Jesus, it appears, was wrong.
I’m not commenting on that whole “Son of God” thing, or his suggestion that we should forgive people or love our neighbours. Rather, I am referring to his suggestion that the poor will always be with us.
In fact, the poor have been in and out of our lives of late. Until the C20th, it was reasonable to say that the poor were omnipresent. Yet through the remarkable mechanism of capitalism, it seemed that we would at last be able to put an end to poverty once and for all. Nobody in the UK now wants for food, clothing or shelter (at least not for a lack of resources) and across the globe hundreds of millions more are being lifted out of poverty.
Then the socialists stepped in, and for a short period of time they redefined poverty back into existence. There’s nothing a socialist hates more than the end of poverty, after all, for without poverty there is no excuse for socialism. So they redefined it as a relative as opposed to absolute phenomenon: one is now poor if one’s income is less than 60 per cent of the median. Even when human progress has reached the point whereby we each shuttle off to our pleasure-planets in our platinum-plated star ships, those with barely a single continent on which to build their diamond-encrusted houses will be considered poor.
However, having done Jesus the enormous favour of proving him right, the socialists clearly panicked, because they have since re-labelled them out of existence again.
Have you noticed that nobody is poor anymore? These days, those with few assets and little income are not poor: they are “The Deprived”, “The Disadvantaged”.
This is not an innocent move. While at first glance it might seem nothing more than one of those irritating euphemisms that urban self-styled “liberals” (more accurately the bien pensant classes) use to avoid causing offence by giving rise to any suggestion that they may be judging somebody (“vertically challenged”; “work poor”), there is in fact a far darker motive. Just as socialists need poverty to excuse their efforts to force individuals to conform to their will, so they need blame to create the enemy within that all tyrannies require; specifically, they need to blame society as a whole if they are to justify permanent revolution.
Think about these terms for a moment. To be deprived, some person or force has to stop a person accessing something. To be disadvantaged is even more insidious: note that one is not less advantaged, but disadvantaged; they are put in a dis-favourable position. In both cases, something or someone has acted upon the poor to make them poor. In the mind of the socialist, this is the evil structure of society.
Two logics follow from this. The first is that society is somehow unfair, that it advantages some and disadvantages others. This is nonsense. Society advantages everybody. Specialisation, for example, is a feature of static, agrarian civilisations, without which everybody would be subsistence hunter-gatherers expecting to live just long enough to see the majority of their children precede them to the grave. Our modern societies have gone further: thanks to capitalism, nobody need want for food, water, shelter, clothing or warmth. It is true that some have benefited (“been advantaged”) more than others, but that does not disadvantage those who have benefited less, it merely advantages them less. They still have advantages that on their own, in splendid isolation, outside society they would not have. Without spendthrift consumers there would be fewer jobs waiting tables or designing jewellery. Without the fabulously rich there would not have been the early adopters of MP3 players, video cassette recorders or motor cars that were so vital to getting those industries up and running and eventually making the products widely available to all.
This capitalist society is anathema to socialists, for it is random and organic, not rational and organised. It challenges their desire to put into practice their planned societies, where each individual is a cog in a finely tuned machine that operates at their direction. By blaming society for individual poverty, they justify revolution and the implementation of The Plan. In the end, we will be as equal as any robot on an assembly line. And this siren song is attractive to the mass of poor voters, because it absolves them of responsibility for their own situation.
For that is the second logic that results from re-labelling the poor as “deprived” or “disadvantaged”. The poor are not to blame for their poverty. There is of course a circumstantial element that influence individual outcomes – social mobility has declined under both the Tories and Labour, so that it is more difficult than ever for an enterprising person to better their circumstances – but the suggestion that other people and/or society are entirely to blame for an individual’s poverty is both spurious and self-serving.
At least some responsibility for their situation must lie with the poor themselves. This often makes people who see themselves as liberal uncomfortable, for there is undoubtedly a correlation between liberals and bleeding hearts. Yet there is clearly also a correlation between poverty, poor school achievement, criminality, drug use and a number of other social problems. And here lies the crux of the liberal dilemma: if liberals believe in the primacy of the individual, and in an individual’s ability to exercise their free will, then how can liberals deny that some of these result from bad choices. It is unfortunate that many of these choices are made when people are young (though I’m not convinced that they are always too young to know better), but nonetheless the decision to play truant or refuse to do homework is a choice exercised by the child, for which their adult self will suffer. The same can be said of youth or unmarried motherhood; it is not judgemental or reproachful to say that the mother has exercised her choice to have unprotected sex and to have a child, and that consequences will result from that choice.
Society in fact benefits from the fact that the choices made by individuals have consequences; it is these consequences that encourage us to make good choices that will benefit not only ourselves but others too (I want money, therefore I work, therefore I generate wealth for society as a whole). That does not mean that we should have no welfare safety net, or that we should not help those at the bottom of the pile improve their circumstances. There is a strong case for focussing on education to ensure that all children have a good start in life, and for helping people (but not making people) make sensible decisions. But both the health of society and the freedom of individuals depends on our creating a system that encourages people to look first-and-foremost to their own welfare, that encourages them to make decisions in their own best interests. The alternative is to strip individuals of responsibility for their own circumstances, prosperity or wellbeing and instead give credit or blame to society as a whole.
By absolving individuals of responsibility we obviate the need for them to make sensible decisions (indeed, any decisions), we reward failure and penalise success, and give our freedom up to politicians and bureaucrats.
Then we really would be deprived.