Vilifying the ‘other’- benefits and dehumanisation…

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A few days ago I was having a conversation with some friends about my experience of claiming unemployment benefit last year. In the room where a couple of doctors, two ministers of religion and a buyer for a large company- all of us with loads of education, years of contribution to our society, each with families and houses. Most had been in receipt of benefits at some time.

I found myself doing two things, both of which now feel like some kind of betrayal.

Firstly I felt the need to justify claiming benefits- out of a sense of shame. I talked about it (unwittingly) as some kind of sociological experiment. I added in a little bombast about all the years I had paid national insurance contributions and that claiming in my time of need was an act of civil justice that I felt myself entitled to. I don’t know if I convinced my friends, but the words certainly felt hollow in my ears.

The second thing that I heard myself doing was to describe my relationship with the staff at the job centre- how many of them knew me as a social work manager, and responded differently too me- in a confused way perhaps- unable to look me in the eye. I also told the story of how I saw a claimant ( a man I knew from my previous work) treated really badly.

What I was doing of course was distancing myself from the role of ‘claimant’. I was casting myself as an agent of class consciousness, humbling myself like Jesus, but really being ‘different’.

I listened to the stories of the other people in the room as they described their time claiming unemployment benefit- after redundancy for example – and it occurred to me that I was not alone in my ability to find ways of seeing myself as different- not like the others.

In my case this goes deep. I grew up as the child of a single mother, entirely reliant on benefits. We had clothing grants, free school meals, even vitamin enriched orange juice to try to ensure health. As I grew older, I enjoyed a free education, right up to degree level. I am a child of the Welfare State. In some senses I have spent my whole career trying to pay it all back- believing that the only job worth doing was one in service of the poor, the weak the broken. But when I look back at my childhood, the primary emotion I remember was shame, embarrassment, the feeling of being less-than, outside-of. Factually I know that these feelings are not fully rational- how could I help the position I was born into? However, they remain strong even now, and I did not realise how much until recently.

These emotions are pervasive and damaging to those of us who spend any time on benefits. It is hard not to lose our selves, hard to keep rising and creating new things, new ideas, new projections of ourselves. Friends of mine who are on disability benefits are both reminders of this (because I know how hard it is for them) but also transcend this daily. They are able to live fully and deeply in ways that I still find hard. I celebrate them as heroes.

But currently things are being made much harder for people who are on benefits. This from here;

Decades of findings in sociology and psychology tell us that as soon as a group can be defined as separate, as an “outgroup”, people will start to view them differently. We’re all familiar with the negative characteristics people seem to identify with benefit claimants. They’re lazy, dishonest, stupid, “scroungers”, and so on. But there are also deeper, largely unconscious beliefs that likely have even more profound and insidious effects. These have to do with whether benefit claimants are even felt to be truly, properly human in the same way that “we” are.

This idea comes from a relatively new body of work in psychology on something called “infrahumanisation“. The infra just stands for “below”, as in below or less than fully human. The term was coined by a researcher at the University of Louvain called Jacque-Philippe Leyens to distinguish this milder form of everyday dehumanisation from more extreme kind associated with genocide.

This is a fascinating (and quite scary) process whereby certain groups are not felt to have the same range of emotional experiences as everybody else. Specifically, while people are fine imagining them feeling basic emotions like anger, pleasure or sadness, they have trouble picturing them experiencing more complex feelings like awe, hope, mournfulness or admiration. The subtle sentiments that make us uniquely human.

Not all low status groups are in this invidious position. Some – for example disabled people and the elderly – tend to be disrespected, but are also felt to be warm and unthreatening. There are only a few groups that have the dubious honour of being considered to be both threatening and incompetent. These include poor people, homeless people, drug addicts and (you’ve guessed it) welfare claimants. It is these most stigmatised groups that people have the most trouble imagining having the same uniquely human qualities as the rest of us.

You can try it for yourself. Imagine the most stereotypical “chav” you can. Imagine their clothes, their surroundings, their posture, their attitude. Now imagine them feeling surprise, anger, or fear. Easy right? Well now imagine them experiencing reverence, melancholy, or fascination. If you found that just as easy, congratulations. But I’d bet for a few of you it was just that bit harder. I’m ashamed to admit it was for me.

The reason this is scary is that it takes the “infrahumanised” group out of the warm circle of our moral community. If we don’t think of them as experiencing the same rich inner life that we do; don’t imagine them feeling things in the same way that we do, then we lose some measure of our empathy for them, and consequently our sense of ethical obligation. This would explain why people are so tolerant of the cuts – on an unconscious level, the people being hurt aren’t real, full people. If this is true then fighting the cuts is going to be much, much harder than just fighting myths and misapprehensions.

The most shocking thing about this kind of dehumanisation is that it is found most present where the respectable folk gather- in our churches, in out prosperous neighbourhoods, around the coffee machines in posh coffee bars. It is how good people justify privilege and inequality- be that material/financial or the blessing of emotional/psychological resources that allow us to gain a position of security that others fail to reach.

But let us remember that shit happens. Each one of us is only an unpredictable event away from needing to claim benefits. If this happens, we will start out with a conviction that we are different, but perhaps we are not.

There are many reasons for followers of Jesus to stand against prejudice and dehumanisation. The hope of a better society, the call to include the outsiders, the call to bring justice to the oppressed. Perhaps too we can just remember that if we allow the current nasty victimisation heard in the press and the politicians mouths to go unchallenged, we all lose.

Welfare state…

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Welfare State

 

The sofa split some years ago

The gas fire hisses as if

through broken teeth.

Colin tries to stir up hope

On the Baby Belling whilst the TV screen sucks

the kids in like flecks of dust.

 

A manufactured crisis for some pop star wannabe

Stabs out from the fat old tube.

The crowd scream – no wonder.

And Colin stares into the tangled noodles wondering

What might become of the children

For not one of them can sing.

 

But their faces, lit by cathode light

Are beautiful.

 

 

 

What makes a ‘good’ country?

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Michaela and I have spent quite a few hours sitting looking morosely into cups of tea, talking about the state of our country, and in particular, our government.

For those reading this outside the UK we currently have a concoction of two different parties governing our country, but the ‘crisis culture’ that has been bred by all the economic doom and gloom has allowed the Conservative party to bring about sweeping changes to our benefits system, or health system and our education system, whilst cutting taxation for people earning over £150,000 per annum by 5%. Much of what they have done has a direct impact on the poorest section of our population, and feels to some of us like an abomination.

For example, people who live in social housing, supported by housing benefit (which includes a high proportion of people who are disabled, sick, have mental health problems, or single parent families) will now be faced with losing money, or being forced to move home. If tenants are deemed to have one spare room, the amount of rent eligible for housing benefit will be cut by 14%. If they have two or more spare rooms, the cut will be 25%. Leaving aside the negative effect this will have on all sorts of aspect of peoples lives, the simple fact is that there are no one bedroom flats to move in to for many people!  Unfair, unjust changes like this are justified by this government by two things- a tabloid-like blame-the-poor attitude, and a constant reference to global ecnonomics.

All of which takes me back to the point of this piece- what sort of country would you want to live in?

I started making a list of the things I would NOT want to see in my country;

1. A large (and widening) gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’- enforced by law, tradition and the use of power.

In the UK, we have a remarkably stable upper echelon. People with money and power tend to be the children of other people with money and power. There appears to be evidence that this was reducing somewhat- at least in part because since WWII we had 40-50 years of political hegemony around the issue of equality- of opportunity, of health care of access to education. Power was taken by working people in the form of organised unions, and greater access to higher education gave people from poor backgrounds knowledge and skills they had never had before.

However, the UK egalitarian experiment was in many ways a very British one- it was not revolution, it was bureaucratic evolution. Progress was statistical, and statistics are always open to manipulation.

Along the way, we all became middle class consumers. The working class disappeared with the shipyards and the coal mines, leaving behind a broken underclass who were seen only as a threat, a burden, an expensive waste of resources.

And at the same time, the overarching idealistic imperative towards equality was allowed to slip away. We no longer talk about it. And many of the key elements of it are starting to killed one by one. Universal non-stigmatising benefits? All but gone. Free education, supported by a fair grant system to support people through universities? Gone. Universal health care from the cradle to the grave? Under threat from privatisation. Etc.

We may (and often do) argue about the nuts and bolts of all this- but the central over arching question- is our society becoming more equal, or more divided- has slipped off the agenda almost entirely.

 

2. A society where the rule of law is manipulated or ignored by the people in power, for their own ends, either at home or abroad.

Our comfort with this one in the UK seems to ebb and flow.  In many ways, we might see our justice system, and our sense of ‘fair play’ as essentially British. The fact that we are outraged when fairness is transcended is a sign of this.

However, many would argue that the assumption of British fair play has always been a canard. The Empire was not a selfless project to civilise the world with cricket and people wearing wigs- it was a means to exploit, to subjugate, to enslave even.

At home, the interplay between power and the law is a complex one, and something that requires constant scrutiny at the same time as people in power would keep secrets.

For which you need a free press, and open government.

So, a mixed bag this- we have some movements towards open government, at the same time as the press shoot themselves in the foot with all sorts of bad practices.

There have been some changes too to the way our system works- talk of jury-less trials, and the removal of legal aid from other aspects of law (for example, benefits appeals.) These things need to be resisted.

 

3. Individual citizens are not of equal value- most are expendable in the interests of those who are in power.

All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

All sorts of things can be used to excuse this kind of thinking- ideology, religion, economics, war against a common enemy (real or conjured up.)

At some points of our history, the UK has seen its citizens as cannon fodder, or an industrial resource. Currently it is not possible to do this openly thank God.

However, I have heard it said that the measure of a good society should be how we treat our prisoners, our poor people, our elderly, sick and infirm. This should be the first job of government- to govern on behalf of the weak, not the strong. The strong can look after themselves, the weak need to be empowered so that they can do the same.

If this is true, the UK has been doing poorly recently.

 

4. Freedom is waved like a flag, but defined against others, not inclusive of them.

I do not want to be part of a country still caught up in empire lust. However, even without military expansion, nuclear weapons and invasion of other countries, empire can still be a weight upon our nationhood.

We talk about freedom as some kind of inalienable human right- usually hand in hand with democracy and capitalism. Freedom is understood as ‘the right to live in the way that we are living’ with as little interference as possible in the form of taxation, regulation, or imposition by others.

However, this kind of freedom requires examination- particularly when it comes at huge cost to others- when it is based on unsustainable, inequitable trade relationships with poor countries, where it is destroying our environment.

Freedom-to also equally becomes freedom-from. We are free because we are not like you. Perhaps this is sometimes true- there are some despotic places out there. However, when this kind of freedom starts to exclude people in terms of colour, origin, religion, gender, sex- then it is no freedom at all.

 

5. Patriotism becomes nationalism becomes excluisivism, and it ticks like a historical time bomb.

I can think of nothing good that ever came out of nationalism- measured in terms of human dignity and grace. I say this as an outsider living in a country that is considering full independence from the wider UK. Perhaps this might be the project that proves me wrong but I see warning signs to the contrary- the easy negative stereotyping of the other, the co-opting of war stories that justify us against you, the distortion of history to cast ourselves as victims/heroes and the other as oppressors/villains.

In this kind of soil poisonous things grow.

The Bible struggles with all of this- it can be read as the story of a succession of empires as they rise and fall- eventually to be challenged by a totally different kind of Empire, called ‘the Kingdom of God’, in which the the rules are turned upside down- the first become the last, the poor are our conscience and love is our currency.

Patriotism belongs to empire- it has no place in the Kingdom of God.

 

I am British- somewhere inside. I find this difficult to define- as an English/Irishman living in Scotland. I am grateful for the gentle green climate of these beautiful islands, and for the slow pragmatic evolution of our welfare state.

But (in the words of many a school report) we could be doing better…

 

Poverty in the UK 2013…

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The strivers/skivers language used by our present government is a shameful smokescreen over what is happening to whole sections of our society.

I make no apologies for this assertion- I have seen it with my eyes, and now there is this;

Senior welfare experts have urged the government to reconsider benefit cuts coming into force next week that will disproportionately hit the poorest families and push a further 200,000 children into poverty.

In an open letter to David Cameron, published in the Guardian, more than 50 social policy professors warn that the welfare reforms, coupled with previous tax, benefit and public expenditure cuts, will result in the poorest tenth of households losing the equivalent of around 38% of their income.

They say the changes will undermine public support for the welfare state – which they call “one of the hallmarks of a civilised society”.

“Welfare states depend on a fair collection and redistribution of resources, which in turn rests upon the maintenance of trust between different sections of society and across generations.

“Misleading rhetoric concerning those who have to seek support from the welfare state, such as the contrast between ‘strivers’ and ‘shirkers’, risks undermining that trust and, with it, one of the key foundations of modern Britain.”

The letter argues that such rhetoric does not reflect the reality of a UK where families move fluidly in and out of work and in and out of poverty.

It adds: “In the interests of fairness and to protect the poorest, as well as to avoid the risk of undermining the consensus on the British welfare state, we urge you to increase taxation progressively on the better off, those who can afford to pay (including ourselves), rather than cutting benefits for the poorest.”

As I read this, I can hear ringing in my head the voices of people who regard poverty in this country as almost entirely the fault of the poor- their poor planning, fecklessness, gambling, smoking, drinkings, laziness, refusal to get out there and find a job. I hear them tell me how benefits are the problem- removing the imperative for change and industry in those who then become a sponge on the productivity of society. ‘Nobody needs to be poor in this country’ I hear them say. ‘Nobody can be regarded as poor if they wear designer trainers and sit on their arses playing X-box all day.’

People who say these things, even those who grew up in poor households, they have rarely had any contact with those living in poverty- whose confidence and hope have been undermined by the brutalising effect of living as a non-citizen in post modern classless Britain.

I too grew up in a poor family- the child of a single mother who often did not eat so we could go to piano lessons, or have a new pair of shoes. I remember still the shame of this life- the feeling that I was less than my peers, and that no matter what I did to try to hide this, it was as if I wore a big badge saying ‘poor’. This was nothing to do with choices that I, or even my mother had made. There was nothing romantic about this experience, nothing that might be regarded as character building. What I became has always been built on these very shaky foundations.

I was reminded again of this when reading this;

A separate report compiled by academics from six UK universities concludes that Britain’s poorest are worse off today than they were at the height of the cuts imposed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1983.

The Poverty and Exclusion project reports that 33% of British households lacked at least three basic living necessities in 2012, compared with 14% in 1983. These include living in adequately heated homes, eating healthily, and owning basic clothing items such as properly fitting shoes.

“Despite the fact that the UK is a much wealthier country, levels of deprivation are going back to the levels found 30 years ago,” says the report, titled The Impoverishment of The UK.

Some of the findings are featured in an ITV Tonight programme titled Breadline Britain on Thursday evening.

The report found:

• Around 4 million adults and almost 1 million children lack at least one basic item of clothing, such as a warm winter coat, while 3 million adults of working age (including over a fifth of those looking for work) cannot afford appropriate clothes for a job interview.

• Roughly 4 million children and adults are not fed properly judged against what most people consider to be a minimally acceptable diet – meaning they do not eat three meals a day, including fresh fruit, meat, fish and vegetables. Over a quarter of all adults skimped on meals so others in their households could eat.

• One-third of all adults can’t afford to pay unexpected costs of £500 (such as if a cooker breaks down), 31% can’t afford to save at least £20 a month, and 1 million children can’t afford to join sports training or drama clubs.

• About 11 million people cannot afford adequate housing conditions and nearly one in ten households are unable to afford to fully heat their home.

The project measures who and how many people fall below what the majority agree are “necessities for life” in the UK today. The list of necessities also includes consumer items such as a washing machine and a telephone, and social activities like visiting friends and family in hospital.

“The results present a remarkably bleak portrait of life in the UK today and the shrinking opportunities faced by the bottom third of UK society,” said the head of the project, Professor David Gordon of Bristol University. “Moreover this bleak situation will get worse as benefit levels fall in real terms, real wages continue to decline and living standards are further squeezed.”

What gets me most about our present government and the politics they espouse is the grubby defensive self serving flavour of it all. Our ambitions for society have become, at best, to carve for ourselves some individual security, and let those who lack our ambition go hang.

How do you find ambition if you feel nothing but defeat? If the zeitgeist all around you is redolent with hopelessness?

My mate Graham posted this quote the other day;

I stored this from a wonderous mailing called ‘Friday night theology’ back in October and is written by someone called Roger Sutton. Most of this could as easily be read by a person with faith or no faith. I love the way that it points us to the other and is not the usual motivational self, self guff. Great for Holy Week:

‘When you believe life is limited, with only so many resources to go round then you naturally hold on to what you have, you grasp and hoard and defend. It’s an ugly place to live, with fear and anxiety at its heart. But if you believe life is unlimited, abundant and providential then you can respond with a grateful heart for the bread we receive each day knowing there will be more bread just around the corner. We can give and bless others and take care of those who are the most vulnerable, knowing that true compassion knows no limit, it has no fatigue element. Stewardship then replaces control, where we take responsibility to make sure the resources are allocated in fair and just ways, but always knowing that we bring our small offering of loaves and fish. It’s simply what we have, and the force of abundance adds to those humble gifts and multiplies them.

We need to challenge our propensity towards anxiety, believing that life is out to get us. We need to trust again in the God of harvest time, the providing abundant force in the universe. The future, as Daniel O’Leary in Passion for the Possible tells us: “is a mother waiting for us with outstretched arms, and a father who is crazy about our  freedom and our fulfillment and longs only for us to let him love us”

Where my friends is this kind of politics, this kind of economics, this kind of social policy?

This kind of religion?

Politics does not matter- or does it?

Michaela and I were sitting looking miserably into our tea cups today and talking about the vote in parliament to cut welfare payments.

All this depressing divisive and stigmatizing talk of ‘strivers and skyvers’. Tax cuts to the rich to encourage them all to generate ‘growth’ in the economy (best measured it seems by how much the rich get even richer.) As if the poor are somehow culpable- a useless drain on society that we are better without. As if they were the cause of all this economic turmoil rather than its primary victims.

Writing in the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty pronounced this vote as the final nail in the coffin of the welfare state. Some may regard this as overdue- as we lurch to the right, and find our political language dominated by America. But we are not America. We have our own proud history- not the Kings-and-Queens stuff, but the history of the rise of a kind of shared decency that characterises these islands. The history of the small people in fields and factories. Here is Chakrobortty;

 the golden period of Welfare really came in the 60s and 70s as, thanks to the work of Barbara Castle, Jeff Rooker, Audrey Wise and others, pensions and allowances were made more generous and tied to typical earnings.

“If you were poor, you were far less behind than at any other time in contemporary British history,” according to Richard Exell, a senior policy officer at the TUC and a campaigner on welfare issues for more than 30 years. “It produced a Britain that was one of the most equal societies in western Europe.”

Just before Margaret Thatcher came to power, a single person out of work would get unemployment benefit worth almost 21% of average earnings; last year, jobseeker’s allowance was nearly half that, amounting to just over 11%.

Welfare’s big decline came in the 1980s, as the Conservatives moved more benefits from available to all to on offer only to the poor. This was justified as making public spending more efficient.

But, according to a famous and much quoted study by Walter Korpi and Joakim Palme, such means-testing is far less effective and more expensive than universal benefits. In a study of 18 rich countries, the academics found that targetting benefits at the poorest usually generated resentment among those just above – and led to smaller entitlements.

This “paradox of redistribution” was certainly observable in Britain, where Welfare retained its status as one of the 20th century’s most exalted creations, even while those claiming benefits were treated with ever greater contempt.

“If you look at unemployment and sickness benefit as a proportion of average earnings, then Britain has one of the meanest welfare systems in Europe,” says Palme. “Worse than Greece, Bulgaria or Romania.”

Some of that same meanness can be seen in the way Welfare was discussed as it moved into its sixth and seventh decades. It was no longer about social security but benefits. Those who received them were no longer unfortunate but “slackers“, as Iain Duncan Smith referred to them. A recent study by Declan Gaffney, Ben Baumberg and Kate Bell of 6,600 national newspaper articles on Welfare published between 1995 and 2011 found 29% referred to benefit fraud. The government’s own estimate of fraud is that it is less than 1% across all benefit cases.

Is this what we come to- this great nation of ours? Mean and whinging and judgmental?  Are we not better than this? Which brings me back to politics. Michaela remembered reading something recently about one of the finest politic speeches of the last 50 years in the UK- Neil Kinnock, speaking in 1985, at a time when we were young and fired up by ideas and hope that things could be better;

If Margaret Thatcher is re-elected as prime minister on Thursday, I warn you.

I warn you that you will have pain–when healing and relief depend upon payment.

I warn you that you will have ignorance–when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right.

I warn you that you will have poverty–when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can’t pay.

I warn you that you will be cold–when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don’t notice and the poor can’t afford.

I warn you that you must not expect work–when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don’t earn, they don’t spend. When they don’t spend, work dies.

I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light.

I warn you that you will be quiet–when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient.

I warn you that you will have defence of a sort–with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding.

I warn you that you will be home-bound–when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up.

I warn you that you will borrow less–when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday–

– I warn you not to be ordinary

– I warn you not to be young

– I warn you not to fall ill

– I warn you not to get old.

Neil Kinnock

For the record, Thatcher won the election and we live in her rain shadow still. Cameron and his whipping boy Clegg have now gone further than even Thatcher would ever have dared go however.

Politics matters. We need some more Kinnocks- for all their faults…

The moral case against welfare provision…

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;

Freedom

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’.

Individualism

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…