Friday, April 15, 2016

Thinking Right (And Left)

My politics is well known. Many people approach politics with either apathy or a deep cynicism. I think for the most part, the cynicism is misplaced and most people have the right intentions. (I am increasingly cynical and suspicious of the current government but that is a different post). What I want to talk about here is the philosophy that shapes my thinking. In this sense, politics is a very wide concept, affecting so much of life.

The concept of fairness is often at the centre of this, with both left and right thinking appropriating the word. The problem is they usually mean something subtly but profoundly different by the term. Hence, in my experience often Lefties and Righties end up talking past each other: Lefties declare it's NOT RIGHT that children go to bed hungry and Righties say it's NOT RIGHT that anyone forces me to do something about it, I have what I have, because I earned it. Which is the greater wrong?

I do need to point out at this point that most of my right-leaning friends are at the front of the queue to give freely from what they have. So maybe we have an impasse, should we just agree to differ and know we will always have a different perspective and focus on what works?

But for me, that is not the end of the argument, because I don't think that some having LOTS and LOTS and others having so little is a natural phenomenon or simply the result of some being prepared to work hard and others not at all. Our huge wealth inequalities (in microcosm in our country, and on the full-scale across our world at large) are the result of specific factors. Of course work should be rewarded and people have a right to decide to work for something and enjoy it when they get it. But it is nowhere near that simple.

The bigger factors are things like access to natural resources and who picks up the bigger costs. In the UK in particular, but also in most of the world, if you own land, you are already winning. But who says I own this piece of land? Because I inherited it, or because I bought it off someone else? But why did that person own it...? etc. etc.

I also think that, if you look at the great wealth owners, it's often because they have exploited natural resources, such as oil. Surely, if oil belongs to anyone in a country, it belongs to everyone? But what actually happens is the companies who extract it pay peanuts in access rights and then for the most part, it's the rest of the world who pays the price of the pollution at the end of the day. If you are doubting this, have a look at how Fracking rights are being handed out.

Coupled to that is an economic-political system that means wealth allows access to power that has been used to concentrate wealth and so the cycle goes on.

It is not simply a case of taking MY MONEY off me. It is the case that I benefit from all that a modern society provides: security, legal system, infrastructure etc. etc. and so I should pay towards it. Tax is the means to do so. Moreover, our economic system is concentrating wealth and to argue therefore that it's morally unacceptable to redress that process is a flawed argument in my view. Most of the poor in this country are in-work. For the most part, unemployment is not a personal choice but inflicted on someone by forces beyond their control.

In the race of life, it's a very staggered start.

The concept that success is based on hard work and talent and thus by definition those who do not succeed have mostly themselves to blame underpins this right-leaning view of fairness. The problem is that it is simply not true. For the most part, those who succeed are those who have all the advantages to begin with. So many, who work hard and try to use their talents are by this measure totally unsuccessful.

I have written before about my own story. I am significantly better off than my parents. I came from a secondary school where only a small minority aspired to university. I was the first generation of my family to do so. It would be easy to turn this in to a story of individual striving and reward. Two things need to be said here. Firstly that narrative ignores the fact of all the advantages that did come my way, and secondly it denies the fact that so many equally talented and hard-working people have not had the opportunities I have. Yes, I have worked hard and tried to make the most of the opportunities that have come my way, but I have no illusions about how little I could have done if the opportunities were not provided for me.*

What frustrates me is that rather than try to address the deep ingrained inequalities we would rather lie to ourselves about the systemic bias that exists and pretend that those who are poor are so because it is their own fault.
“So wickedly, devilishly false is that common objection, ‘They are poor, only because they are idle’.” – John Wesley

I have not even touched on the issues of illness and disability which can afflict any of us. Having a disability (or a child with a disability) is one of the biggest predictors of poverty in the UK. All of us can be afflicted and yet we continue to lie to ourselves about this. Where has the idea of a ‘universal insurance scheme for all’ gone? When did we stop believing in a society with a mutual responsibility to each other.

And finally, as a Christian when I think about these issues, I find one other thought inescapable. God’s grace came to me when there was nothing of value in me. I could not earn his love and acceptance. The idea that people do not deserve help is a very dangerous one for a Christian to adopt.

Essentially, in microcosm in our society and across the whole world, where you begin is the biggest predictor of how your life will be – much, much more so than your personal input:  
In the race of life, it is a very staggered start.


*There are also more insidious factors about how able people are to take opportunities but that would need a whole different blog post.