Dot writes: yesterday in the free paper they give out on the train there was a letter headlined “Why should I pay for your children?” It was a reaction to the scare headlines about how the next budget will drastically cut child benefit (this story may of course be a diversionary tactic to make us accept some other, marginally less nasty measure; or it may not). Today several people wrote in to offer the obvious rejoinder that today’s children will be paying tomorrow’s pensions, though there was also a letter from a pensioner saying that he didn’t see why people who raised children with no help on single incomes should be reduced to penury to assist the modern young etc etc, a typically depressing instance of somebody not wanting anybody else to get anything they didn’t get themselves, and ignoring the fact that pensioners have actually faced comparatively few of the cuts inflicted in recent years. (A plan to means-test the medical card for pensioners was shelved under a storm of protest a few years ago. The thing about old people is that they vote.)
I absolutely hate this assumption that whatever YOU get has been taken off ME, and if YOU happen to need it, well then, you’re just feckless. I think it’s based on two things. No, three things. (1) Fear. We’re all feeling the pinch and we’re just hoping someone else is in line for the pincers this time. (2) The difficulty in imagining a diverse body of citizens as all part of a unit with us and all worthy of our concern. Most of us really only care genuinely about people very like ourselves; which is human but wrong. (3) The pernicious myth of the self-sufficient individual.
Martha Nussbaum (whom I like, as regular readers will know) writes in Hiding From Humanity about the link between pathological shame and an inability to accept one’s human weakness and mortality. The truth is that we are all needy and we all depend on each other. This is true even of the most thrusting hero of business, for what would he (it’s usually he) be without the people who make his clothes, clean his toilets or indeed work for him? OK, he pays lots of taxes, but he can only do so because of people who pay fewer taxes. However, what really bugs me is the assumption that on the one hand there are the responsible people who look after themselves and don’t need help, and on the other there are lazy scroungers. Were we lazy scroungers when we were small children? Are we going to be lazy scroungers when we’re old and frail? If Mr Business Hero’s business goes under because of an economic downturn, is that his fault? If he gets pancreatic cancer, is that his fault too? All of us have periods of dependence; all of us get to take at some times and pay back at others. Some people do depend more than others, and yes, some people are pretty morally contemptible about it. But I’d still rather there were a safety net, because I could easily be the one falling. Even if there is an underclass of useless scumbags (there is – sorry, I’m not that liberal), I’d rather they were living on benefits than gaining their sustenance alternately from crime and the prison system.
Attitudes to healthcare especially puzzle me, particularly with respect to the astonishing hostility to ‘socialized medicine’ in the US, because surely public healthcare is something that absolutely everybody, rich or poor, will benefit from. You pay something into the healthcare kitty, and you can more-or-less guarantee to get something out. You are likely, at the very least, to get born at some point and to die at some point, both of them more comfortably if with the help of trained attendants. Some illnesses are down to ‘life-style factors’, but many aren’t, and moralising illness is an enormously dangerous route to go down. Public healthcare schemes have to face difficult questions about what to fund, but it’s surely better for such questions to be tackled in terms of the good of the greatest number rather than returns on insurance premiums.
What we need to reclaim – or discover – is the sense that the state is us. Not just that the state’s money is ours (and that it is spending it on THAT useless lazy fecker), but that we, the people, decide together what we need and how we can support a healthy, happy society. It must be said that the political classes don’t encourage this attitude, but it needs to be fostered, and not in some crappy cop-out Big Society way. The drift to the right in the UK, I think, has become part of a feedback loop: people don’t trust or feel connected to politicians, so they elect right-wing politicians who reflect their sense that the state is an oppressor and should be shrunk, and who shrink it by making it less socially-orientated, increasing people’s sense that politicians are just rich people who take care of their own kind.