It’s usually the case that when I end up chatting to friends about politics, I spend 90% of my time correcting misconceptions about my views. It’s always the same lazy caricature; I’ve lost count of the number of times that it’s either been said or implied that I’m heartless or indifferent to the plight of the poor. So I’d like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.
Ever since the industrial revolution and the birth of mass production, humans have had a tendency to think about problems on a grand scale. It’s understandable really, especially for Brits. After all, we had an empire that covered three quarters of the world. Couple that with the intoxicating influence of Marxist ideas and you can see why Beveridge was tempted to deal with the five ‘giant evils’ – squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease – with centralised national bureaucracy.
Admirable though those aims may be, the belief that only the state has the ability to make a big impact has had lasting repercussions that will be difficult to overcome. People often make the mistake of equating government with society. But the two are very different, and in fact, I’d argue that reliance upon the state is slowly but surely undermining society and our traditional forms of solidarity: family, neighbourliness, charity and even faiths. So I want to see the government take a step back and the foundations of society to be re-laid. But it’s important to understand that this desire of mine (and many others) is not borne out of indifference. Let me explain.
We now have a welfare system that not only supports family breakdown, it actively encourages it. Single mums in receipt of benefits treasure the ‘independence’ they have, when what they mean is that they have exchanged dependence upon the biological father/s of their children or other family members for dependence on the state.
Is this really always the right solution? Swapping a personal, potentially loving relationship for a faceless master? Because make no mistake, government is a whimsical and capricious overlord.
How about neighbourliness? I’m currently reading Alan Johnson’s book ‘This Boy’ (which, incidentally, I would highly recommend). I’m obviously not old enough to remember what things were like in the 1950s, but what struck me when reading about his childhood in the slums of west London was firstly, how difficult life was back then, and secondly, how his local community rallied together and people protected one another. Of course, things were far from perfect – I am under no illusions about that – but I wonder how many of today’s shopkeepers would allow single mums to keep a tab open indefinitely when they couldn’t afford groceries, or how many of our neighbours would refuse to answer the door to a debt collector who was visiting to relieve us of our sofa or TV. Most people don’t even know who their neighbours are anymore, and you can bet your bottom dollar the person working in your local shop doesn’t understand your financial worries.
Why is that? It’s because we don’t believe that where poverty exists, we should have to deal with it personally. We expect people in need to receive support from the government – that’s what we pay our taxes for, after all, and if there isn’t enough to go round, well… just increase the rate.
What about charities? Very, very, many of them no longer need to rely on the goodwill of donors who want to give their own money to causes they deem fit. Instead, we have a situation where 27,000 charities are now dependent on the government for more than 75 per cent of their income and the ‘voluntary sector’ receives more money from the government than it receives in donations. I’ve blogged briefly about the negative consequences this can have before.
These days, even faith groups have given up. In times gone by, the church used to see one of its duties as looking after the widowed and the poor. Original forms of ‘welfare’ came from monasteries or Christian almshouses. But now, churches and other Christian organisations lobby hard for government action to alleviate poverty. Higher benefit payments, funding for foodbanks, a clamp down on corporate tax avoidance, banning of zero hours contracts – all of these issues and more are high on the agenda for Christian organisations. They feel they have been absolved by the state of a responsibility they traditionally saw as their own.
And now we are told that many, if not most, of the serious problems we face today are better dealt with on an international scale. We need the World Bank, the IMF, the UN, endless G summits.
But the problem with this way of thinking is it gives the impression that we, as individuals, are incapable of making a difference. We see the scale of these vast bureaucracies, and though we feel distant from them, we think they are the only vehicle through which problems on our doorstep can be dealt with.
I believe that’s wrong, and it doesn’t make me heartless to say so. I want to abandon state dependence for individual freedoms that build strong societies. If you want to have a big impact, you need to show small acts of kindness. It is personal self-giving, not compulsory taxation and re-distribution of wealth that has the best and most profound effect. Do what you can to help people in your immediate surroundings. It will be more significant and longer lasting than a BACS payment from the DWP. That’s what right-wingers are about.