Saturday, January 1, 2011

Private charity is never a substitute for public welfare

Unfortunately, private charity doesn't always have the same priorities as public policy. In the UK, the most popular causes are children, animals, cancer and lifeboats. Overseas causes, for relief of famine, disease or effects of natural disasters, tend to do well, helped by celebrity endorsements and fundraising concerts. Mental illness and disability, ex-offenders and unqualified school leavers are less likely to arouse our compassion. Again, volunteering tends to be most common in areas that need it least. It doesn't help that the coalition's standard narrative is that anyone on benefits probably lives in a Mayfair apartment and anyone claiming to be disabled is most likely faking it.

The point of post-1945 European welfare states was to free the needy from dependence on private generosity, which tends to miss out the socially marginal, and to be least available when times are hardest. Welfare gave a sense of security and dignity that the less fortunate had never previously enjoyed. It was particularly important to continental societies that had seen how insecurity bred fascism. Those who volunteer time to hospitals and homeless centres or who take out direct debits for guide dogs and cancer research are admirable, but no more or less admirable than those who pay taxes without vociferous complaint. Nor is a society with a "culture of giving" more admirable than one where workers receive living wages, decent pensions and reasonable employment protection; executives exercise restraint in remunerating themselves; and everyone has sufficient support to look after their ailing grannies.

The international league tables – which, the green paper insists, prove "we could do so much more" – show the Scandinavian countries, particularly Sweden, with relatively low levels of "giving time" to voluntary work. Does that expose Scandinavians as idle, self-centred and uncaring? No, it simply means social support is provided more than adequately by their governments from the proceeds of high taxation and social security contributions. Ministers imply there is some moral deficit in that arrangement and suggest high levels of volunteering are good for national character. But ask the poor which they prefer, and I doubt they'd hesitate in choosing the Scandinavian model.

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