Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Suppose a man has two cows....

Question: What is the difference between a socialist and a Tory?

One Possible Answer: A socialist believes in Society. A Tory believes that there are only individuals and their families.

When a Tory gets his tax-bill, he says: 'Wait a minute. I worked hard and saved in order to pay for my family's education. Why should I also pay for the education of the child of some feckless lay-about who has wasted all his father’s money on riotous living?'

Or 'I have taken out private medical insurance for myself and my family. Why should I pay for the health care of wastrels who have taken no such precautions?'

Or 'I don’t have any kids, so why should I pay to educate yours?'

Or 'My daughter didn’t become pregnant before she got married: so why should I have to pay for the housing and childcare for the brazen hussies who did?'

Or 'I don’t have any dependent relatives, and I’m never sick. I don’t own a motor-car, and if I get burgled I shall shoot the burglar myself and charge it to expenses. So why oh why should I have to pay for all these schools, hospitals, roads and policemen who I never use?'

In short: the Tory thinks that the reason that the rich are rich and the poor are poor is because the rich worked hard, earned qualifications, and took risks, and the poor sat at home watching Ant and Dec. If you are going to take money away from the hard-working rich and give it to the lazy poor, why on earth will anyone ever try to better themselves? Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? On yer bike. Bah, humbug!

I paraphrase, slightly.

Not all Tories are necessarily this mean. Some of them are christians. Some of them may even by Christians. If Oliver - a poor, penniless, uneducated orphan - is sent to a free state school, partly financed out of Ebenezer’s taxes, then Ebenezer may very well think that his money has been put to good use, especially if Oliver is one of the hard-working deserving poor, and not one of the Iranian gypsies who are swamping the country. But Ebenezer still thinks that the money has been taken from him and given to Oliver, for Oliver’s benefit. He may wonder why the government doesn't just let him keep his own money and bestow his largess on whatever paupers he felt like.

But a Socialist - one who believes in Society - doesn’t quite see it that way. He agrees, of course, that Ebenezer’s money is going to build Oliver’s school. But he doesn’t think that Ebenezer is the loser or the philanthropist in the transaction. If Oliver wasn’t at school then he would probably be wandering the streets, taking drugs and stealing handkerchiefs from police officers. If he grew up without any education at all, then he might end up as one of the unemployed, in which case Ebenezer’s taxes would go to fund his dole cheque, his housing benefit, his health care. Or if (as the most extreme Ebenenzers would like) there was no dole, housing benefit or free health care then he would presumably starve and drop dead on Ebenzer’s doorstep, making it look untidy and triggering off a cholera epidemic. Or failing that, he'd turn to crime and Ebenezer would have to pay the wages of lots more police-officers and hang-men.

But if Oliver goes to school, then, all things being equal, he will learn stuff, and end up getting some useful job. He might become a plumber, and fix Ebenezer’s boiler; or a bus-driver, and drive Ebenezer’s employees to work, or even, conceivably, a doctor who will save Ebenezer’s life.

So according to socialists, the reason that we take money from Ebenezer is mainly for Ebenezer’s benefit. Because when you have a welfare state -- free doctors, free schools, free libraries, grants for students, welfare payments for the unemployed, council housing for the poor, decent hostels for the homeless, public service broadcasting, legal aid -- you have a happy, healthier, better functioning society and everyone is better off - even those of us who never go to the doctor or travel by train.

Cue loud chorus of 'Jerusalem'.

Note: Having accepted the theory that everything which happens in society affects everything else which happens in society, it is very tempting to say 'and therefore, everything which happens in society is everyone else’s business.' If I smoke cigerattes, and drop dead at an early age, then I am not only harming myself, but harming society. You have to pick up the bill for my medical treatment or my funeral expenses; and while I am being dead, the rest of society isn't benefiting from my labour or skills. So it's the government's job to stop me from smoking. If I yell at my kid, slap it, or allow it to watch 'Doctor Who' before its eighth birthday, then it will grow up traumatized and harm society in all sorts of ways. So it's the government's job to decide how I bring up my children. The same logic which makes socialists want to fund schools and hospitals also makes them want to make laws about what kinds of drugs people can smoke and what kinds of furry animals they can kill. There is at least some truth behind the Tory charge that Socialists are a bunch of interfering busy-bodies who want to set up a Nanny State.

The problem with Tony's election campaign was that he was trying to argue for basically "socialist" ideas – state schools and the health service – on Tory grounds. Just before the election was announced, Tony published a risible "pledge card", indicating what he would do if he were returned to office.

As usual, the pledge card no verbs:

1. Your family better off

2. Your family treated better and faster (*)

3. Your child achieving more

4. Your country's borders protected

5. Your community safer

6. Your children with the best start

Your family better off. Your family treated better. Your child achieving more. Your child with the best start. We are not trying to convince Ebenezer that it would be a good thing to give money to the government to fund the schools, hospitals and social services that poor people will use, for the good of society. We are are trying to convince him that it would be a good idea to give the government money to finance the schools and hospitals that he will use himself.

The trouble with this is that it isn't true: if I want the best education for my child (not yours) then my best bet would be to take him out of the state system altogether. So my best bet is to vote for the tax-cutting party, and use my windfall to pay for a place in a private school with good resources and small classes. The best system of all for my child (not yours) would be the oft-mooted "voucher" system, why I get a piece of paper saying "I promise to be the bearer on demand the price of of fourteen years of state education" and can hand it over to any private establishment which takes my fancy. But this only works if we think that, when your child is dropped in some second rate sink school and forced to eat turkey twizzlers, then this only effects you and doesn't matter to me.

Tory-ism would work fine if the world was fair.

To believe in Tory-ism, you need to convince yourself that that the rich are rich and the poor are poor because – in the long run – the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor. And if the most valuable jobs were always the best paid and if hard work always resulted in wealth and laziness always resulted in poverty, this would be true. We could then dispense with the whole edifice of the welfare state. Given that resources are always finite, it would be perfectly reasonable to say that the person with the money got the health-care, and the person without the money died. If it comes to a choice, the fact that the rich man is rich proves that he has more right to be alive than the poor man.

But the world is not always fair. Some very valuable members of society – teachers, nursers, people who test mobile phone games – are paid very little. People who make no discernible contribution to society – professional footballers, Graham Norton. members of the House of Lords – are paid astronomically large sums of money. And as long as we are talking about luxury items – fast cars and meals in expensive restarunts-- then I am prepared to put up with the fact that richest person gets the best toys. But I am not prepared to accept the idea that David Beckam has more right to be alive than a hospital cleaner, or that he has more right to education and culture, or that he should have an advantage if he gets involved in some legal dispute. I conclude that there should be a very well-resourced national health service and state school system, a heavily subsidised public transport system; low rent council housing for the poor and housing benefit for the very poor; a public service broadcasting system that has a remit to show science documentaries, serious arts programmes and "Doctor Who"; reasonably generous (i.e slightly above subsidence) social-security payment for the unemployed and disabled.... I want to live in a society where everyone gets the essentials regardless of how rich they are, because that is the best kind of society to live in. To achieve this, we all pay slightly more tax. (**)

And no, I am not going send jackbooted stormtroopers out to close down the private schools and burn everyone's BUPA card: I'm sure that the rich will always have their children educated and their hemorrhoids removed in very expensive private institutions. Under my system, the state schools will be so good that they won't get much advantage from doing so. ("I understand that you are going to abolish First Class coaches, Mr. Lenin.""Oh no. I am going to abolish Third Class coaches.")

"But Andrew – that's a pretty equivocal definition of 'socialism' isn't it?"

"Yes. I guess that if one wanted to be pedantic (in the sense of 'correct') one would define socialism as 'An economic system where the state owns and manages all the industry, supposedly in the interests of the population.' (***)"

"Do you believe in that?"

"I think that gas, water, electricity and public transport should either be nationalised or heavily subsidised, but I have no interest in the securing the state ownership of the means of production, no."

"Did the Labour Party ever believe in that?"

"I don't think so. Not unless you count Tony Benn."

"So by socialism you mean 'a robust, re-distributive welfare state'."

"Yeah. And Trade Unions, which we haven't covered."

"So why not say that, instead of bandying the word "socialism" about with gay abandon."

"Er...mostly because it annoys Tony Blair, I guess."

(*) Incidentally: isn't it cool that a Labour pledge card --(cue Welsh accent) a Labour pledge card -- feels the need to 'pledge' that the NHS will "remain free at the point of need." You wonder what else Tony will feel that he has to re-assure us of on the 2009 card.

'We pledge not to bring back hanging,drawing and quartering within the life time of the next Labour Government.'

'We pledge not to drop any nuclear bombs on France, even if President Bush asks us really nicely.'

'We pledge that Tony Blair will under no circumstances discuss theology in the bath with Edwina Currie'

(**) Where, incidentally, I part company with Old Labour and drift slightly into the Howard camp is that I don't see any logical reason why, because the State pays for something, it should also have day-to-day managerial control over it. I think that state schools should be financed out of taxation; but I don't think that it follows that the minister for education should be able to decide what geography text book children read; I think that that hospitals should be funded out of taxation, but I don't think that Tony Blair should be able to arbitrarily decided that breast cancer is a higher priority than prostate cancer.

(***) Contrast with "communism" which says that we would get rid of money and ownership altogether: everyone would work for the benefit of the collective, and the collective would provide him with whatever he needed. From each according to his ability, to each, according to his need. Some cynics think that this might not work in practice.