At the weekend I met a friend for dinner. She’s quite a bit more politically active than I am, not to mention being a trained economist. We are both very concerned about the human cost of the cuts brought in by the current, Tory-led government. But she is concerned, rightly, that my response — that we must all participate in caring for one another and reduce reliance on state provision — is unhelpful.
Her objections, as I understand them, are good ones:
1) A simple “I will work harder” approach, where charitable people and organisations take on additional burdens while banks re-instate bonuses, does not address the root of the problem.
2) The state has access to economies of scale which are unavailable to us everyday folk.
3) Relatedly, the state is in a position to be fairer in resource allocation than private companies or charities can.
I can understand the worry that volunteerism is exactly the position the current government is manipulating us into. It’s hard not to have a sense of growing dismay as we are asked, again and again, to make more and more bricks as the daily supply of straw is reduced. But my response here is not an endorsement of the cuts, but rather a pragmatic reaction to the way things are. If I don’t take action to help the least fortunate, I am colluding in a system that allows people to fall through the cracks. My volunteering at a homeless shelter isn’t going to change government policy, but writing to my MP and campaigning in the street are not going to give anyone a safe place to sleep.
The economies of scale available to the government are a strength and I don’t propose that we can find an alternative overnight. Specialist care is needed and it is difficult to see how small, locally-run initiatives could hope to meet that need. I know some basic first aid but that doesn’t qualify me to treat cancer patients! I don’t suggest that state access to specialist care can or should be abolished, especially not in the short term.
However, I also think that some of the economics of scale previously only widely available to the state or to large corporations are, in fact, becoming less clearly limited. Our opportunity to communicate with one another is more extensive than it has ever been. I believe there is huge potential for economies of scale to emerge, and things like Wikipedia are only scratching the surface of what is possible. It’s important to note, too, that this is not just about online interaction, not just about kids who haven’t left home sitting editing the article on photosynthesis or bloggers prattling away to a nonexistent audience: the notion of a sharp divide between “online” and “real life” is a false dichotomy in any case. We’re starting to see this with the likes of Kickstarter and FundBreak which use online crowdsourcing to fund projects which may well be offline. There’s a lot of noise at times, but the level of connectivity is incredible and if we can find a way to coordinate our efforts, the government no longer has a monopoly on economies of scale.
Another advantage of state-run rather than crowd-driven care is that it can be administered fairly. If you tick the boxes, you get the benefit — regardless of your accent, gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, religion or intelligence. At least, that’s how it works in theory. In practice, box-ticking systems are systems where people will jump through hoops and it is pretty much impossible to make a selection system complex enough to be completely fair. It becomes paradoxical, because the more complex the system is the higher the barriers to access. If you don’t believe this, ask anyone who’s had to fill out student loan forms!
I’m willing to accept a certain amount of “waste” from people gaming the benefits system, but another serious problem with state care is that delegating caring for one another to the state — reducing our obligations to paying tax, voting if we feel like getting involved, and maybe writing to an MP on issues we really care about — means we can exist in a little bubble of our peers, telling ourselves that the homeless person begging by the Tube station isn’t our problem because there is state care available. Far from reducing localism and NIMBYism, I propose that delegating our societal responsibilities onto the state actually fosters the sort of isolated attitude that renders people unwilling to bear the collective costs of supporting one another. Letting someone else deal with the nitty-gritty allows us to reduce our awareness of the interdependence of people and to fool ourselves into thinking that this is actually a pure meritocracy (it isn’t) and that we have our privileges because we’ve worked for them and not because we’ve been incredibly fortunate. It’s never that simple, but we’re upstanding citizens who pay our taxes and vote, and so we walk past the woman who is sleeping rough rather than go back to her abusive boyfriend and we congratulate ourselves on having done so well. Next thing you know, you’ve got the tabloid rags blaming benefits recipients (or asylum seekers, or some other disadvantaged group that receives some pittance of state support) for economic recession and people actually believe it. Sound familiar? It’s where we already are. The government we have now is not an enemy of our society: it is a product of our society. We, collectively, have created this monstrosity.
It’s up to us to build a new society. That doesn’t mean just getting the current government to take proper responsibility for the care of the citizens who elected them (or voted for someone else).
A new society would be one where the government cannot be held hostage by the banks.
A new society would be one where the state works with people, not against them, for the good of all.
A new society would be one where we use financial resources to reduce human costs, not human resources to reduce financial ones.
A new society would be one where we contribute to economies of scale.
A new society would be one where protest works a lot better than it does now.
A new society would be one where we ask, “How can I help you?” rather than “How can I benefit from you?”, and where we are not afraid or ashamed to ask for help ourselves when we need it.
I don’t have all the answers about how to create such a society. But I think it goes much further than public protest and much further than reversing the cuts. It involves all of us thinking about how we live, how our actions affect others, and whether it is actually okay to walk on by while someone else suffers. Then it involves us choosing to live in ways that value human life.
It’s up to us.