Being the first Friday evening of our first week of teaching, my work mates and I went out for a few drinks. Needless to say, in a group of five English teachers educated at Western universities it was inevitable that one of us would turn out to have a social conscience (not me, I hasten to add).
This teacher talked about the way he had in the past gone out of his way to talk to the servants when teaching a private lesson in a rich Peruvian home, had worked in soup kitchens for the homeless in London for five years and was very exercised by the bad luck of some sections of society. His poster child for the necessity of a welfare state was the child born into a fatherless family and a drug-addled mother.
I felt this was starting the story in the middle. I might instead have started the story with a young woman experimenting with drugs, then becoming a drug addict and finally having unprotected sex with a man who didn’t like her enough to stay with her.
I would have placed the responsibility for the child primarily with the mother and secondarily with the escaped father. That a whole society including myself should be responsible for clearing up the mess made by two selfish individuals wouldn’t have occurred to me. Even so, since the welfare state does offer to clean up after irresponsible people have had their fun, I can’t say I blame the woman for taking advantage of the kind offer.
Some people feel that they are their brother’s keeper, or at least claim this is how they feel. I don’t. I feel an allegiance only to people I know and like. I suppose if it were possible to help the innocent victims of irresponsible adults without unintentionally encouraging more adults to act irresponsibly then I would, but it seems to me that once you put a social safety net in place then the traditional reasons for trying to act responsibly have largely been removed. Then fewer and fewer responsible people find themselves paying for more and more irresponsible people until the whole rotten edifice finally collapses. As far as I can tell liberals don’t seem to think that there are any drawbacks to having a generous welfare state.
Liberals and conservatives often start their stories at different places. Liberals generally start from an innocent child born into a ‘disadvantaged’ family, blown about like a leaf in a storm. Conservatives on the other hand start the story with someone who has a certain amount of autonomy which they use in a bad way until they finally end up ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘vulnerable’.
I have sympathy with both points of view. I agree with liberals that even if you aren’t an innocent child, you are probably an adult who has been shaped by social forces largely beyond your control. Wondering why Darth Vador doesn’t act as nicely as Luke Skywalker, even though he could if he wanted to, is to completely ignore the forces that have made him who he is.
At the same time I agree with conservatives that if you are unwilling to attach personal responsibility to autonomous adults, then you may as well give up on the idea of people looking after themselves. Then there is no point in differentiating between children and adults, the deserving and the undeserving poor since none has any control over their lives.
Still, both sides can probably agree that regardless of whether we want to attach blame to individuals it is still better to choose policies that discourage rather than encourage destructive behaviour. Then the only sticking point becomes whether or not you think a generous welfare system encourages or discourages destructive behaviour; whether it helps people get back on their feet or whether it acts as a disincentive to get up off your arse.
Whichever way you choose, liberals first have to admit that there are no perfect solutions, only trade-offs. Simply pointing to an unfortunate child born into an uncaring family does not win the argument for welfare. One could just as easily point to several people who would have turned into productive members of society had the cushy alternative of welfare not been available to them.
I don’t think those who are against welfare mind giving money to people they feel genuine sympathy for like, say, the Japanese victims of the 2011 Tsunami or people who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. Yet I would prefer to give absolutely nothing to people who I think live morally debased lives. I realise that today you are not supposed to say such things and are not supposed to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving poor but there you are.
If I still lived in a small community the way we used to I could choose who to give money to and who to ignore. Instead I live in a country of over 60 million people and all I can do is entrust my monthly contribution to the government and hope they use it wisely. Yet I don’t trust them to do so. Instead they give my money to people I don’t want to help. These people include drug addicts, single mothers, criminals, economic asylum seekers, West-hating Muslims, immigrants who have never contributed anything to Britain and feckless Britons from families who have never worked and have no intention of ever doing so.
While we’re on the subject of immigration, why does Britain continue to allow in hundreds of thousands of unskilled immigrants when there aren’t enough jobs for the unskilled natives? Yes, I understand the argument that the number of jobs in a country is not static and that a little immigration, especially of skilled workers, can create jobs. Yet it is no longer the case that we need more unskilled, low-educated people for low skilled jobs. Those jobs no longer exist and haven’t for a long time and now. Robots are largely doing the mindless jobs that unskilled people used to do, or else those jobs have gone to India and China.
Another response is that although the number of unskilled jobs is now vastly reduced, we still need immigrants to do the jobs that our native population won’t do.
The racism inherent in this thought doesn’t seem to bother liberals nearly as much as it does conservatives. They think that dark-skinned people should be brought into the country to do dirty jobs while native unskilled white people sit around all day doing nothing. How nasty.
Yet another problem with this thought is that immigrants also get old. As they retire Britain has to bring in more immigrants to pay the pensions of the retired immigrants.
Some people on the political Left feel that because British people were simply lucky to be born into a relatively wealthy country and did nothing to deserve their luck we have an obligation to extend that luck to as many people from poor countries as possible. They don’t seem to realise that a country is like a lifeboat and there is a limited number of people who can fit into it without the boat sinking. Apart from that it was our ancestors who made Britain successful, not the ancestors of Pakistani immigrants, so as descendants we don’t need to have a guilty conscience about being richer than other nations.
But back to the innocent child of uncaring parents. It used to be the case that young women were careful who they slept with in case they got pregnant by a man who disappeared once they had had their evil way. These women ended up stigmatised and forced to be the sole provider for their child. This was such an unappealing idea that many women decided not to sleep with ‘cads’. Instead they held out for a man who cared enough about them to be prepared to shackle themselves to married life. Marriage represented a woman’s guarantee that she wouldn’t be left holding the baby. And it was in her interest to be as charming as possible in order to attract the best looking and most reliable men.
Today there seems to be very little female charm around in Britain. Many women are loud, coarse and promiscuous. They needn’t worry about being left holding the baby because we now have contraceptives and all stigma has been outlawed. Also the state now happily fills the role of provider once played by the father. Men no longer need to commit to women in order to have sex and women needn’t bother about either getting pregnant or trying to be charming since men will shag them regardless.
Of course it is responsible people who end up paying for all the illegitimate children born nowadays and while most people don’t mind having part of their wages taken away to pay for railways and airports, armies and navies, roads and bridges, the police force and the fire brigade, along with genuine cases of need through illness, handicaps, accidents and involuntary redundancy, they aren’t so keen on financing what they often see as immoral behaviour.
There was a time when people looked to friends and family in times of hardship. Yet once the state took over the role of provider in times of need the bonds of family and community loosened. There is now little need to keep on good terms with those around you since you no longer need to turn to them when you are hard up. You can be as anti-social as you like, or even leave home after your dad tells you to be back on time and stop treating this place like a hotel. Once the state steps in there is little apart from your own sense of propriety keeping a limit on your debauchery.
I’m willing to concede that welfare is a good thing for people who need some temporary assistance until they get back on track. There are people who deserve a break and welfare gives them that second chance. Yet there are surely more people who see welfare as a means of never having to bother to stand on their own two feet in the first place.