08 May 2020

coercive charity

The Guardian's Polly Toynbee writes about the UK's deaths from COVID-19. What appears to incense her in particular is inequality in COVID mortality rates between richer and poorer regions. She accuses the government of causing a widening in health inequality.
   Absent from Polly Toynbee's article is an assertion along the following lines:
whenever there is an unfair situation, individuals should be forced to increase their contributions to the government in order to finance a programme to remedy the unfairness.
Such an assertion would bridge the gap in the article between {something unfair is happening} and {it's the government's fault if it doesn't get sorted out}.
   One may guess the bridging step has been omitted because fewer of the article's readers would be ready to concur with it, compared to the article's other assertions. The average reader may be willing to think "health inequality is unacceptable", or "something should be done", but less willing to agree that they, and others, should be forced to finance the solution.
   It seems to have become standard practice to leave it as understood that there should be an increase in coercive charity, when a pro-intervention commentator complains about a social problem, without bothering to state the demand explicitly. If we ask how this practice has arisen, a similar answer suggests itself: since the issue of coercive charity (i.e. being forced to pay taxes to finance welfare) is contentious, it is concealed, presumably in the hope that readers will forget it's there or, in some cases, never become aware of it in the first place.
   By evading the question of financing, discussions of social topics are cartoonised into being about caring: if you don't agree with the writer's implied demand for more government expenditure, it must be because you are indifferent to the sufferings of others.
   Welfare always has limits, given that its costs ultimately have to be borne by individuals. There will inevitably be inequalities in the distribution of medical care: if not dependent on wealth, they will be determined by the preferences of NHS doctors or other agents of the state.

Update 13 May
A colleague has received a promotional postcard from clothing retailer James Meade, offering to donate £5 to the NHS for every order over £50 placed before 31 December. An interesting idea, and certainly more ethically sound than simply demanding the government do more.