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Friday, 10 July 2015

Whatever happened to sharing?


When I was growing up, I was taught to share what I had. I still think it’s one of the most important attributes of a decent human being – and, by extension, of a decent society.

So when did it go out of fashion? When did those people who have more than enough for their needs decide that they are no longer under any obligation to share their good fortune? Germany sees no need to help Greece; George Osborne sees no reason why the government – acting on behalf of those of us who are doing all right – should help provide a decent chance to those who are not.

Here’s what I don’t get: why, according to one of the central tenets of free market economics, is a government that does the least possible to redistribute wealth through taxation and welfare programmes, always better than one that does more?

I know the argument well enough, of course: individuals are always better at deciding how to spend their money than governments, and the prime role of government is to create an environment in which private enterprise can flourish for the good of everyone. But only the zealots on the fringes of the far right would argue that this should also apply to the provision of health care or education --  so why does it apparently apply to the provision of decent housing, decent help for disabled people, or, most incomprehensibly, to help for young people?

In any case, I have yet to be persuaded that private corporations paying their top executives obscene salaries and creating dividend wealth for their institutional shareholders necessarily provides benefits for society as a whole. Even Mr Osborne seems to have recognised that turning the UK into an oligarch’s tax-free paradise and providing tax breaks for private landlords who charge unaffordable rents while claiming tax relief on their mortgages is not perhaps the best way to run a chip shop.

The people of Greece are hardly responsible for decades of irresponsible lending by banks and institutions that never asked themselves how their loans would ever be repaid. (Don’t tell me the lenders were misled by Greek governments lying about the true state of their finances – have they never heard of due diligence?)

It’s as if those low-income Americans who were pressure-sold sub-prime mortgages were then told that they would have to starve while their foolish creditors sorted themselves out. I wish more commentators would point out that there would be no irresponsible borrowing unless there was also irresponsible lending – so while we’re on the subject of sharing, why not at least share some of the pain caused by putting right the wrongs of the past?

The people of Germany have done far better than almost anyone else out of the euro project – so why is their government not explaining to them the virtue of sharing their good fortune? Or indeed that the bulk of the bail-out money provided so far has gone straight to Greece’s creditors, not its people, who have seen nothing but hardship as a result of a grisly succession of botched decisions and muddled thinking.

Last Wednesday’s UK Budget was a classic example of what seems now to be the almost universally accepted principle that those who have shall keep what they have, while those who have not shall take a running jump. (And don’t be misled by the new National Living Wage, which sounds good, until you look at what the low paid will lose in working tax credits, leaving them, on average, worse off.)

According to what definition of the word “fairness” is it fair to raise the inheritance tax threshold while withdrawing students’ maintenance grants and cutting other benefits to the young and low paid? What kind of person thinks it right, as they gingerly step over increasing numbers of young people sleeping rough, that they should have less while the better off have more?

Yes, there are more people in work – but if they aren’t being paid a decent wage, why does that absolve the rest of us from a moral responsibility to pay into a common pot to provide at least a roof over their heads?

There’s a paradox here: we Brits are among the most generous people in the world when it comes to individual charitable donations: look at the enormous sums raised each year by Comic Relief, and look at the extraordinarily generous response to disaster appeals in the wake of emergencies like the Nepal earthquake or the Indian Ocean tsunami. Yet we tend to elect governments that pledge to squeeze benefits to the least well off at home, even as – in the case of David Cameron – laudably ring-fencing overseas aid.

I have another reason to regret what I see as the whittling away of a sharing ethos. When I see the BBC’s critics arguing that the licence fee has had its day because now everyone can choose what to watch or listen to, or what to read online, I wonder what happened to the idea that the BBC is, by its very existence, a public good.

People who have no children tend not to object to their taxes being used for children’s education, because they accept that the country needs educated children. Similarly, even those who don’t own a car are prepared to see their taxes used in part to build and repair roads. Personally, I derive little direct benefit from the money spent out of my taxes on encouraging sporting activities. Yet I accept that others do, and that by being part of a healthy society, I do gain an indirect benefit.

The BBC is probably among the UK’s top three things that foreigners most admire about this country: the other two would be the royal family and the Premier League. (I admit, I’m guessing – if you know different, do show me the evidence.) So why isn’t there more of a public outcry as the government slowly strangles it, squeezing the life out of it until it is no more than an empty shell? And all for the sake of 40p a day.

In a properly functioning democracy, a government is the expression of the will of the people. Is it really our will that those of our fellow citizens who have most need of help shall now be given less, so that we who are better off can keep more? Is it really our will that we jettison the notion of the common good in favour of putting personal benefit first and last? I fear I know the answer before I have even finished asking the question.

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