Some of us cost a lot. The online journal article Childhood forecasting of a small segment of the population with large economic burden describes a recent study with results worth pondering.

I spotted it through a summary in the Church Times, though this is behind a paywall.

Called the Dunedin Longitudinal Study, it plotted the lives of some children born in one hospital in 1972-73. Now that they have grown up, it turns out that 22% of them are responsible for 81% of their criminal convictions, 78% of their prescriptions for drugs, 77% of their fatherless children, 66% of their welfare claims, 57% of their hospital nights, 54% of the cigarettes smoked, 40% of their excess kilogrammes and 36% of their insurance claims.

Moreover a simple 45-minute test of 3-year-old children can predict (with 80% accuracy) which of them will fall into this 22% segment of society. There are four main factors: socio-economic deprivation, maltreatment, low intelligence and poor self-control.

What to do about it? The researchers think these findings justify greater support and intervention for children in their early years. Politically and economically, however, the alarm bells ring not because these people are deprived but because they are expensive. The final paragraph of the Church Times article is worth quoting in full:

But beneath this concentration on cost lies the implication that people can be classified as economically productive units. In a short exchange in the Lords last week on early intervention, emphasis was placed on its value to business and industry. This is profoundly troubling. Taken across the whole span of his or her life, who would want to be categorised according to cost-effectiveness? Such thinking has no place in a country founded on Christian principles. Admittedly, this segment is identified for special treatment by Christ: the poor, those who hunger, those who weep, those whom people hate and cast out. These, Christ says, are the people who are blessed, with no thought of the cost.

The contradiction

But what about the expense? Who pays for looking after this large number of dysfunctional people? What could the money have done instead?

Here we come face to face with a contradiction endemic in western society. We have inherited moral concepts, like human rights and the sanctity of life, as absolute principles. We got them mainly from Christianity, though most non-Christian societies have developed similar ones.

We have also inherited – again, mainly, from Christianity - an imperative for change. Many people are starving or homeless or ill and we ought to do something about it. We therefore need to increase the resources for them: more food, more homes, more medical supplies.

Here lies the contradiction. In order to increase the resources, we need to invest as much as possible in the people capable of producing them. Because resources are limited, any redistribution must be at somebody’s expense. Whose? Well, obviously, the 22%. Those people are more of a hindrance than a help. To be quite blunt about it, if they die of starvation they benefit the statistics in two ways: they free up resources, and they reduce the poverty figures.

It’s as unchristian as you can get, but my point is that we are used to affirming both imperatives at once. Across the western world, we live with the contradiction. To take two British examples, it is the driving force behind the debates on whether we can afford the National Health Service and the welfare budget.

Other societies can see the absurdity of this contradiction; the leaders of ISIS, I feel sure, will be pointing it out to their soldiers every day. Those of us who were brought up with it, though, have grown used to it.

Given that both imperatives are inherited from Christianity, does the contradiction have its roots there? I think not. As long as a good creator God is the source of both moral principles and physical resources, they reinforce each other. In Christianity, as in most faith traditions, physical resources are given, along with the muscles and brains to make use of them. Overall, there is enough for everyone. The aid agencies tell us this is still true. So when one person has less than they need, someone else has more. The solution is to follow God’s example and give. No economic techniques are required; just redress the imbalance.

When these imperatives are secularised they conflict. Rights, freedom and equality, the central principles of liberal political philosophy, were once justified by theories about why God had made humanity. When they are no longer justified by the will of God, they lose their anchoring and can then mean whatever the loudest voices want them to mean. Equality gets reinterpreted as ‘equality of opportunity’, which ends up meaning inequality. Rights, these days, can be claimed by pretty well anyone for anything: the right to privacy, the public’s right to know; the baby’s right to life, the mother’s right to choose.

The other imperative heads off in a different direction. When the resources we depend on are no longer seen as gifts from a God who knows what we need, they become accidental results of purposeless laws of nature. We lose the sense that they are given for a purpose, let alone that they are enough. Since the most influential voices express the perspectives of the more affluent, the idea of giving to the poor gets replaced by lamenting the meanness of nature. So we seek economic, industrial and technological techniques to improve on it.

When we think our lives depend not on what is given to us but on what we have created, an additional imperative arises: to produce more and more until everybody has enough. In reality this will not happen as long as some people want to keep up with the Joneses and others want to keep one step ahead. Even this has become an established part of public discourse: economic growth, industrial production and new technologies are to be never-ending.

So we have created a treadmill for ourselves. We need lots of people working hard to contribute. The more we need to invest, the more absurd it seems to waste money on those who do not contribute. Some kind of eugenics, killing off the 22% or at least letting them starve, is the logical response. We still feel sensitive about this, not least because 75 years ago we fought a war against people who did that, but as long as we are committed to the growth imperative it is the most rational thing to do.

This is the contradiction eating away at western society. On the one hand we believe in individual freedom, rights and equality. Everybody counts – as much as everybody else. No more, no less. On the other, we also believe in a communitarian imperative to alter the conditions of human life. More money, more stuff, more innovation. To do this we invest heavily in our experts and applaud them. So we minimise the resources available to those who do not contribute to the project – partly to save money, partly to express disapproval.

Eventually we shall have to face up to the fact that it really is a contradiction. Then we shall have to choose.

We can choose either way. There is no law of humanity preventing us reviving the programmes of eugenics pursued by Hitler. The more we develop our hatreds, the more we scapegoat welfare recipients, immigrants and whoever else, the more likely it becomes.

Alternatively we could once again accept that our wealth is a gift, generous enough for the able-bodied to care for those in need; and that there is nothing better to do with it.