Those of us this side of the Atlantic find the American polarisation around the provision of state welfare/health care extremely puzzling. Here, for the last 60 years there has been a general hegemony that it is the job of any government to look after the most vulnerable people in our society, even allowing for the fact that there are differences between the left and right of the political spectrum as to how we might do this.
People like me would go further- and say that the best measure of a society is the degree to which it looks after the poor and broken, and how the structures of society mitigate towards providing as much equality of opportunity as possible.
From here this seems like the only moral position that could be compatible with a modern state- particularly one with its roots into the teachings of Jesus.
So how then does a society that is avowedly Christian, and is the wealthiest, most powerful state in the world manage to more or less take a different view? What moral choices justify this position to the moral majority- the middle American mostly Republican, conservative Christian majority?
If this interests you, then I very much recommend listening to this radio 4 programme.
The eminent American political philosopher Michael Sandel is Radio 4’s “Public Philosopher.” Now, as America prepares for its Presidential elections, he is going on the road in America with a unique mission to challenge ordinary voters and lay bare the deeper moral questions bound up in the noisy Romney and Obama campaigns.
In this week’s programme, Professor Sandel is at Harvard, his home university in the intellectual heartland of New England. Much of the debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama has been about welfare policy, social security and healthcare. Underlying this, Professor Sandel believes, is a moral and philosophical disagreement about the nature of the American dream itself.
Earlier this year, Obama was attacked for his remarks about the role of government. “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive,” the President said. “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Republicans saw this as an attack on business and accused Obama of stifling the idea of individual success at the core of the American dream. The right’s policies are more focussed on individual choice — lowering taxes and opposing, for example, the type of universal health care policy which Obama has enacted.
Against this backdrop, our public audience will be asked: “Who Built It? Is the American vision of individual responsibility for one’s own success a myth?” Michael Sandel weaves through these issues with the help of philosophers past and present.
The programme allows real debate between thinking Americans about the nature of government and sets it within a philosophical and world wide context. However, I was most interested to try to understand the American/Conservative perspective- because like it or not, the power lies here- not just in America, but through the various world wide institutions and globalised interests, the morality inherent in the position affects us all.
Follow me on this a little- I would suggest that no human endeavour exists in a moral vacuum- rather it grows and is driven by a set of underlying assumptions, leading to half understood rules and codes, and eventually to a kind of automated set of behaviours. The same set of principles that result in a moral stance firmly against state welfare and health provision also result in free market capitalism, evangelical Christianity and economic growth systems depending in endless innovation, and conspicuous consumption. (You will note that so far I am trying hard to remain neutral in this piece!)
The Michael Sandel radio programme allowed members of the audience to state clearly the reasons behind their support of both sides of the welfare debate. Those AGAINST clearly stated some of these things;
This was the powerful idea behind many parts of the argument. The idea that government tax is a form of coercion, that being made to give money is a fundamental invasion into the rights of the individual. Freedom is seen as the pre eminent idea of what is truly American.
(I can no longer stay neutral!)
There seem to me to be some real problems with this idea. Freedom is not abstract- it is constructed. It arises in a particular social context and is meditated by many powerful self interests. There is also the fact that one person may extract their freedom (for example to enjoy a particular lifestyle) at the expense of others. Might they not also wish to be free from what they regard as oppression?
Americans seem to have not problem in paying taxes to government to build up massive military forces. To protect their ‘freedom’.
Allied to the idea of freedom is a powerful sense of individualism- the idea that the individual is always more important than the collective. That is not to say that small town neighbourliness is not important, but that society ought to be based on the hard work, the opportunities made and taken and the achievements of- the individual. This principle extends right to the point of individual rights to protect what is ‘mine’ by the use of the gun.
I have come to see the dominance of individual, personal rights as part of the reason for much human distress in Western culture. Researchers will point to the fact that the more dependent connections we have on those around us, the more we are anchored to our context, then the happier and more fulfilled we will tend to be. It is how humans are made. When Margaret Thatcher said ‘There is no such thing as society’ she was never more wrong.
We have a choice between anchoring our society around a sense of common good, or against a common enemy. The Americans (and by association the British) have tended towards the later of late- and this is something that I think we should deeply regret.
Encouraging and rewarding fecklessness.
This is the powerful idea that benefit breeds dependency and laziness The end result is that people who work hard end up supporting those who will not work, and a huge growing underclass is created of state sponsored inactivity.
This is of course one of the issues that any State benefit system has to contend with. How to prevent people getting ‘stuck’ in the system. How to constantly find ways to encourage and develop people, not stigmatise and exclude people from full participation in society. Our system in Britain pegs benefits below the level of the minimum wage, and has evolved a huge machine into which people are churned in the hope that they will emerge into renewed enterprise. It is far from perfect.
Some people can not work in any society. They are sick, or broken, or addicted. They may also be very unlovely, and brutalised by their experience. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that we in the UK (as a result of having a developed welfare state) have more of these people than in the USA.
Charity is a better means through which to provide welfare.
This idea suggests that where people are in genuine need, then individuals can still offer help via donating to charities, voluntary agencies and self help groups, who will operate more efficiently and are better able to meet the needs of the poor and sick than the state can ever be. This is of particular interest to faith groups and churches, as this might then become their natural field of operation.
Back in the Victorian times, a man called Samuel Smiles wrote a book called Self Help, which was an excoriating account of the inefficiently of the charitable activity of the time. Charities have the capacity to be every bit as efficient or inefficient as government action. They are also likely to be piecemeal, and lacking in any kind of overall vision or common principles.
It will be no surprise to you to know that I do not think the moral case against welfare provision hangs together- particularly from a Christian perspective. It owes more to enculturalised ne0liberalism than it ever does to the words of Jesus.
But there is a moral argument nevertheless- polarised and dualistic as it has become…
Michael Sandel was the key guest speaker at the Labour Party conference this year. Very good he was too. The American spirit was born out of people who had some get up and go – they “went” and created a country of like minded pioneers who only had themselves to rely on. Politically they were either right wing or hard line Liberals – not a surprise they gave birth to a nation that thinks they way they do and calls people like President Obama and Michael Sandel socialists [and they say it as an insult]. Though i recently spent a great journey home from London talking for hours with a progressive left of centre American Christian who would be happy to sing from exactly the same hymn sheet as you and I would.
Thanks for pointing me to the radio programme. Really enjoyed it. I liked the idea that ultimately welfare is about a freedom to be. Without welfare think of all the great people that never had a chance to be all that they could be. The ones who died from hunger or disease across time and across the planet. How much more our world could have been blessed had they lived and been nurtured to be all they could be. It is a very different notion of welfare to the one of simply caring for my brother or sister in the European model and builds on both a social and a Christian response to need around us. Thanks again Chris for pointing to the broadcast.