The Moral Low Ground
Posted on April 18th, 2017
by Rab Bruce’s Spider
The IndieRef has a lot to answer for. It’s reached the stage where you can’t even go away on holiday without frequently checking up on what’s going on in Scottish Politics. Sad, isn’t it? But the holidays are over, so it’s back to pontificating.
The main topic of discussion last week was the Rape Clause and the 2 Child restriction on Children’s Tax Credits. Plenty has been written and said about those dreadful policies, so there is no need to add much to that except to say that, morally reprehensible as the Rape Clause is, the number of women who will be affected by the 2 Child cap will be even more significant, and this latest attack on the poorer people in society will inevitably lead to more cases of homelessness, to further reliance on food banks, and to yet more burdens being placed on already stretched Council services.
However, moving slightly away from the specifics of the latest Tory attacks on the less well off, there are some broader observations on the issue of State support which might be worth considering. For example, why should the State pay parents to bring up their children at all?
This sort of question strikes a chord with many of the better off people in our society. The reason is that, being humans, we are all to some extent prone to emotions like self-interest, jealousy, and a tendency to adopt an air of moral superiority over others who do not share our views or standards. Take a hard look back over the last time you interacted with strangers to see what I mean. Did you come across a shop assistant who was slow, incompetent or rude? Did you encounter some inconsiderate lout who blocked your path or bumped into you without apologising? Did you get stuck behind a driver who dawdled along at 25 mph when you were in a hurry to get somewhere? If you did, I’ll bet you were angry at their attitude because you, of course, would never behave that way. As another example, those of us who have children tend to view our own kids as perfectly well behaved if sometimes a little boisterous, while other people’s children can be badly behaved and undisciplined.
It is this natural tendency to look down on others which the Tory arguments rely on and, because we can all empathise with the view when we encounter someone whose behaviour offends us, it can be difficult to argue against the blunt arguments which pander to the “Me first!" attitude so prevalent in British society.
As for the recent Tax Credits furore, people who are relatively well off often adopt the attitude of affordability when considering any major decision, and this may even extend to having children. That is certainly the impression they give when they say things like, “People who can’t afford to have children shouldn’t have any at all."
What this mindset goes on to reinforce is the issue of responsibility. Of course, taking responsibility for one’s actions is important, which is why the Tory soundbites are so effective in shaping public opinion. But should affordability really be taken into account when it comes to children because, after all, having children is pretty essential to the continuation of the human race.
“Yes," say the Tory-minded. “You can’t expect the State to pay for your kids, especially when it’s my taxes that are funding your lack of willingness to accept responsibility for your own children."
As I say, these ideas have some power, because we all know the sort of people who don’t pull their weight at work, or who don’t seem to care much about the upbringing of their children.
The perception inherent in these views is that such people have lots of children simply in order to extract more money out of the State, but it would probably be fair to say that those who hold these opinions would be likely to change their minds rather quickly if they had to swap places with a family trying to live on State support. Anyone who thinks the few pounds a week paid for each child is sufficient to feed and clothe that child either doesn’t have children or has never had to think about the amount of money they have spent on their own children.
Now, it must be admitted that there are always people who will attempt to use a system to benefit themselves. You only need to watch TV to see stories of benefits claimants, Health tourists and other scroungers. This media exposure is, however, misleading. For one thing, you rarely see programmes about MPs claiming ridiculous amounts for ridiculous items on their Expenses, or large Corporations avoiding tax or mistreating their employees. It does happen occasionally, but not nearly so often as programmes which allow us to hate poor people who are scrounging from us.
All of this is part of the great British Class Divide. Having children you can’t afford to support is seen as a cause of poverty rather than a symptom, in much the same way as smoking cigarettes, drinking cheap alcohol and being dependent on drugs are seen as causes and not symptoms in spite of several social studies providing evidence to the contrary.
Which leads to the issue of why Tax Credits are needed at all. If the UK economy worked for the people instead of for the major Corporations and the wealthy, jobs would pay well enough to avoid the need for the State to pay out in Tax Credits. That, however, would require a very long term change of direction in policy even if the political will existed. In the UK, that political will is totally lacking. Low wages benefit Corporations, so the UK is never going to encourage higher wages for the working class.
That aside, there is a more sinister aspect to the view that poor people should not be allowed to have children, because that attitude is rather too close to ideas of eugenics for my liking. On a moral and philosophical level, what gives anyone the right to play God and determine who should have children and who should not?
But let’s get down from the moral high ground for a moment and try to look at the problem as a Tory would look at it – in economic terms. It is here that we see another major problem with the entire concept of denying State support for the raising of children.
To begin with, we all know that the UK has an aging population. This is why the Pension Age is being slowly but steadily increased, and why the UK has one of the lowest State Pensions in the OECD when compared to average earnings.
How can this be addressed? Putting aside the issue of prioritising expenditure so that social care moves up and things like paying for nuclear weapons and incessant war move down the list, there are still a few options available. We’d better look at these because, quite frankly, the UK is never going to prioritise social care over vanity projects and muscle-flexing.
So, let’s consider Private Pensions. Since the 1980s, the UK has been trying to persuade people to set up Personal Pension Plans. This has now reached the stage where it is compulsory for employers to set up Pension plans for their employees. This gives the Government an excuse to keep State Pensions low since they can point out that individuals need to take responsibility for their own retirement but, compared to pension arrangements in other European countries such as Denmark, the UK Private Pensions pay out very low amounts since they are largely used as vehicles for the Pension Providers to make a lot of money from fees and Management charges.
So how else can we tackle the Pensions Deficit? One way is to increase the Government’s tax income. This could be most easily done by raising more tax from Corporations, but the UK has long pursued a very different path, mostly because the large Corporations pay large sums of money into Party coffers for the Tories and also provide sinecure jobs for retiring MPs.
OK, let’s try another option. How about expanding the personal tax base? If we brought in more immigrants, we could earn more in tax from the jobs they take up. Ah, you see the problem there, don’t you? The UK has told the world it hates immigrants, so that’s not much of an option either.
Or, finally, we reach the conclusion that one way would be to encourage people to have more children. Other countries do this. IN Germany, parents apparently receive higher amounts of State support for each successive child, a stark contrast to the UK which has decided to penalise younger children. Yet without a new generation who can grow up to fill job vacancies and pay taxes, how on earth do the people who complain about poor folk having children expect their Pensions to be paid when they grow old? If the answer to that is that these individuals have managed to secure healthy pensions for themselves and they don’t care about people who will be relying on the State Pension, then all you can say is that this is another symptom of the uncaring “Me first!" attitude which drives so much of Tory policy.
So we have returned to social morality. But don’t go away with the impression that I’m in favour of some Communist Utopia where everyone is equal. There is nothing wrong with people who work hard being rewarded. Climbing the ladder is perfectly fine because we all want to do the best for ourselves and our families. The problem with the UK is that, by and large, working hard is no longer a route out of poverty. There are an estimated 14 million UK citizens living in poverty, and most of them belong to an in-work household. If you are born poor, you are likely to remain poor all your life because those who have climbed the ladder have pulled it up after themselves. Pooling and sharing sounds fine as a concept, but it has utterly failed in reality. That is why State support is needed because, in all these discussions, we must not lose sight of the fact that the restriction on Tax Credits is going to harm the most innocent and vulnerable people imaginable; the children themselves. If for no other reason, that ought to be enough to condemn the policy in the eyes of any person who has an ounce of compassion.