Benefits are a hot topic at the moment, whether it is cuts to provision or dispute over who deserves them. Now I’m of the opinion that the system has moved away from its intended form of being a safety net towards being more of a safety blanket. Others might disagree with me; even to the point of saying that more should be done. Which begs the question, how do you decide on where to draw the line and by what criteria?
Looking at the current situation perhaps part of the issue currently faced by the Conservatives is that they are perceived as “bean counting”, i.e. making decisions based on money, rather than thinking about those who it affects. Personally I think they are onto a loser whatever they do to the current system as no amount of change will make it fit for purpose. Added to which they lack a singular vision against which they can “sell” policies to the populous as being the best way forward for all of us. I use the word “sell” as that is what democracy has reduced us to, because implementing something truly unpopular is political suicide irrespective of how well it will work. Especially as the workings of modern media make it so easy to cast aspersions which influence people, irrespective of the reality or truth of a situation. Anyone who has read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman will know how very simple techniques can be used to prime people into thinking something is true even when it is not.
That aside the debate I believe we should now be having is how do we create a system which is of benefit to the individual but not at the expense of the group, i.e. society? Or conversely how do you create a system which benefits society, but not at the expense of or that can be abused by the individual. There is also the additional issue of how do you create a system which actually benefits the individual rather than just assuaging a societal need of appearing to be doing something. Or to look at it another way “setting about actually solving the problem rather than continually treating the resulting symptoms”.
However, once you start digging down you start to wonder what would happen if people where faced with the brutal truth of reality. Starting right at the very fundamental question of “why are here?” Either there was some “divine” force behind our creation or it was “blind” chance. On the one hand the possibility of an overriding purpose, on the other an empty meaningless existence. The problem being that without moving beyond this corporeal existence we have no way of knowing for certain which is true and perhaps not even then. This is not an easy thing to accept, especially considering a fear of the unknown is hard wired into our genetics. So much so that we blind ourselves to the obvious in order to retain a sense of order, meaning and continuity within our own little world.
Now you might wonder what this has got to do with benefits, but this dichotomy at the heart of human existence has an important consequence. The only reason something has meaning is because we as an individual choose for it to have meaning. It doesn’t matter whether the choice is conscious / subconscious or rational / irrational. In the absence of certainty of purpose nothing has an intrinsic value for its level of meaningfulness, so only we as an individual can set one, and what I choose is no more meaningful than anything anyone else chooses. Furthermore to be blunt even that choice is ultimately meaningless as it is based on a flawed perception rather than an absolute reality. The kicker is that if you attach meaning to something then you also tend to attach an emotional response to it as well. Then the more meaningful something is to you the more emotion you attach and the less open to evidence that negates your viewpoint you become. Essentially your ability to think rationally about the subject becomes increasingly impaired. Added to which the more vociferous someone’s repudiation of your position the more entrenched you become in response. Action and reaction in increasing magnitude of effect. Examples of this are observable in all spheres of life;
1. Global Warming debate – doomsayers vs. deniers
2. Government spending - Austerity vs. Growth
3. Faith – Theists vs. Atheists
So it would be reasonable to argue that as a starting point the only people who are capable of being able to think rationally about something are those with no emotional attachment to it. Essentially it has no meaning to them. Now for this to be possible it would have to be something that they have no or limited personal understanding of, i.e. not lived with or experienced. Otherwise it would have had an emotional impact on them, either positively or negatively. But lacking in empathy is the very charge levelled at those making decisions about benefits by sections of the media and vested interests, as part of their “campaign” to prevent them from happening or to force changes. I also suspect the majority of people in the country would want someone with empathy making these decisions.
Yet if you look at another area where important decisions are made about people’s lives, i.e. the judicial system, impartiality is enshrined within it. We go to great lengths to ensure that those involved have no personal connection or bias in regards to a case. So why does this not apply to government?
There are probably quite a few reasons for this, including a more common view of purpose in the case of the law. However, part of it in my view is down to a difference in how people think about bias and empathy in regards to decision making processes. Bias has a negative connotation so people view it in the same way, i.e. to be avoided as it could adversely affect them. However, empathy evokes a positive response because it would increase the chance of a beneficial outcome. So despite the potential for both to adversely affect the rationality of decision making, people actually view empathy as a desirable trait in their politicians. To highlight this a bit further you only have to look at the dynamics between conservative and labour in terms of their rhetoric.
Conservatives – portray labour as being all about big government and wasting money, whilst being in the pocket of the unions / portray themselves as being fiscally responsible and capable of managing the country to improve everyone’s chances in life
Labour – portray conservatives as being all about cutting services and support to the “needy”, whilst being in the pocket of big business / portray themselves as being socially responsible and capable of looking after us / the country
This may be slightly simplistic but you can essentially see; vote for us (empathy of shared views), vote against them (bias). That way even if their traditional supporters aren’t 100% happy with current policies, they come out to vote just to stop the other from getting in. The problem that they are now facing is that most people fall in the middle of the political spectrum and aren’t as concerned about the bias because their view of politicians is negative irrespective of party. Consequently the two main political parties have to rely on empathy more in order to secure their votes come election time. However, in trying to keep as many people happy as possible they end up mouthing platitudes to create the illusion of empathy and understanding, whilst desperately trying to avoid doing anything controversial which creates negative press. So ultimately they achieve very little of substance during their time in office. Ironically we then complain at the lack of change without realising that it is our very fear of change and negative reaction towards it that paralyses government because ultimately their job is to get re-elected. Whether it is for altruistic reasons or personal gain doesn’t matter as both lead to the same result.
Part of the reason for this mess is that our government has no clearly defined purpose against which their success can be measured. At best they can be compared to their manifesto, but we all know how long they last post election. Plus we all view the role of government differently so our perception of whether a government was good or bad is unique, irrespective of how well the country is doing in terms of growth / prosperity.
If you look at successful multinationals they have very clear strategies, objectives etc. so in terms of moving forward perhaps we could start with agreeing a purpose. However, those are hammered out by small groups with a clear goal in mind. Can you imagine the population of the UK coming to a consensus? Furthermore can you see the various political parties agreeing to sign up to a fixed set of objectives for the foreseeable future? Even then there is no point to the exercise unless we “the people” get behind it and actually put into practise what needs to be done. It is one thing thinking something is a good idea or aspiration; it is another actually doing it, especially if it has negative consequences in the short term.
Once you start putting these factors together you begin to realise that having a benefits system within a modern democratic state creates the very real risk that you will do more harm than good to society in the long term. Especially when combined with other social forces such as consumerism, equal rights and sensationalist media. Now before people start jumping up and down I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have benefits, though in my opinion we’d probably be better off without the majority of the existing system*. More that evolving a system so that it remains fit for purpose within an ever changing world becomes increasingly difficult. Any change, irrespective of the reason, can become a political hot potato such that it either gets shelved or watered down to ineffectiveness. It also means that even a reasoned debate about the purpose of benefits is impossible as emotion overtakes logic.
*Though that would also involve renationalising various industries e.g. utilities and trains, and using the money saved to sort out the atrocious state of our infrastructure, which would ultimately benefit us more in the long run.
There may also be some consternation that I included equal rights in my list of social forces. Again I’m not against individual rights, I am just of the opinion that equal doesn’t equate to fair and that without responsibility being part of the “contract” people can use it as a carte blanche to behave how they want. As a system it needs to be balanced somewhere between the individual and the group. Currently it is far too far towards the individual and has little or no “checks or balances” towards the group. To paraphrase a wise old man “Just because you can do a thing doesn’t mean that you should do it, even if you perceive it as a “right”.
Interestingly the theme of responsibility links to the other two forces; consumerism and sensationalism. The first is about irresponsible spending and the latter irresponsible reporting. Both are tacitly supported by political parties in order to (a) achieve meaningless growth targets and (b) use for support to their policies. That’s not to say we aren’t part of the problem as well, as we do buy things we don’t necessarily need and are influenced to varying degrees by emotive rhetoric. However, I doubt most people are aware of the degree to which we are controlled by subtle manipulation of thought process mechanics. Ultimately we have less free will than we think, assuming we have any in the first place, but that is another debate entirely.