George Osborne often likes to compare his management of the UK economy with the budgeting of a family household. So, let’s play him at his own game.
Imagine you live in a nuclear home consisting of a partner and two children – the “typical” kind of family Osborne is presumably imagining. Both children are younger than 16, are living at home, and are in full-time education. You divide labour, paid and unpaid, with your partner. In the interests of the survival, wellbeing, and harmony of your economic unit, you share the benefits of your labours with your family. You don’t give your children less dinner because they haven’t bought or prepared it and you don’t tell them that they have to go without heating in their bedroom because they don’t pay the bills. (I accept that this situation can be very different for different families and that in many households children do take on many responsibilities, especially if they are caring for a parent or sibling, but I think the notions of sharing and caring that lie behind it are universally applicable).
This way of life reflects the old Marxist adage “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” It recognises that everyone has different skills, opportunities, and talents and different types and levels of need. The goal is to ensure that everyone in the household is supported – acknowledging that a group can only be as strong as its weakest member.
This seems like a sensible and compassionate ideal for the building of a society – indeed it was the rationale behind the foundation of the welfare state. However, as the Conservatives continue to strip state support to the bone those foundations, rather like community flood defences, are being washed away. The state is the only institution in the land that can manage coordinated, national investment in people and places and redistribute the rewards to guarantee everyone a good quality of life. That role cannot be performed, however, if government is shorn of its executive functions, public services are privatised and fragmented, and welfare support is cut.
Sadly this is the agenda being pursued, full throttle, by our present government and it is already having undesirable effects. Disabled people are increasingly unable to access vital support, social care services are being hollowed-out and there has been a rise in the number of people who have had their weekly benefit allowances cut, driving many to commit suicide. Being brought up in poor households, having a mental or physical health condition or disability, or being unemployed shouldn’t condemn you to a lifetime of hardship. Quite the opposite. It should mean that your need is recognised and met by an empowering and compassionate government – or parent, partner, or sibling depending on the metaphor in play.
How have we reached this nadir? Several decades of political proselytizing about the burden of “big government” has turned public opinion against the welfare state. We’ve lost any sense of what it can achieve, turning talk of welfare and benefits into two unsayable buzzwords.
A recent reading of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday has provided me with an interesting insight: such a process could not take place in smaller, traditional societies. In general, such societies depend for their survival on a spirit of redistribution and sharing. Everyone comes together to eat and equally share out the proceeds no matter whether they have hunted, gathered, farmed, or none of the above. Assuming food is available, no man, woman, or child is left behind.
To do so would cause a heap of problems. For one it would be emotionally distressing. In our huge society, most people do not have to come face-to-face with the impact that the cuts are having on people’s lives. That isn’t the case in a tribe of only a few hundred people where the withdrawal of food, water or other resources from an individual would have effects visible for all to see. Secondly, taking such action would undermine the trust, bonds, and stability that the group depends upon for its survival. In a world fraught with danger (from neighbouring tribes, potential food shortages, and other environmental dangers) being able to depend upon those in your group for support is essential. The relative affluence of Western societies, characterised by an abundance of food, diminishes the need to stick together.
The corollary of this is that in a smaller society, one can easily and instantly see the benefits of sharing. It’s written all over the face of the people who enjoy the food one has hunted or gathered, in the health of your children or parents, and in the sustainability of your tribe. The most easily comparable system that we have for the sharing the fruits of our labour is taxation but a payslip is hardly the way to give taxpayers an instant feel-good hit about the contribution they have made to society.
To change public opinion on welfare and the state and, as a result, influence the direction of government policy, we need to encourage people to view taxation as a process of redistribution akin to that practised by the family unit. One suggestion made has been to start displaying on pay slips how taxes are spent. I’m not sure this goes far enough. I think we need to find an even more personalised, localised way to show why progressive taxation and redistribution is essential to the successful functioning of society. Sharing tales of people who have depended on benefits. Engaging people in the decision-making processes over how taxes are spent locally and nationally. Celebrating the local infrastructure projects that have been made possible by taxation. All these ideas and more need to be explored in order to make the rediibutive role of the state appear relevant, heroic, and essential once more.