26 November 2006

The poor don't care about social cohesion

The media hoo-ha about the Tories and Polly Toynbee was stirred up by a paper written for the Tory-sponsored Centre for Social Justice.

Here are some extracts (emphasis mine):

In an age when absolute poverty a real danger for millions of people [sic], the safety net represented an enormous advance. But in our own age, our ambitions should be higher. As individuals we should all have the chance to move forward and as a nation we should move forward with a sense of cohesion ...

[quoting Toynbee] “When the front and back [of the caravan of society] are stretched so far apart, at what point can they no longer be said to be travelling together at all, breaking the community between them?” ...

Because modern societies generally get richer over time, all income groups have a tendency to rise above absolute poverty levels fixed in previous decades. For this reason most commentators now favour a relative definition of poverty ...

[quoting Professor Peter Townsend's 1979 definition] “People can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies to which they belong.” ...

We should reject completely the notion that poverty can be defined in absolute terms alone ... Relative poverty matters because it separates the poor from the mainstream of society.
This stuff is revealing — about the Tories, but also about the prevailing ideology, and its presence in contemporary social science. It suggests that the people who talk most about poverty (including sociologists and welfare economists, many if not most of whom are subscribers to left wing ideology) take a collectivist-paternalist approach to poverty. I.e. what they care about is not what the 'poor' individuals in question actually want, but what is supposedly desirable from the collective point of view.

I doubt the poor care much about being "separated from the mainstream of society". I imagine they care more about such things as dirty and dangerous conditions on council estates, lack of effective crime prevention, or a state education system that condemns their children to third best. Perhaps they also care about the difficulty of starting their own business, given the huge amount of red tape that now strangles British commerce, and which hits smaller organisations particularly hard.

If those who talk about relative poverty really wanted to stop income being below a certain level, they could propose that people receive top-up cash. However, this is unlikely to happen, and what people like Toynbee really mean, when they say that "radical redistribution" is needed, is that there should be even higher taxes on the middle class, to finance even higher spending on salaries for public sector employees.

In the Tories' case, it is doubtful whether they even care about what people like Toynbee care about (social uniformity, 'social justice', whatever). The whole leftist performance by the Cameroons smacks of trying to repeat what Labour did in winning the 97 election — i.e. steal the other side's clothes. But really, guys, things change — a conjuring trick that worked then is unlikely to work again in exactly the same way.