Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 4: Global Giants

Matthew Taylor surveys the progress and lack thereof in tackling Beveridge's 5 giants: want, squalor, disease, ignorance and idleness, in the UK and globally. For good measure, a sixth giant, the environment, is added.

I should perhaps have mentioned earlier that chapters 1 through 7 come under the heading Principles and so we have here another chapter, much like Duncan Brack's, analysing the problems, and not saying a great deal about what should be done about them. We have been impressed that squalor, disease, ignorance and whatnot are no good at all. No kidding.

So is there nothing new for me to nitpick? If only.

Taylor writes

But while the absolute poverty [Beveridge] fought has largely been slashed, relative poverty is a scourge that is growing in force. As the gap between Britain's rich and poor continues to widen, certain goods that most of society takes for granted are increasingly inaccessible for the worst-off, and without them they are unable to engage fully in modern life and so are denied the opportunities that are available to others.

I maintain that there is considerable confusion caused by casual use of the terms relative and absolute. For the most part, being too poor to buy things is a form of absolute poverty - arguably being unable to afford an essential £1million life-saving medical procedure is a form of absolute poverty. The exception is for "positional goods" that are limited in supply, and therefore expensive in proportion to the spending power of others. The inability of many to get on the housing ladder is therefore a kind of relative poverty.

However what seems to have happened is that people looking at the difference in spending power between the poor of today and those of Victorian times observe correctly that the former are relatively better off, and so cannot be absolutely poor, and must be relatively poor. And so in order to be serious about fighting poverty you have to talk about relative poverty not absolute poverty.

Well I suppose I will not succeed in single-handedly changing the terminology of this debate, but here goes anyway. The above paragraph describes the relative prosperity of today's absolutely poor compared to the poor of the past. That is to say they suffer less absolute poverty than the poor of the past, or of the third world. Although there is less absolute poverty in the UK than there was I see no reason to stop taking it seriously: we do after all have more wealth with which to fight it.

I would rather not talk about relative poverty or (material) inequality unless someone is made absolutely worse off, directly by somebody else's prosperity. Examples of this are few and far between. If relative poverty were really the problem, it could be solved by taking opportunties and wealth away from the fortunate even if this did nothing for the poor. It is madness even to hint at this course of action. Do you really think the poor are so well off that no improvement in their wealth is necessary??

Of course I am not using absolute to mean total, or to the greatest extent, simply as the opposite of relative. But many use it differently, and here is the cause of the confusion. Perhaps it is better to say that the poverty we face is neither absolute nor relative, according to the commonly used over-simplisic meanings of those words. It's just poverty.

Taylor may be right that certain goods are increasingly inaccessible - such as housing - but this is a terribly weak claim, when most goods are more accessible. That poor people are unable to engage fully in society is nothing new. Taylor is trying to show that relative poverty, not absolute poverty is the cause of much hardship, but he is utterly failing to do so.

Bizarrely, Taylor finishes the section like this:
For the middle classes at least, 'lifestyle fulfilment' is the new benchmark of quality of life, as the top tiers of their hierarchy of needs - food, shelter and so on - are satisfied. And many people are dissatisfied. The pursuit of essentially material goals often fails to bring long-term gratification.
The intention here is obviously to say that we middle classes should not be bellyaching about our material position, that true happiness lies elsewhere. Well yes obviously; Epicurus was happy with some cheese, the company of friends, and the chance to think his thoughts. But there is a double standard here - the same poverty of material ambition could be suggested, for the same reasons, to today's poor. Such stoicism would be an even greater comfort to a poor person than a rich one.

Frankly, these questions of personal philosophy are no business of politics. It is not for the state to judge our goals, it is there to protect and if possible enhance our freedom to pursue them, whatever they are. (Which implies a duty to ensure we don't trample on others.) When the state tries to make people good, the result is failure and tyranny.

Taylor claims to have offered 'a framework for a new, reinvigorated, inclusive, global path for British Liberalism'. No. Sorry. There is much analysis, and most of it is very good. It is worth reminding ourselves of the 5 or 6 giants, charting successes and failures. There is little policy, this is a chapter of principles, and not new principles that I can tell.

But what struck me about this chapter was the note of pessimism. I realise that it isn't much of a rallying call to say that some problem or other is actually getting better. But then I don't think poverty is such a minor problem that it needs to be hyped up. There's pessimism in the quotes above, but there's more:
overcrowded mass populations...depending on increasingly interdependent transnational industries, means that we are more vulnerable to plague and its consequences than ever before.
No. We were more vulnerable to plague during the Plague. The rising world population is a direct result of our ability to grow food and fight disease. Death rates do not match birth rates the way they used to, and we should recognise that this is essentially a positive story.
Mankind has created the perfect laboratory conditions for plague.
No. The laboratory is a work of nature, and mankind is fighting disease better than ever before.
People are forced by poverty and ignorance into work which does not meet their needs...
In other words, their lot before these poor job opportunities existed, was even worse.

Anyway, that is quite enough pessimism for my liking. I would expect a new, invigorating framework to look a little more at what is working.

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