Friday, 21 November 2008

Don't take that attitude with me

One of the law's most important fictions is that every person is equally valuable. It is only by making this assumption that rights can be protected impartially. If you drive recklessly and kill a pedestrian the law will not impose a different punishment according to the "value" of your victim; nun or prostitute, policeman or professional criminal, Tom Hanks or unknown extra, each victim is worth the same. Similarly, however rich or poor we are, however successful or unsuccessful, well known or obscure, we all have the same legal rights which the courts will strive to enforce without regard to who or what we are.

The law's approach is, of course, a fiction just as it is a fiction in our individual lives to suggest that every life and every person is equally important. I learned recently that someone I know is in intensive care after falling and hitting his head. He has been in a coma for a week. I know him only because he is a builder I have employed recently. Ten weeks ago I had never heard of the man, eight weeks ago he was someone I had met once, six weeks ago I made a contract with him, four weeks ago he first impressed me with his work, two weeks ago I knew quite a lot about him and his family. Had his accident occurred ten weeks ago I would probably never even have heard of it and if I had my only reaction would have been "oh, how sad". As I got to know him better the impact of the news of his accident would have been greater and greater. But it would not be on the same level as hearing of a similar fate befalling an old friend and that would not be on a par with serious injury suffered by a close relative. For me, and for everyone, some people are more important and more valuable than others. I think that is a simple and incontrovertible fact.

When ranking the importance of people in our lives I think most of us would put ourselves first. There is nothing selfish and greedy about this, it merely reflects the fact that we have to be alive in order for anyone else to have any impact on us. It follows from this that we can expect everyone to value their own life more than they value the lives of others. There is, of course, a sound argument for parents putting the lives of their children before their own where one or other has to perish, but that is a rare and exceptional circumstance. In the normal run of things parents can provide best for their children by strengthening their own position. To my mind this is just human nature. We have a survival instinct because each of us only has one life and we engage in social interactions to further our lives. The more remote the people we engage with socially, the less important they are to us.

At the heart of all our lives is us. Me in my case and you in yours. If it is right to say that human nature compels and impels us to survive, why is it that some believe they cannot cope? I am not talking about those with mental illnesses or physical handicaps who require assistance by reason of their condition, but about those who see no prospect of providing for themselves despite having nothing other than their frame of mind to hold them back.

I am sure this is a new circumstance in human history. When our predecessors were living in caves and went hunting it seems unlikely anyone thought themselves incapable of knocking a small animal on the head and sticking it on a fire. It might well be that George in the big cave had a particular skill at killing sheep and enjoyed a daily crown roast with a medley of seasonal vegetables and blackberry jus while Gilbert in the shabby cave made do with stewed rodent and a few boiled twigs, but sitting at home painting on the walls and starving to death was not an option. So why is it that we have a persistent underclass today for whom work and self-reliance are alien concepts?

The easy answer is to blame the welfare state. There is certainly logic behind this approach because an absence of welfare handouts would force people to provide for themselves. But it cannot be the whole explanation because for every person with no qualifications and limited skills who sits at home waiting for a benefit giro to come through the door there are several with no qualifications and limited skills who sweep the streets or push a handcart of meat around a wholesale market or sit on a production line taking things off a conveyor belt and plopping them into cardboard trays. The wages for these thankless and uninspiring occupations are modest and might not exceed to any significant degree the amount of money these workers could receive by sitting at home, yet they choose to work whereas others do not. The true differential between the idlers and the workers is a state of mind.

I have no doubt that state of mind develops and becomes institutionalised by a combination of (i) the availability of benefits, (ii) being told by tree-hugging do-gooders that they are victims of capitalist oppression and (iii) the small difference between what they could earn and what they receive from the state. Pulling the plug on benefits, as some suggest should happen, would only address the first point. It would reinforce the second and the third would only become relevant if there is a job available for them. We cannot assume that there are sufficient employment opportunities to provide for all those who would be left penniless by the withdrawal of benefits. It is not just a matter of how many "menial" jobs exist but where they are and whether those who would need them could get where they would need to go, Tebbitt bicycles are not necessarily available.

In saying this I do not mean to suggest that the country should just carry on with things as they are. In the same way that the stultified state of mind developed, so can it change; but it can only change by undoing all strands of the rope that ties people to a life on the dole. The aim should be to change the state of mind, to change the attitude that is so contrary to human nature. One necessary step is to broaden the financial gap between welfare and work. Welfare must return to its roots as a safety net providing subsistence rather than being a viable career choice. Work must be rewarded by a massive rise in the income tax threshold. And a central task of social workers and benefit offices must be to encourage self-reliance rather than the victim culture. There might still be a shortfall between the number seeking work and the work available and it might be necessary to provide assistance for those who need to move to find work, but the first task is to change the "it isn't worth it / I can't be bothered" attitude.

If we do not value ourselves sufficiently highly to want to provide for our needs through our own efforts there can be no hope that we will act positively towards other people. A deflated sense of self-worth does not carry with it an inflated sense of the worth of others. I believe the only way to rid the country of the underclass is to change the attitude of those in it. Many an asocial yob has been turned into a hard working man by being shown that he can cope, that he can hold down a job, that he can learn a trade, that his fate is in his own hands and, most importantly of all, that being trapped in welfare dependency is more a state of mind than anything else. There might be some for whom there is simply no hope, but they are very few and far between. The problem is with those who are persuaded they have no hope when in fact they are perfectly capable of coping with life and standing on their own two feet. Human nature gives us a survival instinct, the system should encourage that instinct not suppress it.

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