Today sees the roll-out across England, Scotland and Wales of the cap on benefits that people aged between 16 and 64 can receive. The arguments for and against have been gone over so many times I have nothing to add to them, but I notice that the language of the debate has become more and more polarised. I wonder whether that is because we are beginning to apply to State spending many of the ideas that are increasingly governing charitable giving in the private sphere.
The first word many people think of in relation to ‘benefit’ is ‘scrounger’, i.e. almost a contradiction in terms. A benefit is, of course, meant to be a good deed (Latin benefactum, from bene facere) but perhaps we have come to equate good deeds done by the State with an outmoded form of do-gooding in the private sphere. Donors to charitable causes nowadays tend to want to be personally involved in the causes they support and are highly selective about those they will favour. The bigger the amount of support given, the more likely they are to impose conditions (there are, of course, some honourable exceptions to this). Transpose that kind of thinking to the State, and it is easy to see why there is such a a storm of indignation about welfare payments funded by the taxpayer.
I know I have said this before, but I think it worth saying again. Being a taxpayer does not confer moral superiority on anyone. Paying tax is an obligation of citizenship. One is a citizen whether one pays tax or not; and one’s ability to pay tax, like one’s obligation to do so, may change at various times of life. A civilized society will always want to help those of its members who need the basic necessities of a decent existence. How it does so is for public debate. But I can’t help thinking that if the State does not make provision for those who are unable to provide for themselves, the private sector is not going to, either. Many people take their notions of right and wrong from what is legal/obligatory or not. ‘Public’ morality is increasingly the only form of morality accepted by many. The idea of the State setting an example is not one I personally am very comfortable with, but can you think of a better?
I am well aware of the huge contribution made by the churches and other religious and humanitarian bodies, but many people in the UK no longer subscribe to such.