Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: injustice

Robocop and the Civil Servant

I recently watched the remake of Robocop. It was not a very good film, but it did remind me of the plight of the civil servants in Whitehall and the challenge of how and when to use your conscience.

Hannah Arendt defined bureaucracy as Rule by No One. It is the office that is accountable, not an individual, and that really means no one is responsible. Who, for instance, was responsible for making up fake stories that give the impression that sanctions for people on benefits are fair and reasonable? No one. It was just another bureaucratic task required of a civil service that must carry out the ‘will of the people’ who, in this instance, have been ‘realised’ in the form of Iain Duncan Smith.

Back in 1988, as a young man, having left University with little idea of what I wanted to do, I applied to be a ‘fast-track’ civil servant. I got through the exams, but then went to Whitehall for an intense couple of days trial by interview and workshop. One of the interviews was with a psychologist who asked me what I would do if I was asked to do something that I thought was wrong.  My simplistic response was that I wouldn’t do it; but the psychologist argued that this would not work in the civil service, for you would have to work with politicians of every colour and they were accountable to the democratic process. It was not for me to insert my sense of right or wrong, like a spanner, into the workings of Government. The psychologist also went on to suggest that guilt was a bad thing and that perhaps I took it too seriously (a proposal I didn’t accept). I was then offered a job as a Tax Inspector (which I turned down).

While I can understand the logic of this argument for a neutral civil service it was clear to me that this was not my cup of tea. Moreover, I do wonder whether we really need a civil service.

This came back to me watching Robocop. For those of you not familiar with this science-fiction classic, a policeman, who suffers severe trauma is encased in a robotic suit – hence Robocop. But most importantly, to increase his effectiveness as a policeman, his conscience is ‘turned down’ by a combination of drugs and computer over-rides so that he cannot really be in control of his actions. Of course, it turns out that he is working for a corrupt system and he has become a tool of injustice. The story hinges on his ability to break free and assert his own will and conscience.

I know most civil servants are good people in a difficult situation. They are being asked to do bad things by a legitimate Government that has been elected by 24.4% of the electorate. They are well paid (civil servants have the highest median salary of any group – public or private) and they live in the wealthiest part of the country. They are surrounded by the powerful, the famous and the persuasive. It is hard to imagine circumstances more liable to put conscience to sleep.

Yet, stirring inside them, many must be this question: Did I really enter Whitehall to impoverish the poor and bully the weak?

And those of us outside Whitehall must be asking a further question: Do we really need civil servants if they can do things like this?

The model of the neutral civil servant, the tool of Government, seems so reasonable. But do we really want politicians to be given this kind of power over us? Could we take back this power and make decisions ourselves – in our lives and in our communities? How might we limit or discipline the spread of this kind of unaccountable power?

The ancient Athenians actually filled many public office by lot – subject to some vetting – like jury service: “It’s your turn to head up the collection of customs.” The main thing, as Aristotle observed, was to make sure that nobody had any personal interest in the decisions and so no temptation to cheat. And as they were only in post for a short while, and could be held accountable by the public – their fellow citizens – this system worked well for several hundred years. Perhaps we should try it too.

The Absurdity of Injustice

Everywhere the man who alters things begins by liking things. And the real explanation of this success of the optimistic reformer, of this failure of the pessimistic reformer, is, after all, an explanation of sufficient simplicity. It is because the optimist can look at wrong not only with indignation, but with a startled indignation. When the pessimist looks at any infamy, it is to him, after all, only a repetition of the infamy of existence. The Court of Chancery is indefensible – like mankind. The Inquisition is abominable – like the universe. But the optimist sees injustice as something discordant and unexpected, and it stings him into action. The pessimist can be enraged at wrong; but only the optimist can be surprised at it.

G K Chesterton from All Things Considered

I love this thought from the ever insightful Chesterton and it rings a real bell.

I often meet people who agree that the current system is unfair: it’s unfair that disabled people don’t have effective rights to self-directed support; it’s unfair that only the rich can influence their child’s education; it’s unfair that the poorest pay the highest taxes; it’s unfair that too many people are placed in institutional and damaging settings if they are too old, unwell, angry or confused.

We spend nearly half of our GDP on welfare – handing this money over to Whitehall – and in return we get a system which satisfies almost nobody and which is designed in flagrant contradiction to the Declaration of Human Rights. We expect it to deliver safety and support for those with the greatest need, but instead we see it harming those in greatest need.

Yet very few people seem to feel that anything can be done about this injustice – it feels inevitable – part of the inherent wrongness of reality – as Chesterton puts it “the infamy of existence”.

But what strikes me at least is how absurd the current system is. Its not just wrong, it’s crazy:

  • We tax most those who can afford it least, increasing inequality and inefficiency
  • We fund expensive professional support, but won’t ensure people can meet their basic needs 
  • We subsidise incarceration and institutionalisation, but undermine communities and families
  • We target cuts on those who can least bear them

We need to wake up to the absurdity of the current welfare system.

This does not mean we don’t need a welfare system (even a bad system is better than no system). But we should start to confidently define the features of decent and fair system. And, as Chesterton also observes, this will be one that values all those things that are good: citizenship, family, community, expertise and justice. The challenge is to build a system that respects and supports all those good things – rather than undermining them.

The Poor Cannot Afford the Generosity of the Powerful

Then did all the grants and the subsidies, the benefits and the bargain offers pass over these poverty-stricken peasants when Ingolfur Angerson’s ideals came to fruition? What is one to say? It so happens that it signifies little though a penniless crofter be offered a grant from the Treasury towards the cost of tractors and modern ploughs. Or a forty years’ loan to build a concrete house with double walls, water on tap, lino and electric light. Or a bonus on his deposits. Or a prize for cultivating a large expanse of land. Or a princely manure-cistern for the droppings from one or one and a half cows. The fact is that it is utterly pointless to make anyone a generous offer unless he is a rich man; rich men are the only people who can accept a generous offer. To be poor is simply the peculiar human condition of not being able to take advantage of a generous offer. The essence of being a poor peasant is the inability to avail oneself of the gifts which politicians offer or promise and to be left at the mercy of ideals which only make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

From Independent People by Halldor Laxness

In this excellent book by the Icelandic Noble Prize Winner we are told the story of one man, Bjartur, a sheep farmer and crofter, who fights for his independence. All through the book he refuses charity and he refuses to get enmeshed in debt. He is suspicious of his betters and all their grand ideas to improve his life.

But finally things go too well. The First World War drives up the price of mutton and the growing cooperative movement in Iceland sweeps away the merchants and seems to offer cheap loans and grants – all to bring benefits to the farmer. So Bjartur relents, he takes a loan, he builds a house and – when the economy changes – he loses everything.

Laxness reflects on this terrible paradox – only the rich can afford to take risk accepting all these kind offers – partly because only the rich are insured against the problems that arise when things fall apart.

Today we see the same phenomenon. We are now living an age of austerity where the recent economic bubble has burst. But the price of that bubble cannot be paid by the banks – for they are too important to fail. The price cannot paid by home owners or the middle-classes – despite the fact that over-inflation in house values was at the root of the economic crisis – for their votes are too important to politicians for them to be allowed to suffer.

So who must suffer? It turns out that the poor and people with disabilities – while not responsible for the crisis – must pay the price for it.

Athenian Citizenship

We regard wealth as being something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are generally occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all…. 

… each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility. 

Pericles, as quoted by Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian Wars

The Athenian notion of citizenship – obviously idealised by Pericles – is tremendously appealing. Notice that – unlike Rousseau – he does not treat financial inequality as a complete block to active citizenship. However he sees wealth as a public responsibility, not as a private luxury. Citizenship requires, not absolute equality, but freedom from dependence and the ability of citizens to see themselves with public, as well as private, responsibilities.

Not from Benevolence

[each individual] stands at all times in the need of the co-operation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons…

…It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their interest.

Adam Smith

We can all dream of a world in which everyone puts aside their own selfish interests and seeks the good of all. But this is not just unattractive it is undesirable. Our duty to look after our own interests is right and proper. It is the only way in which our own needs can be met in a way which is both coherent and respectful.

Other people can never look out for our own interests with the necessary eye for detail. It is hard enough doing it as a parent for a child we love, it is impossible to do it as a collective on behalf of everyone. Only we know ourselves from the inside out.

More remarkably still, as Smith observes, if kept within certain bounds, this kind of proper self love is of great benefit to everyone. Our own need for the things that only other people can provide creates a healthy interdependency. Nature makes sure that we need other people and that they need us.

The great danger however is that looking after our own interests can be turned into an idol or a god. Love for the self will not solve every problem. It will not protect the world itself nor will it protect the interests of those who are endangered by others.

We also need to love other people and we need the discipline to ensure that we can find the right balance between these two loves. It is for this reason that society develops rules and institutions that help us keep these loves in balance. The search for social justice is the search to find the right balance between love for self and love for others and the world we share.

However even social justice can be corrupted. When we begin to see some people as just too different we can be tempted to separate them from the interconnecting web of human need. Then we are in danger of making the most fatal mistakes. The eugenicist, the racist and the meritocrat all share the same mission to redefine humanity so that they only have to focus their love for others on some smaller group – some group within which they find it easier to see a mirror image of themselves.

True social justice will always be inclusive, will always seek to define itself primarily by its concern for those who are most likely to slip out of consideration all together.

Sufficiency is Wealth

Nevertheless the soul can be just as thoroughly ruined by excessive poverty as by excessive wealth; both wound with equal severity, for wealth and beggary are two extremes. The mean is called sufficiency, and that is where abundant virtues lie, for Solomon has written, without reservation, in the thirtieth chapter, in fact, of a book of his entitled Proverbs: “By your power, O God, preserve me from wealth and beggary, for when a rich man takes to thinking too much about his wealth, he so sets his heart upon madness that he forgets his creator. And how can I save a man from sin when he is assailed by beggary? It would be hard for him not to be a thief or a perjurer…

I neither say nor maintain that kings should be called rich any more than the common folk who go through the streets on foot, for sufficiency equals wealth, and covetousness equals poverty.

(Guillaume de Lorris) & Jean de Muin: The Romance of the Rose

The idea that sufficiency is equal to wealth may seem paradoxical. Its truth depends on understanding the way in which inequality poisons life between fellow human beings – the excessively poor are tempted into one set of vices and the excessively rich are tempted into a different set of vices. However, in order to accept this analysis you may need to be able to see that we should judge social life by moral standards: economic growth and achievement, on its own, has no real meaning. It is what we do with our wealth that matters.

Another way of thinking about this is to recognise that one of the keys to citizenship is sufficient income security. If someone is too poor then they become unduly dependent upon others – this damages their status. However if someone is too rich they do not need others and this also damages their status (an oligarch is not a citizen). Having ‘just enough’ is also important in that it leaves us with room for growth, earning, development – that is, incentives for deeper citizenship.

Turning Wealth into a Desert

Generosity can make a little enough; but envy always turns wealth into a desert.

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