Sunday, 11 March 2007

A Tory view of Social Conscience.

This blog war's getting very interesting. That is good. But I thought I'd expand on some of my comments. I will therefore look at the concept of social conscience from a Conservative point of view. Or at least my Conservative point of view. I hope you'll agree that I'm not a mean money-grabber because of it.

Conscience

The question is essentially whether Conservatives have any compassion for the poor. If you look at their motives, they do. I'd like to sub-divide this post into sections:

'Economic Conservatism'

This is a very broad term, spanning lots of different policies both currently and over the years. But the essential principle is that people will prosper if you leave them alone to do so. Since the turn of the last century, it's been almost unanimously accepted that people should be assisted in their quest for prosperity if they need it. I'll come to a key example of this later. This explanation in itself should be enough to dispel any thoughts of Tory snobbery. But it does not seem to do so.

The old saying tells us that God helps those who help themselves. It is not unreasonable for the state to do the same. Consider the picture of a tight-rope over a high ravine. The role of the state is not magically to build a bridge. It is to provide a safety net, so that one who falls does not die. Then people can cross, each contributing - idealistically - to the slow but steady construction of a bridge itself. I do not set out here to show that such beliefs are correct. but to show that they are not from a lack of 'social conscience'. I'd draw here on a series of quotations.

Of course it is true that all men of good will must be concerned with the relief of poverty and suffering, and in most Christian countries this has come to be regarded as one of the primary concerns of politicians.

But it is one thing to say that the relief of poverty and suffering is a duty and quite another to say that this duty can always be most efficiently and humanely performed by the State. Indeed, there are grave moral dangers and serious practical ones in letting people get away with the idea that they can delegate all their responsibilities to public officials and institutions."

Margaret Thatcher - whose quotation this is - continued in the same speech to say:

I am not saying, of course, that the State has no welfare functions. This would be wholly against the tradition of my Party. We have always believed that there must be a level of well-being below which a citizen must not be allowed to fall. Moreover, people cannot realise their potential without educational opportunity.

Again, I do not mean to advance her view as necessarily correct. But hopefully it does serve to reject utterly the belief that Conservatism is a rich-persons' attempt at keeping others poor for their own benefit. Indeed, holding this view is statistically wrong. there wouldn't be such working-class support if it were true.

The Alternatives means of 'Conscience'

Social conscience can be linked right back to charity. To turn to a less political source, let's look at His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI's recent encyclical, entitled Deus Caritas Est.

Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.

The important concept here is that taxes are not charity. They may do the same thing. They both serve vital purposes. But Christain charity - or any other really charitable, consciencious act - is a voluntary act of giving. Charity means love. Charity means Caritas. Taxes, on the other hand, are resented. They are dodged. People do whatever they can to get out of them, and take as much as they can back. I do not say it is wrong to do so. But it is not in the spirit of charity. So the comparison is fundamentally flawed.

Pope Paul VI wrote a celebrated encyclical, Populorum Progressio, about the problems facing humanity. This was written in 1967. But the problems have not changed. Only their embodiments:

'Endowed with intellect and free will, each man is responsible for his self-fulfillment even as he is for his salvation. He is helped, and sometimes hindered, by his teachers and those around him; yet whatever be the outside influences exerted on him, he is the chief architect of his own success or failure. Utilizing only his talent and willpower, each man can grow in humanity, enhance his personal worth, and perfect himself...

This duty concerns first and foremost the wealthier nations. Their obligations stem from the human and supernatural brotherhood of man, and present a three-fold obligation:

  • 1) mutual solidarity—the aid that the richer nations must give to developing nations;
  • 2) social justice—the rectification of trade relations between strong and weak nations;
  • 3) universal charity—the effort to build a more humane world community, where all can give and receive, and where the progress of some is not bought at the expense of others.

The matter is urgent, for on it depends the future of world civilization...

But these efforts, as well as public and private allocations of gifts, loans and investments, are not enough. It is not just a question of eliminating hunger and reducing poverty. It is not just a question of fighting wretched conditions, though this is an urgent and necessary task... It involves building a human community where liberty is not an idle word, where the needy Lazarus can sit down with the rich man at the same banquet table.

On the part of the rich man, it calls for great generosity, willing sacrifice and diligent effort. Each man must examine his conscience, which sounds a new call in our present times. Is he prepared to support, at his own expense, projects and undertakings designed to help the needy? Is he prepared to pay higher taxes so that public authorities may expand their efforts in the work of development? Is he prepared to pay more for imported goods, so that the foreign producer may make a fairer profit? Is he prepared to emigrate from his homeland if necessary and if he is young, in order to help the emerging nations? '

I include the reference here to taxes. I do not think that such taxes - in order to finance aid - can justifiably be opposed. But, as Gavin rightly pointed out, our present furore is about relative poverty, not absolute poverty. Do not confuse the two.

EMA

The system's bad, but sound in principle. Gavin's generalisation that one was either (a) abusing the finance, or (b) poor and therefore taking stupid subjects such as Health and Social care. This is pure snobbery. I wish he had not said it. It does not become him. And his view is not Conservative, whatever he might say. You might remember Thatcher's quotation from earlier: We have always believed that there must be a level of well-being below which a citizen must not be allowed to fall. Moreover, people cannot realise their potential without educational opportunity. Her statement mentions education as a specific example of the need for assistance. the whole principle of Conservatism's compassion relies on people being able to help themselves. the state must ensure this is possible through education. Though Blair would hate to admit it, is that not the whole purpose of EMA? A conservative idea. Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day; give a man a rod and teach him to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime. It's a principle that I think is very practical.

Conclusion

My apologies for such a religious tone. But I thought that the quotations might be useful to deal with conscience rather than the economics side. I shoiuld like to reiterate the key parts once more:

  • The question is essentially whether Conservatives have any compassion for the poor.
  • The role of the state is not magically to build a bridge. It is to provide a safety net, so that one who falls does not die.
  • 'There are grave moral dangers and serious practical ones in letting people get away with the idea that they can delegate all their responsibilities to public officials and institutions.' [Thatcher]
  • 'Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.' [Benedictus PP. XVI]
  • 'On the part of the rich man, it calls for great generosity, willing sacrifice and diligent effort. Each man must examine his conscience, which sounds a new call in our present times. Is he prepared to support, at his own expense, projects and undertakings designed to help the needy?' [Paulus PP. VI]

To finish with a little more of Populorum Progressio:

Human society is sorely ill. The cause is not so much the depletion of natural resources, nor their monopolistic control by a privileged few; it is rather the weakening of brotherly ties between individuals and nations.

Blind, resented giving to the state is not charity. Economics is not religion. Do not condemn all right-wingers as money-grabbing 'twats', as has been done.

5 comments:

Francis said...

I was pleased reading this post; I like a lot of what Phil says.

If it were possible to have a system whereby people were left alone to 'prosper for themselves' but were rescued if necessary, then I think we probably would see success. However, what scares me about the almost 'laissez-faire' attitude is what happens to the line between not interefering and not bothering to help. I am always concerned that if a system of 'letting people propser by themselves'-avec-safety-net is established, then eventually welfare will cease to exist altogether because it is never quite seen as appropriate.

Many people may think my view is unreasonable (and I apologise if I haven't expressed it very well), but I can't help my own concerns. Personally, I'd rather over- than under-help people.

Phil' said...

I think you put the point well. To continue the analogy, the net must not be too weak. But I would suggest that at the moment, it's badly positioned, and catches the wrong people whilst letting others fall.

But you are correct: always better to err on the side of saving more from falling than losing.

Francis said...

I'm glad you think so. All this extreme ranting about it all being a waste of money makes me very cross.

Phil' said...

I would add, out of fairness, that I also agree with your point that a pure 'prosper in independence' system would be successful. As would a pure Communist system. (I happen to think that, because of human nature, we can get closer to the former. But I s'pose that's why we talk of ideologies.

P

Gavin said...

Bravo Phil, and an excellent selection of sources.