Coincidentally, I have been reading some old party papers today, and have come across clear statements of support for the concept of “relative poverty” and the idea that government should counter it.
“A fair Britain is one… [that] redistributes wealth from the richest to the poorest.Yet as Mancuso notes, “even the poorest people in Britain are considerably better off than the poorest were a generation ago, and they in turn were better off than the generation previous. Compared to the millions who live in genuine poverty around the world, all but the very poorest in Britain live in luxury.” The sentiments are echoed in the article by Arnold Kling to which I referred a couple of weeks ago.
“Inequalities in wealth… are widening… We are determined to reverse this trend and to remove the inequalities created by the structures of society. We are determined to create a fairer Britain.” (Trust in People: make Britain free, fair and green, Lib Dem policy paper 76)
The Government defines income poverty as having an income below 60 per cent of the national median income; severe poverty is below 40 per cent. Yet in a dynamic, prosperous society, vast differences in wealth are inevitable (and perhaps even functional).
It is almost as though, at the very moment that we are about to rid our country of poverty forever, we have discovered a way of ensuring that the poor will always be with us. Hmm…
Last year I read an interesting account of how the relative definition of poverty came to be adopted in the UK. It starts with the Labour Party conference in 1959. Labour were in the doldrums: they had lost three general elections in a row, and Barbara Castle lamented “the poverty and unemployment which we came into existence to fight have been largely conquered.” But three years later at the annual conference of the British Sociological Association it was proposed that the “Poverty Line” be considered to be the equivalent to the amount that the government paid in ‘Supplementary Benefit’. Harriet Wilson, an academic who was there, described the tension that resulted from this redefinition of poverty as “a mood of conspiratorial excitement.” One historian, examining this change, has referred to it as “explicitly political”.
If there is truth in this suggestion, it is indeed disturbing, for it suggests that senior Labour figures deliberately adopted and promoted a relative definition of poverty, not because it better summed up the suffering of the economically less well off, but because it gave them an inexhaustible raison d'être, a justification for a Trotskyite permanent revolution, an excuse for an eternal battle against the wealthy and successful whom socialists so fail to understand and appreciate.
Irrespective of whether the conspiracy theory is true, however, relative poverty should not be our concern. Our focus should be on ensuring that nobody suffers from absolute poverty: that no matter how dire the circumstances, everyone may be assured of food, water, clothing, shelter and warmth. To those five essentials I might add the opportunity to lift themselves back out of their desperate state, but this is best achieved through a rapidly growing economy and loose labour laws, resulting in the rapid creation of new and better job opportunities.
By comparison, the levelling sentiments (which, is might be noted, bear little resemblance to the beliefs of the original Levellers) of those who would seek to take from the rich to give to the poor (what economists would call penalising success and rewarding failure) should have no place in our party’s policies.
Particularly, we must absolutely shun the populist attraction of a “policy of extra income tax for the very rich to secure more funding for public services [which] was a net vote winner at the last general election, by a substantial margin.” As liberals we should no more discriminate against people because of their wealth or their income than we should because of their gender or race. It is easy to find unpopular minorities against which some punitive legislation can be enacted, to the delight of an unsympathetic majority – and no minority garners less sympathy than the rich. But that is not what liberalism is about. Rather, it is an affront to the rule of law.
A fair Britain does not mean that everybody has the same or a broadly similar amount of wealth. It means that everybody, no matter their wealth, is treated equally by the state.