A Labour Party thinktank is proposing closer links between welfare benefits and contributions, through altering the system for national insurance contributions. The inevitable political quote goes:
Senior figures believe that Labour must counter the impression that it supports a “something for nothing” benefits system by looking at radical change.
In the current political mood it is understandable. The voting public, by and large, have been persuaded to feel resentment that anyone is getting ‘something for nothing’ while they themselves, as the television advertisements keep reminding them, ‘deserve’ at least as much as they are getting, whatever that is.
It is of course nonsense. It is the product of an erroneous philosophy of humanity, promoted in the interests of the ultra-rich. This post is about that philosophy. I shall not risk a guess about what a future Labour government may actually do.
Today’s western culture has inherited from its Christian past two conflicting philosophies of humanity. Because it has also separated out ‘religion’ from the rest of our culture (as I described here and here) most people do not realise where we have got our ideas from and this makes it harder to appreciate their strengths and weaknesses. To simplify, I shall describe them as ‘gift’ and ‘contract’.
Christianity largely began as a movement of the poor and outcast. (So, to some extent, did Judaism and Islam.) Those at the bottom of the pile, with their economic, social, physical and mental disadvantages, learn to rub along with each other and help each other without expecting to be paid. It is the people higher up, with the resources for self-sufficiency, who think of themselves as self-made people, expect to pay for everything they need, and disapprove of beggars. People who have worked in both affluent and poverty-stricken communities are familiar with the difference.
There is an exception. The way the penniless give and take without counting the cost is also the way all parents provide for their children. Typically, parents notice that one of their children is brighter, or more energetic; another is less responsive or more sickly. They do not, however, feed more or better food to their more able children. Nor do they demand child labour commensurate with the food and clothing provided; they accept that each child is different but they all have needs.
This mode of provision, which the poor and parents characteristically operate, accepts diversity as a fact of life. Diversity of abilities is given. Even the most right wing parents, who condemn welfare benefits to unemployed ‘scroungers’, will give whatever is needed to any lazy children they may have. Deep down inside, they know that the very existence of each of their children is a gift.
Most of the world’s faith traditions recognise life in all its diversity as gift. Society functions because at any one time enough of us are able to provide for the needs of others. We all begin life needing to take and unable to give in return. Most of us end life like that too. Some of us spend our whole lives like that. As long as there are enough people capable of providing for them, the existence of dependants is not a problem.
After a while Christianity changed to become the religion of the political establishment. Nevertheless throughout the Middle Ages the basic principle was maintained. The Papacy set limits to the amount of money any one person should have. Those who had more had a moral duty to give the excess to the poor. Why? Because our wealth, like our lives, is a gift from God and should be used in the manner intended. Because God has made us diverse, giving to those in need is an essential activity.
Plague and war produced an alternative. There was a spell of about three centuries, from the Black Death to the second half of the seventeenth century, when Europe suffered a succession of devastating plagues. The inherited beliefs in hell and purgatory made people anxious about the next life. The Reformation debates accentuated the anxieties by leaving people unsure which church could guarantee salvation. Since judgement after death was to be applied to each individual, each individual would have to decide for themselves how to secure salvation; and as the afterlife was eternal, it mattered far more than anything in this temporary world.
The pressure turned people into individuals obsessed with themselves. It was this movement that produced western individualism: individual rights, individual freedom, one-person-one-vote democracy. Over the centuries the logical implications have been worked out in the left-right political spectrum. Compared with the older philosophy, the direction of travel has been to increase the individual’s right to be left alone and reduce the individual’s duty to respond to other people’s needs.
Social commentators debate the relationship between communitarian and individualist accounts of humanity: to what extent should we be free individuals, to what extent constrained by our membership of a particular family and society? Here I focus on one element of individualism, the notion of contract as an alternative to gift: no contract, no obligation.
Evolutionary theory had two contrasting effects. On the one hand diversity is an essential feature of every surviving species. We are bound to be different from each other, bound to have different needs and abilities. Darwin was of course not the first person to see this: as Plotinus had put it in the third century, to expect us all to have the same abilities is like arguing that, because some animals have horns, they should all have them. For society to run on the basis of mutually agreed contracts will not work because some people need more help than others. On the other hand, some socio-biologists and economists argue that this is exactly what is needed: ‘the survival of the fittest’ will enable the more able to flourish and the less able to die out.
Theories of social progress add an extra dimension. In the medieval anxieties about purgatory and hell, progress was other-worldly. Since then most theories of progress have been this-worldly. Hitler’s willingness to dispense with people who were a drain on the economy is well known, but similar ideas were common elsewhere at the time. Communism, fascism and now the cult of economic growth have this in common: people who need to receive more than they give are a net economic drain on society and therefore hinder progress. From the point of view of progress so conceived, we would be better off without them.
Gift or contract?
We have thus inherited two conflicting philosophies of humanity. The philosophy of gift tells us that our lives are necessarily diverse. We have been given, for free, everything we are. The proper response is gratitude, expressed by giving in turn to others without counting the cost. Most of the giving will be expressed in caring for people in need. A lot of this caring needs to be done, but nothing is more worth doing. In today’s political discourse it is difficult to defend this philosophy: since religion is to be kept out of politics, we are forbidden to talk about gift because it would imply a giver.
The philosophy of contract seems more acceptable in a secular sociryy. It is up to each of us, as an individual, to work out how to navigate our way through life without expecting anything free. To get what we want we need to offer something in return and negotiate the terms. Shortage is the result of lazy people or poor negotiation.
Currently, public political and economic discourse is driven by a commitment to contract. This is why there is unrelenting pressure to reduce and reduce any provision for those who do not contribute to the economy in measurable ways. In effect ‘the economy’ has replaced God, not only as the creator of wealth but also as the supreme moral authority decreeing how we ought to live. This philosophy is only credible because so many of us have bought into the fantasy that we ‘deserve’ the resources we have. In our dealings with our own children we apply different standards; but if contracts are not the way to deal with our own children, why are they okay for other people’s?