An increasing concern is being expressed, particularly on the right of the Conservative Party, that the Comprehensive Spending Review is taken the form of salami slicing. Quite big slices, yes, but rather than starting from a zero base and asking whether government needs to be undertaking a particular activity, good programmes are being cut as much as bad ones.
In this context the presentation by Andrew Gamble on the 2010 spending review at a British Academy forum last week was of particular interest. Gamble looked at different conceptions of the state such as the mimimal state (Nozick), the frugal state (Bentham) and the active state (Keynes). He set out three models of government spending (each relating to a share of public expenditure in GDP):
1) 44 per cent, the social investment model
2) 38 per cent, the Anglo-Saxon model
3) 25 per cent model, the free market model with the 1920s and 1930s in Britain as the historical precedent.
He argued that after periodic forest fires public spending tends to grow back. The consensus in the discussion was that Britain was likely to revert to a 38 per cent model and indeed there were some indications that that was George Osborne's conscious intention.
Of course, it is possibly to become too preoccupied with the arithmetic (which in any case is substantially influenced by how fast GDP is growing) and the size of the state rather than its shape. What can the state do and how can it do it effectively?