Nothing is certain, but taxes and prejudice
“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.” — Margaret Thatcher
It could be said that this pronouncement, made on the 31st of October 1987, encapsulated the attitude of an era. In fact, this is undeniable; the twin ballasts of Reagan and Thatcher had stretched a globalist canopy across the Atlantic and beyond, ushering in the arrival of the “individual” enjoying the commanding views of Wall Street or London, over the languishing communities around a Yorkshire mining pit or factory forecourt. The radical notions hidden in these words were downplayed through an appeal to certain “obligations” being fulfilled before “entitlements” could be expected.
Economic textbooks began to frame their theories around the “rational actor”; an isolated individual who seeks purely to maximise their own benefits in interactions with other individuals. A notable work promoted by Thatcher herself was Friedrich Hayek’s foreboding post-war anti-socialist screed The Road to Serfdom, which attacked traditional ideas of community and welfare as financially irresponsible and conformist, and served as the basis for the prime minister’s remarks.
But did this era ever really end? The arrival of New Labour in 1997 saw their own iconic leader Tony Blair state that it “was [his] job to build on some Thatcher policies”, including the further deregulation of the finance industry that contributed to the housing bubble and crash of 2008.
Any hopes that the rich would pick up their share of this burden were dashed with the arrival of Cameron’s coalition government in 2010 that, instead of denying the concept of society, inverted the wordplay with the introduction of the “Big Society”; a trojan horse of self-reliance that beckoned waves of brutal austerity attacks. These eroded essential services increased rates of child poverty and taxed the less well-off. “This is not an easy life any more, chum. I think you’re a slacker,” said Secretary for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith as he forced the unfit into work, creating the mantra the new society would be based upon.
So it would seem that the notion of society has also been distorted in the minds of the public. A 2015 British Social Attitudes survey showed that 45% of the British public supported less government spending on the unemployed, while 61% thought working-age couples without children who are struggling should find ways to look after themselves, rather than looking to the government for assistance with wages. On the other hand, only 7% supported less government spending on retired people, and 31% disagreed that “the government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor”.
What these results show is that this generalised idea of “fulfilled obligations” before “entitlements” may represent a kind of ideological scaffold, upon which members of our non/big society temper their own charity according to the presumed circumstances of others. The results show that the British public might weigh their judgement according to who deserves their sympathy, rather than empathy.
These views are reinforced deep within our psychology, through various biases that seek to protect the individual against exploitation. Whether these unconscious trends in our thinking accurately serve reasonable attitudes towards modern welfare in a capitalist system, however, is another matter. Studies have shown that these biases play an active role in our attitudes towards paying taxes and social spending in general. Hyperbolic discounting, for example, relates to a tendency for the mind to prefer a smaller reward sooner than a larger reward later. It has been shown that people would prefer $50 immediately, rather than $100 in six months, but would not prefer $50 in three months rather than $100 in nine months.
Another overwhelming tendency is risk aversion, the preference for a sure outcome over a gamble with an equal or higher expected value. Risk-seeking behaviour, on the other hand, becomes more attractive the further one is already in a loss. The tendency to want rewards now and avoid risks even for the potential of greater profit is likely to influence how we think about society.
If we relate all of this back to ideas around the “fulfilment of obligations before entitlements”, we can see how we could be exploited with carefully selected language to activate such biases. The fulfilment is expected before the entitlements (less presumptively known as “welfare”) are offered, and the need to provide value upfront is seen as the safe bet, whereas providing for those in need before demands have been fulfilled could be seen as a risky investment, with no guarantee of return. How do we know these people we have invested in through our taxes will actually get a job one day? How do we guarantee their contribution so we are not taken for a ride?
The answer provided in this case is to transfer the burden onto those in need; make them commit to something so that we can ensure that we (as productive, tax-paying individuals) are not being exploited or made the fool of. These latter concerns almost seem to take priority over the welfare itself.
A clear ideology around perceptions of the poor and generalisations around whether particular social groups are worth helping begins to form out of these aversions to loss and risk, and attractions to immediate gain. The problem then comes with the exploitation of these mechanisms in order to promote radical views of individualism: humans as “rational actors” who seek only to maximise their own gains, as well as attacks upon the notion of society. The “identifiable victim effect” exposes a bias in how people are willing to expend greater amounts of resources to help save the lives of identifiable victims than to save equal numbers of unidentified or statistical victims. To elaborate:
“There is a distinction between an individual life and a statistical life. Let a 6-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths — not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.” (Schelling, 1968)
It should not be difficult to figure out which side of the fence victims of broken or undermined welfare systems are sitting on. To those in more fortunate positions, these victims are abstractions, numbers, and financial liabilities with little guarantee of tangible return in the long term and no return in the short term. Should we be surprised that tabloids like The Sun can arouse more passion and indignation with their morbid stories of abused children, than the silent victims of the sick declared fit for work or those stripped of their benefits? What about the children of those parents?
The presumption inherent in Margaret Thatcher’s assertions is that the near destitute could possibly give anything of worth before vital aid and assistance might reach them. In denying the concept of a society, she not only encouraged the most selfish aspects of our psychology to manifest and solidify, but actively closed the door on those abstractions and statistics of human beings, who are an unappealing burden to the privileged mind anyway.
The conditions around what constitutes a satisfactory “obligation” in her speech are as vague as the notions of Cameron’s attempted resurrection of the Big Society, and as vacuous as May’s proclamations of a “red, white and blue Brexit”. This language of coded platitudes betrays both a contempt for regular voters and the denial of a duty of care to those in poverty.
Last month, the nation had to witness the destructive realities of that neglect, as all the cuts to local councils, ignorance towards EU regulations, and complete disregard for the concerns of ordinary people were expressed in the smouldering husk of Grenfell Tower. For all the aforementioned presumptions, proclamations and damnations made upon such people by her predecessors, Theresa May could not even bring herself to face them in their unresolvable loss and desperation. A deceived, insulted and cheated society now drifts among the ashes, looking for its casualties.
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