Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: January 2017

Equality and the Market

 I like and loathe Twitter; it draws you into debates with all sorts of interesting people and challenges you to make your point as sharply as possible. But it is also frustrating when something seems really obvious, but you can’t convert its truth into 140 characters. There is also a danger that you will be pulled into making ad hominem attacks on people’s character – attacking someone for their failure to understand you – rather than focusing on being clear and truthful.

One recent enjoyable, but also rather difficult, conversation was on the topic of inequality and the market. The challenge began with a video from Mark Littlewood of the IEA who made what I think is actually a fair point: charities who are against poverty should avoid treating inequality as the primary cause of poverty. Western charities can quite often score easy points in this way; yet the actual causes of poverty in a specific country may be influenced by any or all of the following factors:

  • The state’s failure to uphold the rule of law, including property rights
  • Inadequate physical and social infrastructure to enable exchange and cooperation
  • Exploitation by corporations, stealing resources and underpaying people
  • The failure to invest in talents, skills of local people
  • Dependency on Western charitable institutions that don’t create local capacity
  • Too much state control, incompetence or corruption
  • Trade regimes that protect Western farmers or others from competition

This rather random list already reveals that it is a significant mistake to think of poverty as merely a matter of redistribution. It is not. Poverty is also a function of our productivity, of our ability to get stuff done, and this is influenced by many different factors.

This list also reveals how important the role of the state is, even before we come to any question of redistribution. The state, in partnership with the institutions of civil society, is the institution that protects rights, develops and protects vital infrastructure, protects people from exploitation, negotiates trade deals and ensures that markets can function. It is a foolish liberal who underestimates the critical role of the state in protecting the economic institutions they cherish so much.

However in my Twitter debate three false claims also emerged:

  1. Taxes (and benefits) do not thing to reduce poverty,
  2. Poverty is only tackled by the Market, and
  3. The state is essentially unproductive.

These three interconnected claims perhaps mark the point at which liberalism tips into the extremes of neoliberalism). Each claim is untrue, and dangerously so.

Let’s take them in reverse order:

There is no doubt that the 20th century advocates of state socialism were far too confident of the state’s ability to do too many things very well. There are limits to what the state’s can do well. But there are many things that we need the state to do and which are essentially productive. The state and its institutions (e.g. the creation of a valid currency) have been essential to social and economic development. This is demonstrated by examining the causes of poverty outlined above: economic development relies on effective state action. The state and the rule of law it guarantees are fundamental to most forms of human productivity in complex human societies.

At its core neoliberalism seems to be a form of idolatry – the worship of false idols. The market, which is essentially a useful tool (and like all tools limited) has been converted into a false god The Market. Markets make poor gods for many reasons, but primarily because they don’t exist. A market is a space, not a thing; it is a vacuum; it is a space within which human beings trade stuff. Trading stuff is also useful preparation for doing other stuff, like making, healing, building, growing and creating. The market does not do any of those things – people do – but the market helps people by because people can use trade to get the useful things they need from others. Markets can help people be productive, but they are not productive in themselves.

Worshipping Markets is a a bit like worshipping banks. We forget about human effort and ingenuity, we forget about the amazing natural processes that create things, instead we worship the middle-men, the priests and temples of liberal economics.

What is more we forget that, even at their best, markets are rather inadequate and imperfect institutions. We may all rather disagree about the extent and nature of those imperfections, just as we tend to disagree about what perfect means. But some of these ‘market failures’ are pretty obvious. I’ll just give two examples.

First, markets are very bad at organising a sensible and fair distribution of healthcare; because when it comes to healthcare humans are rather irrational. The fundamental problem is that we want to live, and we will pay almost anything to someone who promises to extend our lives, even to the point of impoverishing ourselves. So a free market in healthcare leads to lots of exploitation. That’s why the US system is twice as costly, but no better, than the UK system. Doctors are richer, healthcare companies make more money, but there is no real benefit for US citizens.

Second, markets inevitably increase levels of inequality because the winners increasingly dictate the outcomes to the losers. Anyone who has played Monopoly understands why monopolies are a bad thing. If you start to lose, you’ll probably keep on losing. That’s why we need tax and benefits; that’s why the state cannot avoid being drawn into trying to regulate or control the market for incomes.

Famously, in the 1970s, John Rawls argued that a limited degree of inequality might be justified if it gave people a better incentive to strive in ways that benefited the worst-off. Today this argument has been turned on its head. Some now seem to believe that any degree of inequality is justified because some inequality could provide better incentives. This is bad logic and bad ethics.

Poverty is a function of a failure in both productivity and justice. We need both to flourish in order to end it.

Figuring out what degree of inequality is acceptable and what practical mechanism are necessary to reduce inequality is also one of those practical things that we need the state to do. And this takes us back to the initial worry about extreme inequality. The fact that a small number of people control a great share of our wealth is worrying because it seems those people increasingly define what the state does. The election of Donald Trump as President of the USA reflects a further decline in the quality of our democracies and the growing influence of the wealthy oligarchs who may well believe that their own extreme wealth is good for everyone.

Well they would, wouldn’t they?

Living in the Ghetto

I was recently invited to speak to a room of commissioners for services for people with learning disabilities in England. This is a pretty rare event for me these days and so I was keen to make the most of the opportunity.

I called my talk ‘Who Put Out the Fire?’ and I wanted to talk about why there no longer seems to be any significant passion or momentum for inclusion or for further deinstitutionalisation. I do not mean that nobody is doing good work. As ever, there are brilliant people doing wonderful things across our communities. But overall the passion that used to exist to bring about positive change has evaporated. In fact, in some places, we see things going into reverse.

We are at a moment of change.

Progress is not inevitable and we should not be naÏve. Things are beginning to roll backwards and, unless we change our behaviour, things will get much worse. Eugenics is already back on the agenda, in the form of genetic screening for Down Syndrome, ongoing practice in neonatal care and abortion laws that abandon limits in the case of disability. These practices go hand-in-hand with the meritocratic beliefs of our elites – people who think that the ‘clever’ (themselves, by their own definition) deserve the ‘best’. Putting powerful technology in the hands of people who think that they are better than other people never ends well.

And the institution is back. Not only are thousands still incarcerated in private hospitals (at great expense) but also authorities are now being tempted by that old dreadful excuse for bad practice: economies of scale.

Some of this can be explained by austerity. Politicians and managers have always been tempted by the idea that ‘congregate care’ must be cheaper and that they have a public duty to manage costs and be ‘reasonable’. This is understandable when local authority funding has already been cut by 30-40% and is being further cut today. Local commissioners are only following the lead of national politicians when they shift the burden of the banking failure onto disabled people and families.

However, more controversially, I think that some of the responsibility for today’s failure of leadership lies with Valuing People. I do not mean that the Valuing People policy or its leaders were bad – quite the opposite – but I do think the whole process has led us up a creek and today everybody seems to have forgotten how to paddle. Genuine, community-based leadership, is missing in action.

In the 1960s and 1970s many leaders emerged, inspired by Wolf Wolfensberger’s ideas, shocked at the state of our institutions or simply keen to ensure their sons and daughters were able to get a better deal. These leaders challenged the norm and created new alternatives. Many of the organisations (like Mencap) which we take for granted today earned their leadership status through this process of challenge and creation. Later on other organisations, like the Campaign for Mental Handicap (which became Values Into Action) took on the role of challenging Government and of advocating for human rights and inclusion.

But Valuing People encouraged people to put their faith in two dangerous myths. First, that Government did care, and would continue to care, about the fate of people with learning difficulties. It didn’t, it doesn’t and it won’t. Second, positive change comes from Government and from the leaders it selects.

By this I don’t mean that Government is bad or hostile to the interests of people with learning difficulties. It isn’t. But Government is always late to the party. The job of a civil servant is to keep everybody happy, not to lead radical change. The job of a politician is to respond to democratic pressure, not to stand up for powerless minorities. Entrusting leadership to politicians and civil servants is to abandon leadership.

It seems to me that Valuing People killed the real drive to inclusion; just as Putting People First killed the drive to self-directed support. Killed with kindness, killed with money, killed by assuming an intellectual authority it could never possibly live up to.

This seems counter-intuitive. Too many good things, too much useful funding and too many opportunities are associated with Valuing People to believe that it was bad for us.

But look at England today.

Where is the self-advocacy movement? In tatters. Today the Government is about to take away the last piece of funding for the National Forum and for the National Valuing Families Forum. If this goes then can we look back on over 30 years of self-advocacy development and congratulate ourselves on our achievements? No. Self-advocacy is patchy, under-funded and lacks any agreed form of leadership.

What about service development and innovation? For some reason we now expect government and commissioners to lead innovation; but our systems of commissioning have effectively killed off innovation and creativity. Some people and families have escaped the system, using direct payments; but most of the money remains invested in the care home system (which is now protected from the impact of personal budgets).

Today the whole sector seems incapable of defending itself or of uniting with others to fight for justice. For example, there is no effective campaign to defend social care. Many of the leading organisations seem too dependent on Government funding and unwilling to speak out or get organised.

If you look upwards for rationality and for inspired leadership you’ll be a long time waiting.
The positive changes that began in the 1970s were led by people and professionals, starting from where they were then. Focused on what they could do with the resources they had to hand. They did not expect everything to be done for them. They got organising, supporting and campaigning. That’s how things really change.

Perhaps one thing that they also had back then was a strong sense that the current system was unacceptable. They looked at the institution – those systems of absolute exclusion – and they declared that it was absolutely wrong – and they then worked hard to build an alternative.

In practice that alternative is the world er have now: group homes, day centres, respite services and care services. This is a significant improvement over the old system. This is the system that is today’s ‘normal’. This is the system we are struggling to improve and which is now beginning to slip backwards into something worse.

Why can’t we do better than this?

What can’t we dream bigger than this?

People with learning difficulties are agents of social change. They can bring communities together, they can break down the barriers of pride and illusion that leave us dislocated and alone. They can offer the rest of us a different sense of the purpose of life and insight into the joy of living.

People with learning difficulties are just different. But we are all different… get over it.

Diversity is a good thing and to be welcomed. True equality is not found in sameness, conformity or compliance. Equality means treating each person as if they belong, as if their gifts have meaning and value. Equality demands we treat each other as citizens – working together to create communities that welcome and nurture our gifts.

If you believe this then this belief has real life consequences.

One of these consequences is that we must start to acknowledge that the community care system, that was developed during the period of deinstitutionalisation, is totally inadequate. It is a system of ghettos, small segregated communities, cut off from community life and communicating to people on both sides of its walls that people with learning difficulties don’t really belong in our communities.

Ghettos are not evil. Community care ghettos are not the same as the long-stay institutions that they replaced. Ghettos can even be fun and interesting. Ghettos can even convert themselves into places of community and inclusion. (It would be a mistake to confuse ghettos with institutions and it would be a mistake to ‘close’ ghettos using the same kind of process that were used to close the institutions.)

The architects of new and inclusive communities will be people themselves. But they will need help from families; and they will need help from the professionals who want to be true partners. And they will need help from fellow citizens who want to live in the kind of community that can welcome each of its members.

Is this progress inevitable?

No. Today it’s being undermined by powerful social, economic and political forces that are being left unchallenged.

Is this progress a pipe dream?

No. It is happening now, in small pockets. There are people and places that are showing us the way forward. Rising to this challenge takes work, it takes time and it takes creativity. But it’s worth it.

What I am trying to do is reframe the challenge that lies before us. We must stop treating the current community care system as if it provides an acceptable norm. It does not. We have to be honest about the limitations of what we’ve achieved. There will be no increased hope, passion and wider social movement unless there is both a compelling vision for inclusion and a growing sense that the ghettos we’ve created are unacceptable.

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