Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: October 2011

How to Make a Life

You are a citizen when you are defined by your contribution, by what you create in the company of others, not by what you consume…

We need to find ways for all of us to act together as citizens on the truth in Winston Churchill’s statement: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

Mike Green from Citizenship and Person-Centred Work

Modern economic and social theory has failed to capture this important dimension of citizenship. Philosophical theories like utilitarianism and liberalism and the accounts of rationality used by modern economics are badly distorted by their inability to understand the need to give, the need to contribute and the reality of obligations.

The Medicine We Bring

I believe what Native Americans believe: that every person born to this earth is born with gifts. It’s totally impossible to be born without them. No one’s birth was a mistake. We all come here with something to give. And it is in the giving that these gifts become medicine, for the world, for the tribe, for the family the school, the agency. The health and the wholeness and the vitality of any community requires 100% participation of every member of that community. 

Denise Bissonnette from Citizenship and Person-Centred Work

This is a hard truth. It demands that we ask ourselves what has been lost and what will be lost every time a child with a disability is terminated before its birth, or killed just after its birth. What is lost every time an older person or a person with disabilities is ‘hurried towards death’ or is just left, segregated, within a care home.

It seems that society doesn’t always want to take its medicine.

We are choosing to be the kind of society that only values the shallow and the temporary. We want to be happy, at any price; but we don’t want to have to show love, pay attention or take care. Perhaps we think we already have all that it takes to be human within ourselves – we just don’t need other people. Or perhaps we only value the famous, the rich and the powerful.

But, if this is so, we are on a long journey to deep disappointment.

True value cannot be found within inevitably scare and fleeting moments of celebrity or in the enjoyment of rare pleasures. True value lies all around us – in every moment, in every person – but it can only be found in love – not self-indulgence.

Citizenship and Higher Purpose

Citizenship is related three ideals of democracy that are at the core of person-centred work. First, all people are created equal, which means that everyone is equally entitled to reach for their higher purpose. Second, in order to reach for higher purpose there must be equal opportunities to do so. Third, our work as citizens is not simply to receive but to give back; not to reach for our own higher purpose, but to do so in a way that contributes to the greater good. Pursuing these ideals strengthens society and enriches culture for us all.

Beth Mount from Citizenship and Person-Centred Work

Beth Mount is the real inventor of person-centred planning, although her work has largely gone unrecognised in the UK – perhaps because in her hands it is too subtle for the kind of industrialised approach that was encouraged by the Valuing People White Paper.

What is important about what Beth is saying here is that notions such as person-centredness must also be tied to a broader concern with citizenship. This means making two changes to how we currently think about both ideas.

First, we must recognise that the notion of person-centredness only really makes sense – and it does make sense – if we begin to see human life as having real purpose where each individual has their own purpose, their own distinctive role to play. Human beings are not just animals, merely meeting their needs; human beings are individuals, each with their own distinct contribution to make.

Second, we must stop treating citizenship as if it is primarily a political concept – that we are citizens because we are a certain kind of member of a certain kind of society. Citizenship is something we create, we create though our own individual contribution. This means it has an important and foundational moral character – it offers a pattern for how we should be with each other. This means that all of us can be citizens, can strive for citizenship, even when we live in a deeply paternalistic, meritocratic or oppressive society.

Reflections on William Beveridge

In proceeding from this first comprehensive survey of social insurance to the next task—of making recommendations—three guiding principles may be laid down at the outset.

1. The first principle is that any proposals for the future, while they should use to the full the experience gathered in the past, should not be restricted by consideration of sectional interests established in the obtaining of that experience. Now, when the war is abolishing landmarks of every kind, is the opportunity for using experience in a clear field. A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.

2. The second principle is that organisation of social insurance should be treated as one part only of a comprehensive policy of social progress. Social insurance fully developed may provide income security; it is an attack upon Want. But Want is one only of five giants on the road of reconstruction and in some ways the easiest to attack. The others are Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

3. The third principle is that social security must be achieved by co-operation between the State and the individual. The State should offer security for service and contribution. The State in organising security should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family.

William Beveridge from Social Insurance and Allied Services

At the foundation of the welfare state it was clear that Beveridge was under the same pressure to ‘patch’ that we have faced ever since he designed it. Revolutions are difficult precisely for the reason he identified – they challenge sectional interests. Today the welfare state itself has become one of those sectional interests.

He also noted that social insurance is only part of what is required, and this is surely correct. However it is noticeable that in the delivery and funding of the welfare state social insurance is one of the weakest elements of the current system. Once we take out the taxes that the poor pay we find that only £25 billion is actually being spent on lifting people in the lowest 40% of earners out of poverty (that’s 2.5% of GDP). The vast majority goes on fighting the other ‘giants’. May be we’ve got the balance wrong?

The final principle seems more honoured in the breach than in observance. We have neither a clear minimum nor an encouragement for voluntary action – quite the reverse – obscure entitlements and perverse incentives.

For more thoughts on this see my essay for The Centre for Welfare Reform – Who really benefits from welfare?

Adam Smith on Celebrity

This disposition to admire, and to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean conditions… is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.

Adam Smith from Theory of Moral Sentiments

Adam Smith gets it right again. The love of celebrity and wealth does not just cause social injustice it distorts the basic fabric of our everyday moral instincts which becomes tattered and confused. We forget where our sympathies should be directed, we admire those we know are not admirable and we drop our standards to the level of those we admire.

On the Mystery of the Incarnation

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

A Poem by Denise Levertov shared by John O’Brien

After two weeks writing about the Holocaust I was grateful to get John O’Brien’s reminder about this poem. The horror of what we have done to each other, and the sure knowledge that nothing has changed and we are still quite capable of every act of evil and more, is hard to accept.

We are not worthy, that is sure, and yet we live in hope that the incarnation was a sign that, despite this, we can still be redeemed.

Spartan Tax Rates

…the Helots were tied to the lands as serfs of the Spartan community, paying for their right to live by a contribution of half the product of their labours on the soil. 

E B Castle from Ancient Education and Today

Hence we might observe that the Spartan tax rate, placed upon their slaves was at 50%, just a little more than the size of the UK’s tax rate (once we aggregate the many different taxes we pay).

However it may be too strong to conclude that we are slaves like the Helots. After all the political elite have to pay the same tax rates as we do, whereas the Spartan elite were supposed to own no private property. Moreover we have effectively agreed to pay our 50% tax through the electoral and democratic process.

But do we really feel that these resources which we hand over to the state and to politicians to spend on our behalf are well spent? Do not growing rates of inequality suggest that we have failed to grasp the real causes of injustice?

The Tyranny of the Medianocracy

Aristotle feared that democracy might become the rule of the mob, the demos. He saw their short-sighted, wilfulness as a threat to good order. Of course Aristotle did not know how big and powerful a state could become, nor how sophisticated the democratic process could be at refining the will of the people.

Today, at least when it comes to matters of money, the real threat to good order does not come from the rich or the poor but from the median voter. The rich, as always, can always buy themselves some power but it is the median voter – the swing voter – who holds the key to power. Typically the median voter is also the media income earner and so politicians have learnt how to bend the welfare and tax systems to ingratiate themselves with this group.

In the central distributionary matters of tax and benefit policy there are two competing tactics at play. The Right tries to find ways of making the median voter believe that they are one of the rich, but are being exploited by the poor; the Left tries to make them feel that they are one of the poor, and are being exploited by the rich. The reality is that it is the median man who is exploiting both rich and poor.

What justifies extra high tax rates for the rich? The rich must pay more in tax, of course they must, but it is more difficult to explain why they should pay at a higher rate of tax. What justifies the even higher marginal tax rates (or benefit reduction rates) faced by the poor? If high taxes create disincentives then the poor should face the lowest tax rates – not the highest.

Rationality supports neither policy. In fact both poor and rich groups are more likely to be subject to disincentive effects than are middle-earners; for they are not in the kind of steady and secure work that the typical middle-earner enjoys. It is not rationality or economics that explains the current system – but political pandering to the key voter group.

We currently live in a medianocracy and this distorts our tax, benefit and welfare systems. Constitutional government has always been justified on the basis that the rule of law must also be used to discipline the will of the people. It seems to me that we must begin to learn now what rules should discipline the welfare system. A fair welfare system would pay much more attention to ensuring that those who worst off were given the fundamental guarantees and securities that protected their active citizenship.

Mohawk Prayer of Thanksgiving

John O’Brien shared the following Mohawk prayer of thanksgiving.


We offer our greetings to all the people.

We offer our greetings to the Earth, our Mother.

We offer our greetings to the waters of all the rivers and lakes and streams.

We offer our greetings to all the fish life.

We offer our greetings to all the root life.

We offer our greetings to all the plant life (the green things).

We offer our greetings to all the different natural medicines.

We offer our greetings to all the insect life.

We offer our greetings the foods we eat.

We offer our greetings to all the fruits and berries.

We offer our greetings to all the wild animals.

We offer our greetings to all the bird life.

We offer our greetings to all the trees and young saplings.

We offer our greetings to the four winds.

We offer our greetings to our Grandfathers, the Thunderers.

We offer our greetings to our Grandmother, the Moon.

We offer our greetings to our Elder Brother, the Sun.

We offer our greetings to all the stars in the sky.

We offer our greetings to the Creator.

Now we have done the best we are able, if there was anything we forgot, we ask you to put your minds together to provide it and we wish you good health.

Now our minds are one.

The Citizen & The Stranger

The just society treats the stranger as a citizen – but never forgets what citizenship means.

The Limits of Centralisation

Centralisation imparts without difficulty an admirable regularity to the routine of business… in short it excels in prevention, but not in action. Its forces desert it when society is to be profoundly moved, or accelerated in its course; and if once the cooperation of private citizens is necessary to the furtherance of its measures, the secret of its impotence is disclosed…

These are not conditions upon which the alliance of the human will is to be obtained; it must be free in its gait and responsible for its acts, or (such is the constitution of man) the citizen had rather remain a passive spectator than a dependent actor in schemes with which he is unacquainted.

Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America

I love ‘free in its gait and responsible for its acts’. Politicians tell us they want our participation, our citizenship and our contribution. But one feels that they only want us to get involved on their terms – not when we’re ready – but when they’re ready.

Citizenship must be rooted in local experiences of active engagement. We cannot be expected to spring into action only when our masters decide they are ready for us.

The fact that the UK is the most centralised welfare state in the world should give us all cause for concern.

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