A much wiser, fatter, and more Italian man than me may once have said, “Respect the family.” Family is the most important thing in the world, but in today’s Britain (that sounds a bit Daily Mail…), we don’t respect that basic building block of society (and as a good Conservative, I have to now deny that there is such a thing…). It is a sine qua non of the right – stable families produce good citizens, in every sense of that word. No politician would claim to be anti-family, but several generations of ‘liberal’ social policy have had unintended consequences, and I think it’s time for the left to reconsider some of their own sine qua non’s.
Let’s go back a little bit, to those innocent days before the last election. Labour published their pledge card (now with added truth!), with the following 5 pledges:
Your family better off
Your child achieving more
Your children with the best start
Your family treated better and faster
Your community safer
Your countryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s borders protected
Huh, I hear you cry. Can’t really argue with that, but my colleague on Once More, Wat Tyler, applied his opposites test to a couple of these, and to a couple of David Davis’ policy pronouncements on his David Davis for Leader blog. Basically, the premise is that if you take a political statement, reverse the meaning to the opposite, and can’t imagine any politician saying the reversed version in polite company, the statement has no meaning. I think it’s a good rule of thumb. What has this got to do with social and family policy? Simple really, the vacuousness of the Labour pledge ‘Your family better off’ is obvious when you reverse it. Can you imagine a Tory running on a pledge of ‘Your family worse off’? The same is true of the constant refrain from New Labour circles of policies for ‘hard-working families’ – can you imagine making positive policy pledges for slackers and deadbeats? Welfare-to-Doss? So I have to be careful in challenging the left that I don’t go down the straw man route of claiming that they are anti-family. No one is anti-family. Even the doyenne of state-nationalised parenting and childcare, Polly Toynbee, has admitted in interviews that the best environment for raising kids is the 2-married different-sex parents set-up that we all know and love.
The question really is one of both focus, and of the unintended consequences of making policy to help the ‘weakest in society’. Note the same problem again – no-one makes policy for the strongest and fittest, do they? The focus on the left is on minority groups and the oppressed. Which set of victims can we empower today? Which of society’s outcasts can we lift up? How can we redistribute wealth to the poorest? All of those things are fine and noble goals, but when the focus is all about the few, rather than the many, the many get overlooked. We Conservatives are often criticised, rightly and wrongly, for being all about the rich. But Labour activists are all about the poor, and the rest are left with a kind of pseudo-independence of action that isn’t totally healthy. I don’t want to claim that either side has a monopoly on morality, but my side is genuinely trying to draft policy that benefits everyone, regardless of status, wealth, sex, colour, creed. That, in many ways, is a huge victory for the left. They’re in danger of being left behind once we get into gear. As much as I want my team to be in power with a whopping majority, I’m not sure how healthy that would be for democracy.
Often with social policy that focuses on the neediest, the next tier of people suffer. The victims are those on the margins. It is probably the basic tenet of economics that incentives are important. Incentives (not just in a financial sense) are what make us get out of bed in the morning. When the government enact policies that gives more than a safety net to the neediest, those on the margins suffer because the incentives that govern them change. Thus, the liberalisation of abortion laws has tended to lead to an increase in abortions. This post from Monjo states that the average UK woman now has 2.2 healthy pregnancies in her lifetime, and gives birth to 1.7 children. 1% of abortions are for reasons of foetal abnormality. Is that really healthy for society that we treat pregnancy and childbirth with such casual disdain?
This article, in the Torygraph, talks about the perverse financial incentives present in the welfare system. It makes economic sense for a couple on average income to be divorced, because then the female partner would be able to claim increased benefits, presumably for childcare. The result? Increased levels of family break-up, and, equally bad for those of us in the tax-paying community, a bigger bill for welfare. Family break-up is expensive in all kinds of ways though – the higher cost of supporting single parents, the economic cost of them not working, the increase in crime amongst the kids, lower educational achievement, an increase in abuse, poorer levels of health – the list goes on. And this is one example amongst many – name an area of social policy, and I’ll tell you who gets screwed by it.
I am not calling for a draconian removal of people’s current entitlements. We have been discussing welfare reform in some detail over on Once More, and it has to be a slow and steady process, much like weaning an addict off heroin, I guess. As much as we love old-school brutality on the right, putting people on benefit cold turkey isn’t something we want to try. So what’s my point? Just that power necessarily leads to complacency – there is a myopia that sets in after a while where you think you have all the answers, and you have to be doing something to fix the many day-to-day problems that keep jumping up. It isn’t an atmosphere which engenders long-term strategic planning. I think it’s time for the left to take a step back a little and reconsider some of their axioms. The weakest in society need a safety net, sure, but do they need a blanket and a nice, cuddly teddy bear as well? Are we not better off working for everyone in society, rather than minority interests?