It’s an almost universal, but nevertheless unattractive, human weakness to attribute our own successes to hard work and tenacity, whilst ascribing the misfortunes of others to their indolence or moral depravity. When misfortunes overtake us, of course, then we are merely victims of the cruelties of Lady Luck’s fickleness.
In our personal lives we might – perhaps we should – try and curb this tendency as much as possible, but if we fail to, or can’t be bothered, then probably all we’ll do is make ourselves look both foolish and unpleasant. But if this distorted view of the world is elevated to the level of a pious political doctrine, then the results will be devastating for those struggling against the odds. It appears that the Coalition is sailing dangerously close to the wind on this, and has perhaps already crossed a significant line. The Prime Minister during his speech to the Conservative Party conference invoked the notion of the “deserving”, and by implication at least, the “undeserving” of state assistance. Even more pointedly, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt talked about the responsibility of those on benefits to curb their fertility since they cannot “expect the taxpayer to subsidise their choice to have more children than they can afford.”
This is dangerous territory. It is not part of the purpose of the state to impose morality. Even if it were, no bureaucracy can seriously claim to be able to see into people’s souls and divine their culpability. I would not presume to be able to judge even those I personally know well, but to suppose that it is possible by the application of some rules of entitlement to make such judgements about our fellow citizens en masse is both morally repugnant and ludicrously optimistic. But even suppose we could reliably discriminate in that way between deserving and undeserving parents, are we to impose penury on children for the sins of their mothers or fathers?
It takes only a moment’s thought to realise that different people can end up in the same predicament for myriad different reasons, and that some will be more culpable than others. The family of 5 children born when both parents were in work, but whom injury or macro-economic downturn has thrown into unemployment: are their children to be left hungry or without the necessities of life on account of their parents’ lack of foresight and insufficiently controlled libido? Such are the depths of foolishness and unkindness that our society will plumb if we allow our politics to be predicated on the narrow prejudices of our politicians. Politicians whose prejudices have been forged in backgrounds of relative or absolute privilege, and who share in that universal tendency I started off by pointing out – to congratulate themselves on their good fortune, whilst castigating others for their bad luck.
None of this is to deny that some of our fellows are indeed the architects of their own misfortune. Unfortunately it is not given to the bureaucracy of the state to be able to determine which are the goats, and which sheep. That, if you believe in Him, is for God to do.