Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Taxes and the Compassionate Society

This posting was placed on Facebook:

"Have you ever thought how people would cope if it was not for tax payers? Thousands of people are paying their taxes this week in Jersey, me included and I was wondering how people would cope if it was not for tax payers........ nothing more.”

And another individual commented:

"We would all be much better off because we would not have government interfering in our lives, raising the price of everything, telling us what to do and how to do it. We could make our own arrangements which would better serve the community that the bureaucracy does presently."

I’m not sure where this is coming from, but I detect a strong emphasis on individualistic self-sufficiency with the corollary that those who are less well off should jolly well not scrounge off the State and get gainful employment, and should not be supported by taxes. Of course, this is not stated in any obvious means, but rather like dangling a line, the comments are surely intended to catch this particular fish.

Making one’s own arrangements – for private healthcare, education, housing etc – is a very individualistic and egocentric point of view. It also assumes that everyone is placed in society with the same kind of advantages and opportunities.

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg can see both the lure of this position, and its inherent weakness

“There is a natural, human tendency to favour those to whom we are the closest. We tend to take care of our own, and to be wary or afraid of “the other.” The mitzvah of welcoming the stranger is, in part, a counterbalance to this reflex. It reminds us that this person, whom I do not know is, among other things, a human being”

It is not clear where there is a place for those who, for no fault of their own, are orphaned, or handicapped, physically or mentally, or suffer a debilitating and progressive illness such as Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis, or have had, perhaps by accident, physical restrictions on mobility and the ability to do anything. Who cares for them?

As Rabbi Rosenberg comments:

“We are told over and over that we are obligated to protect the weak — the Bible commands us to protect the widow and the orphan, because those categories were the weakest, and the most vulnerable, in ancient society. By contrast, ‘They’re not my problem’ appears exactly never in our text.”

By contrast, in this brave new world of “making our own arrangements”, no consideration seems to have been given as to how those who are vulnerable can cope, those who can’t make their own arrangements - and when I raised the matter on Facebook, no reply was forthcoming.

It is fine to champion a kind of free-market lifestyle, with an option to opt out of taxes and into private welfare systems if you have the cash to do that, but some people – those vulnerable, and that may include women fleeing an abusive marriage with children – cannot easily cope without the State’s help. And that means taxes to pay for that help. That’s the price we pay for a compassionate society.

The Victorian method of dealing with poverty was to supply help – but make it so unattractive, so harsh and unpleasant, that they thought it would act as much as a deterrent as an act of charity. The workhouse segregated men and women so they could not breed. Life in a workhouse was intended to be harsh, to deter the able-bodied poor and to ensure that only the truly destitute would apply.

It was this attitude which so incensed Charles Dickens that he returned to it in several books. And of course, in particular, we see this in Scrooge, the self-made man, the person who grudgingly supports the workhouses with his taxes, and who sees poverty as a vice.

"At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?"

"Plenty of prisons..."

"And the Union workhouses." demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

"Both very busy, sir..."

"Those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

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