Welfare and the Winds of Change
The strongest in society have a duty to support the weakest. As with any duty it is better that it be fulfilled voluntarily. In this instance this is by far the better course because such a duty frequently concerns the disposal of private property.
But this duty is rarely fulfilled to the satisfaction of social justice without the intervention of a 3rd party such as the Church or the State. Where the Church once held sway in matters charitable the State has now largely taken over. For this reason the British Government (like many governments in developed countries) uses some of its revenue from taxation to support the weakest members in society who, through illness or other misfortune are unable to work.
It would be better if the richest in Britain gave their money freely to helping the poorest. There would probably be more compassion in the gift and donors would have a direct interest in how the money was spent. Those giving in this way would necessarily have a direct say in the kind of society and culture that they wanted to support. Questions about dole payments being spent on huge televisions or expensive trainers might actually receive some attention from donors who thought their money was being misspent. As it is, the government has little interest in being a kind of ‘culture-police’ in this way. There might also be a greater sense of accountability among recipients of charity and those who would wish to take advantage of such assistance in a dishonest way might be less so inclined when they knew it was a person they were defrauding rather than a bureaucratic behemoth like our very own Department for Work and Pensions. This is all very well but in the absence of a lively philanthropic culture in the UK it is difficult for such a vision to come anywhere close to reality.
Nonetheless, when helping the weakest members in society becomes purely a matter of government policies for taxation and expenditure it is easy lose sight of the moral duty that underpins this vital work. All sides can begin to foster illusions about what exactly the government is doing, illusions that are not helped by politicians apparently (though not always) more interested in votes than the common good.
From the point of view of the wealthy their rightful property is being forcibly requisitioned by a powerful organisation that they are powerless to oppose. Naturally they will move their money out of the country if not themselves as well. For beneficiaries of welfare payments the State has apparently bottomless pockets from which it pays for schooling, infrastructure, the military and politicians’ high salaries and expense accounts. If it can afford these, the reasoning goes, why must welfare payments be frozen or cut if the weakest in society have barely enough to live on? Both illusions are difficult to sustain in reality, but they also contain serious elements of truth and for this reason they will always be difficult to dispel completely. After all what right has the State to confiscate private property that has been hard-earned? Yet if the government indebts itself through wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali etc to the tune of millions of pounds why should it ‘penny-pinch’ over someone receiving £53 per week?
In the end, whether charity comes via the Church, the State or entirely from voluntary contributions the result ought to be the same namely that, in such an advanced society as ours everyone should have enough to live on and enough to support their families. In this, questions about the strong helping the weak are as much about an honest salary for honest work as offering assistance and cash handouts to the very poor. Disparities in wealth, while not bad in themselves, can be useful indicators of whether or not those lower down the income scale are receiving fair payment for their work when they must also be expected to provide for their families and their old age.
Unfortunately the concept of a moral duty for the strongest to help the weakest seems completely absent from the current debate in British politics, if only because politicians and commentators seem blind to the other possibilities. Repeatedly the focus is on how to remedy the Government’s deficit, the need for cuts and the plight of those at the bottom of the income scale, rather than acknowledging that the State is, presently, not well placed for facilitating philanthropy as it has done for the last 60 years.
The much derided (and perhaps now defunct) ‘Big Society’ seems to have been a brief attempt at resuscitating a culture of the wealthy helping the poorest where we might really all be in it ‘together’. But this was a government initiative to remedy a problem far beyond the confines of Whitehall. For those who really do object to the State taking a hand in redistributing wealth it would surely help their credibility (not to mention give them increased political and social influence) if they were to initiate welfare reform themselves along older and more private lines of philanthropy.