Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Liberalism, Luck and Responsibility

There have been two stories in the British media this week that should strike terror into the hearts of every single British Citizen. The first is the news that The UK has the smallest amount of savings put by for retirement of any major economy. The second story was that one in ten adults does no exercise and the majority of people in Britain have ceased to take any exercise at all by the age of 56.

The first story is not entirely the result of personal fecklessness: there is no doubt that the actions of the Blair-Brown government destroyed billions of Pounds in savings and re-routed that money into current expenditure; and the finance scandals, such as Equitible Life and pensions mis-selling also played their part. Nevertheless the majority of people in Britain no longer expect to be able to look after themselves in retirement, at a time when public resources to protect the elderly are already stretched beyond the limit.

Equally there is little doubt that, as the second story shows, the majority of Brits are being totally irresponsible with their health as well as their wealth. The consequences are not merely obesity and all of its ills, but also depression. The fact is that the failure to take responsibility for ones own life diminishes that life into ill health-physical and mental- and unhappiness. This is not a matter of luck, it is a matter of choice. Too many people are choosing a life which makes them victims.

The convention has grown over the course of the past fifty years that those who, through bad luck or bad judgement, fall on hard times can be protected- to at least a degree- from the consequences of their actions.  What happens when the choices that people make in one generation throws up a burden that is beyond the capacity of the next generation to pay for? The result is clear: that generation is impoverished. By failing to save and by failing to take responsibility for their health, the baby-boomer generation is stealing from the future, that is from their children and grandchildren, and yet they still expect to be protected.

As a society, we are fostering- indeed rewarding- deeply anti-social attitudes and behaviour. The reality is that as President Kennedy once noted, we progress if we challenge ourselves, if we strive to do things that are hard, indeed we should do them because they are hard. If we always settle for the soft option: for the chocolate bar instead of the apple, for the sofa in front of the telly instead of an evening walk, for Simon Cowell's latest Frankenstein instead of Beethoven, we create a weak and unhappy society and one which is ultimately decadent.

In my view the root of the social -indeed physical- breakdown that I identify lies in a social alienation that has divorced actions from consequences.  Powerful figures, such as Rupert Murdoch, seemingly preside over criminal activity with impunity, journalists print lies with impunity, bankers grow rich despite heroic levels of corruption and incompetence, while local communities atomize under the relentless pressure of long hours and job insecurity. David Cameron's "Big Society" is a good idea in the sense that it suggests we all benefit from a public spirited commitment to our communities, but it fails to address the injustices- from a crooked voting system and moribund party politics to cliquishness and ignorance- that prevent the political arena- at local and national level- being the platform for genuine social debate. Liberals believe that politics must be revived and that public participation is the only real and legitimate way that we can renew the bonds of social obligation and reward.

Our view is that we must- above all else- give people the right to control their own affairs. If people feel empowered in one area they can and do feel empowered in other spheres. Yet also we must accept the quid-pro-quo of the most famous Liberal dictum of J.S. Mill: "That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant . . . Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign". 

That means that if you make feckless decisions; if you choose poverty in old age and obesity and ill health now, then you can not ask those who chose more wisely to give up their own security in order to support your irresponsibility. Liberals make much of offering help to weaker members of Society, and it is morally right to help the unfortunate- it is also politically popular. However, what about those who make feckless choices? For example, one in five British adults still smoke, and just under 90% of lung cancer is diagnosed in smokers. The cost of treatment for all smoking related illness is estimated at up to £5.2 billion, but the total costs are much higher, and in any event far higher than the taxes collected through the sale of tobacco. So if we want to underline that actions have consequences we should impose far higher financial penalties on smokers, in order to eliminate the de facto subsidy of their health care that smokers currently receive. Likewise, if we believe in helping the poor, we should eliminate the current opaque tax code that pretends to be progressive but is in fact  highly regressive. The point is that we should be transparent about actions and consequences- and be determined to enforce them.

For too long we have spoken of protecting "hard working families". We do not talk enough of what happens when people insist on poor life choices. We can not ultimately protect people from the consequences of their own actions- it is neither financially nor morally viable to do so, and it is time to be open about that. If our society is to prosper further, then the time has come to remind our citizens that while they have the right to behave as they wish, they do not have the right to impose a massive burden on the rest of society as the result of their feckless or foolish behaviour. 

It is called taking responsibility for your life, and it is a necessary part of what it means to be human.   

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