Monday, November 2, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

I have just been considering George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, with its message that private charity is a poor thing compared with the reorganisation of society along Fabian Socialist lines. Shaw says let people have steady jobs, good incomes, guaranteed pensions and welfare benefits, and then there won’t be any need for this silly private charity business. Roll on the Welfare State.
Now I’m half in agreement with this view - or at least I would have been half in agreement with it had I heard it proposed one hundred years ago, when state welfare was still a radical idea. I approve of a mixed economy. I think it is a good thing for governments to intervene in the workings of capitalism and regulate markets. I think it is a good thing that there is a graduated income tax, and that health, welfare and education are financed out of the tax-take. In other words, I approve of the welfare state which we once had in New Zealand, but which has been threatened in the last four decades by neo-liberalism and the religion of the market. The privatisation of many government agencies, and the removal of many regulations, has clearly resulted in a more unequal society than we used to have, with a growing gap between rich and poor.
And it is in this very environment that charities are once again necessary to plug many gaps. Emergency housing for the homeless? City missions giving out meals to the hungry? Shelter from domestic violence? Perhaps you will say that these things would not be necessary if the economy were better managed. But they are necessary here and now, to deal with those specific living people who are suffering – and of course, even now, many such charities are run by those very church groups who are ridiculed for their outlook on many matters.
I’ve heard the argument (Shaw often voiced it) that such charitable ventures are merely a prop for an unjust social system. Charities, goes this argument, cushion the harshness of an unjust society and therefore make it easier for the unjust society to continue by mitigating some of its worst aspects. But what are we meant to do with the specific men, women and children who suffer from a general injustice? Wait for a big revolution to come along and cure everything? [And, by the way, what revolution has ever succeeded in doing that?] Or go through a long, long process of general reform? While we wait, people suffer.
I have already voiced my opinion that many of those who belittle private charities are giving themselves a free pass not to do anything. After all, if we’re waiting for the revolution, or relying on the long, slow, general reform of society, then we ourselves don’t have to get our hands dirty helping people, do we? Leave that to those silly people who run charities….
Also, even if we have a well-conducted welfare state, there is no guarantee against such things as major economic depressions, which generate the sort of poverty and want to which even the best public welfare system will have difficulty responding.
Even this, however, does not end my defence of private charities, always asserting that I believe a well-organised welfare state to be necessary for a just society, and that I am in no way advocating private charities as a substitute for such a society.
When I was a very young lad, I was one of those who (under the supervision of a church group) went from door to door collecting for CORSO. This is now a defunct acronym for a defunct organization. I believe it stood for Committee on Relief Services Overseas, an initiative to provide overseas aid. Anyway, as I collected from door to door, I got to hear some interesting responses. There were generous people who supported the cause and dropped money into the tin. There were people who closed the door in my face. I remember one sourpuss saying “If they didn’t breed, we wouldn’t have to help them.” More than once, the refusal to contribute to overseas relief was justified with the “Charity begins at home” argument, meaning that all collections should benefit New Zealanders only. [We had been told never to argue with people, and besides, I was too young to yet know the obvious retort that if charity begins at home, it’s not meant to end there.]
But among those who did not wish to contribute, the most common comment was “the guv’ment orda”. “The guv’ment orda be dealing with that.” “The guv’ment orda do overseas relief.” “The guv’ment orda look after New Zealanders first.”
I know very conservative writers used to argue that pensions and social welfare would sap people of initiative and make them dependent. I’m not endorsing that argument. But I do raise the possibility that many people sink into the passive state of assuming that ALL social ills can be cured by government action, so that the government becomes a kind of mystical cure-all.
“The guv’ment orda” indeed, but the guv’ment will have to be supplemented by some private charity unless the guv’ment presumes to do too much. And guv’ments that do too much are not democratic ones.

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