July 4, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith
Rather excitingly, we here at Goldblog Towers received a packed mailbag of responses to yesterday’s blog, particularly the final question of which is ‘better’ – giving to charity or paying tax. I have permission to share this particular response, from someone who during their M.Litt in English Literature at Oxford University learned a great deal about the last time this country relied on charity to help the poor – during the times of Dickens (the mid 19th Century). Here is what they wrote:
“I give you three strands of information ( which you already know, but which I’m condensing for the sake of argument) , and my conclusions.
- As an island nation, we are particularly exposed to change and by nature less mobile than continental peoples. The depopulation of the countryside and migration to the cities, which began in the late middle ages and continues today, has given us an enormous social and cultural town/country imbalance. The wealth of the country squires (not the landed gentry, but the rising middle classes) came through wool, leather and manufacturing on a non-industrial scale until the Industrial Revolution. Plentiful labour in small-scale industries like glove-making, iron-work, smithing, thatching, farming, meant that, although people were often grindingly poor and work was seasonal, a rhythm of work was developed which enabled many people to fulfil a role, however humble. There were huge social divisions, but I would argue that on the whole a ‘work ethic’ was more common than not. The Industrial revolution, in destroying huge numbers of rural jobs, then driving people to the cities, broke that fragile status quo. It coincided with the massive expansion of Empire, bringing huge wealth flooding into the cities and also into the pockets of rich aristocrats. The cities quickly became hideously over-populated and a lack of central control or planning led in the most tragic way to the ‘ungoverned spaces’ which so many left-wing commentators describe; there also arose a large, ungovernable, utterly hopeless, underclass chronicled by both Mayhew and Marx and Engels as well as Carlyle in the mid 19th century, which leads to my next strand.
- This underclass, painted by Hogarth, described with a mixture of anger and compassion by Dickens, did not have a work ethic. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, disease and demonization left these people with literally nothing, and no words to describe their situation. They were so far to the bottom of the pile that they correctly assumed that there was no hope for them and no point in trying. The very nature of a small island with a shrinking rural population meant that there was also nowhere for them to go, and many turned to crime and prostitution. Those who were not involved in the thriving, ruthless black economy and who were too weak, feckless, tired or ill to do anything for themselves, had the choice of begging or going into the workhouse.
- Which brings me to strand 3. Benevolence was a key word in the 19th It became fashionable to have good causes you worked for; much wonderful work was done by organisations such as the mechanics’ institute (now Birkbeck) and by the Guinness Trust and the Peabody Trust, building houses for the poor in London. Even the Americans got in on the act, Passmore Edwards famously financing schools in the East End. However, this led to the appalling concept of the ‘deserving poor’. Somewhere along the line, wealthy do-gooders took it upon themselves to make judgements about who deserved help. This was usually based on whether people were willing to work hard and behave in a ‘moral’ way. Charitable handouts often came with conditions and often those who had ‘worked hard for their money’ were particularly keen to see that it was used well. It is well documented that, far from encouraging people to work hard, this had the opposite effect, fuelling resentment and making the so called undeserving poor even more hopeless.
Years spent just reading and reading convinced me that this underclass, so entrenched, so post- feudal, so unreachable, is still at least 3 generations away from reform. There is no point telling them that they have options, that they can get on their bikes, that they have to work for a living like everyone else, that they need to take a course, start a business, fill in a form: they actually, genuinely, cannot do it, for reasons which those of us lucky enough to have the strength and resilience to get through life independently can never understand. My point is that it is not up to us to judge these people who may seem to us stupid, greedy, irritating, hopeless, and parasitic.
My point is that they WILL NOT go away. So we have a choice: we can continue to carp about our money being wasted on people who misuse it, while more and more of those people become homeless, even more hopeless, even more disaffected, even more tragically exiled from life. They won’t suddenly become hard-working because we say so. Or, we can accept their ubiquity in our complex country with its history of feudalism, imperialism and –also – enlightenment. We can take up the burden collectively, knowing perfectly well that much of our money will be wasted or mis-spent, but that we are not being required to choose, make judgements, to look down on others.
We are not wasting energy thinking how morally sound our money is because we’ve worked for all of it. In other words, we have to evolve an effective State which we trust to re-distribute wealth so that we do not have the, for me, far more disturbing problems of inequality. It’s not a good choice: I would much rather be able to keep more of my money, inherit more wealth, spend with a clear conscience.
But I can’t. The presence of these people, the same people I spent 4 years of my inner life with at Oxford, weighs upon my mind. I can never condemn them, and I want them to have a little home with light and heat, enough to eat, enough money to live, and a decent education, even if they never do a stroke of work in their lives. I know that they may not make it out of dependence , but their children will respect the society that nurtured their parents, and maybe their grandchildren, after 2 generations of decent food, education, and freedom, will finally be free to make the kind of choices I and my family have always taken for granted.
I am very worried about Socialism turning into a fad, when it means so very much to people like me; I have always thought of a socialist country as, simply, sensible and pragmatic, nothing to do with being ‘nice’ or ‘nasty. I am very far from altruistic in this – who knows when we might really, really need the State? What if you have a breakdown? (not covered by BUPA) What if you get cancer? (BUPA checks out after £30,000) What if you have to retire early and depend that bit more on the state pension?”
So, that’s one view. Anybody have the alternative view?