the rest of us.

His latest discovery on this journey rightwards is that civil society, doing things for ourselves communally, aids and benefits social creatures like human beings.

Many of us have known this for quite some time. But it must come as something of a surprise to those who have plans for us all.

Monbiot’s finding is apparently some great breakthrough, a dramatic medical one in fact:

What this provisional data appears to show is that when isolated people who have health problems are supported by community groups and volunteers, the number of emergency admissions to hospital falls spectacularly. While across the whole of Somerset emergency hospital admissions rose by 29% during the three years of the study, in Frome they fell by 17%. Julian Abel, a consultant physician in palliative care and lead author of the draft paper, remarks: “No other interventions on record have reduced emergency admissions across a population.”

This is quite clearly good news. We’re all happy with both of the results. The NHS needs to spend less of our money on such admissions and also people don’t need to be admitted. A double bonus, both to our pocketbooks and also in the general happiness and health of the nation.

But is it a surprise?

The answer has to be no. It might have come as a bit of a shock to those who insist that our centrally planned National Health Service is a wonder of the world but then there’s always been a certain delusion associated with that view. (The fact that almost no other country has imitated it suggests it isn’t quite so brilliant.)

Mobiot’s revelation is really an evolutionary fact. Humans evolved in smallish groups, of possibly up to a few hundred people. We see this again and again when people study lists of friends and groupings. Very few of us indeed count more than 200 people in our circle. We can also look to institutions that have stood the test of time. Large organisations, armies, schools, even the more sensible companies, split down large masses into more manageable groupings. A regimental company, just as much as a school house, is a time-tested observation that belonging works in smaller numbers. Studies of Facebook and Twitter have shown much the same sort of limitation of the circle of friends.

Or we could be conservative about such things and turn to Edmund Burke. Who pointed out that society works because of those little platoons, the people who make up civil society. That is exactly what Monbiot is so excited about. It isn’t some centrally imposed plan being passed out to the populace. No edict telling the people to be nice to each other. Instead, locals doing things for locals, largely on a voluntary basis.

That is just as human society has always worked. The anomie of modern life and production methods has been remarked upon by luminaries from Adam Smith to your local sociology professor via Marx and others. Something to which we’d all like a solution and to which we do in fact have one. That conservative one, that society just gets on with being society, without plans and without direction, except at that that local level.

Or we could put it another way. Those findings from Frome are that a little bit of community, of civil society, aid the health of the population, both mental and physical. Excellent news but not something we didn’t know. All we’ve got to do now is ensure that no men of system interfere with those little platoons and the good work they’re doing. Our instructions come from a combination of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke and how conservative is that?

The only wonder here is that we’ve had to wait for Monbiot to hit his 50s before he learnt this lesson.

Tim Worstall is senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.