Every coin has two sides and I am beginning to wonder whether or not that is the most important political statement that can be made. On the face of it, that is a ridiculous idea but I will try to demonstrate that it could be the key to the political problems that we face here, in the UK, today.
Personal freedoms are important to many of us – the freedom freely to express an opinion with fear being pretty well at the top of the list. But that freedom creates problems unless it is exercised with great care. I don’t think the idea of one person’s freedom being almost always at the expense of others occurred to me until I stayed with a cousin of mine in the delightful village of Bottmingen just outside Basel. (In passing, I haven’t been there for over thirty-five years and I expect it is now just another suburb of the city so, if you know that to be true, please don’t tell me – I want to remember how it was then).
My Canadian cousin and her Swiss husband had very different ideas when it came to personal freedom. One of the laws (whether local or national I am not sure) stated that at weekends it was forbidden to have a record player or radio on in the garden. As Max pointed out this meant that everyone could be in their gardens at the week ends knowing they would have peace and quiet. Joan, on the other hand, considered this to be as near as maybe an infringement of her personal liberty. That coin had two sides and both side could claim the moral high ground if they wanted to. It is, actually, a political coin.
So who was right, Max or Joan? As a libertarian who, by definition, considers most regulations to be a response to a human failing of one sort or another I find myself siding with Joan. I feel we should be able to rely on the good manners of those with whom we live and that cultural pressures should be sufficient to ensure people respect their neighbours. Yes, I know that is hoping for more than can be expected but regulations reduce the sense of community responsibility within the population generally and I do not believe that to be a good thing.
This all started, I suppose, because I and others became antagonists on Twitter in the matter of the so-called bedroom tax. I explained all this on a previous post (Capping Housing Benefits). For the record, as a result I have now discovered one person who has been adversely effected by that cap and I shall be meeting her soon to hear her side of the story. Why we got ourselves into a muddle was that we did not think of it as being a coin with two sides – which is exactly what it is.
On the one side you have all the people who, often through no fault of their own, are living in housing the cost of which is being borne by the state and on the other side you have all the people who are giving up a part of their earnings in order to meet those costs. In a properly grown-up democracy, we would look at both sides of that coin and seek a modus operandi that removes the present conflicts that are causing so much fear and hostility.
That is a big ask.
Any move to alleviate some of these costs is seen as a personal attack by those to whom the state says, “you are taking more than your fair share of the available resources”. I am pretty certain that if I were to be in that position I would feel the same.
Meanwhile any move to suggest that it is reasonable to increase taxation to meet what could so easily become a bottomless pit (as has the NHS) is seen as an attack on people who would describe themselves as decent, hard-working and responsible members of society who put in far more than they take out.
Both view are, of course, wrong. Both views are, of course, extremely human – as are the people provided for by the state and the people fortunate enough to be able to not only support themselves but to be able to make a contribution to the well-being of others. But we humans are by no means perfect: some are selfish, some are greedy, some are lazy. You will find them on both sides of the coin. Also on both sides of the coin are people who are unselfish, generous and hard working.
So it is that some of those who have been told to find smaller accommodation have (if it is available) said, “Fair enough” and they got on and done it. Some feel the same but can find nowhere suitable without moving away from those who support them or make life worth living: friends and family. There needs to be provision for these since moving them could well increase the overall cost to the state despite a reduction in housing benefit. However, there are also those who seem to seize the opportunity to become victims.
Likewise among those who pay taxes you will find those who say, “There but for the grace of God go I” and are happy to pay higher taxes but there are also those who feel very differently.
Do I have an answer to that big ask? Not really but I have the hint of a suggestion.
During my lifetime I have seen that the people who suffer most when the nation’s “cake” becomes smaller are the poorest and most dependent.
When the national coffers dry up, there is no possibility of increasing welfare benefits and existing benefits tend to be eroded by inflation. Furthermore, reduction in activity in the private field and the need to economise in the public field both add to unemployment – and the unemployed pay very little in tax and need a good deal in benefits. Thus the existing poor become poorer and they are joined by more of their fellow citizens.
When the country is really open for business and doing well, however, welfare benefits can be increased in line with (and possibly above) inflation and more and more people will find gainful employment or self-employment. The existing poor may not be better off but are no worse off and their number drop as more and more people find work.
Thus I want to see a regime that does all it can to increase the size of the national wealth to provide the resources required to support those in need. This can be achieved only be reducing the regulations that strangle the growth of businesses and that will mean that some employees would have to lose some of the protections they presently enjoy. It will also mean accepting that the wealth generates will become wealthier and that the gap between the poorest 5% and the richest 5% will widen.
I do not have a problem with either. This country has been built in large part by people putting themselves on the line and starting their own businesses which means no guarantee of income and no guarantee of the business remaining viable. Compare their situation with those in employment (and especially those in the public sector) and I find myself thinking that it is time these people shared some of the pain. As to the gap between the rich and the poor: I do not mind how rich the rich get but I do want to live in a country where none are suffering from poverty. If the price of lifting everyone above a certain level is a an increase in the wealth gulf, so be it.
However, I want to add another burden on whomever is running the country: yes, get the wealth generating machine running properly but always ensure that you have the compassion to use that wealth for good.
I do not expect my left-wing friends to agree with this.