It was Samuel Johnson who said; “poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.” Johnson, as he frequently does, gets to the heart of the matter. Virtue and freedom are necessary partners; one cannot exist without the other.
Any just society wants to help the poor. The contemporary orthodoxy, however, is not to be judgemental, we must forget the old idea of the deserving and undeserving poor and by means of government welfare give as much financial assistance as the taxpayer is willing to yield.
The poor suffer in ways that the wealthy do not; we all know that. What can we do to alleviate their suffering? Indeed in New Zealand we have been periodically asking that question since the days of Michael Savage. Tax funded welfare has now become a necessary way of life. But welfare has taken on the appearance of a problem rather than a solution. One in four New Zealanders receive government assistance of some kind.
Many claim that the answer is even more wealth redistribution; we are simply not generous enough. Those same people would say that the welfare state is a self evident good and those who condemn it are simply self-interested, even selfish. They lack both compassion and morality.
The opponents of the market claim that the growing gap between the rich and poor is the necessary consequence of the economic reforms in the 1980s. More and more people, the claim continues, are getting progressively poorer while a few are getting richer. The reason for this is obvious; the market is essentially unjust because it favours the greedy.
On the one hand we have the claim that poverty is the result of low wages and insufficient welfare, both of which are outside the individual’s or families’ control. On the other hand we have the claim that poverty is the result of the way the poor act; it is their behaviour that causes poverty. Both claims are half right and half wrong.
The degree of suffering that the poor endure is determined by their own morality and by the protections offered to them by the society around them. Right now the poor are suffering more than they need because of the cult of victimisation and demoralisation that has been going on in New Zealand for several decades. Charity has been replaced by entitlement.
We once had what we would probably now call the old morality. It was pervasive, compelling, preventative and about moral courage, self-control, duty, rules, guilt and forgiveness, financial savvy, family responsibility and marriage.
We now have a new morality, which is a relativised mix of rights, self-fulfilment, therapy and the denial of personal responsibility and guilt.
The old morality protected us from suffering the full impact of being poor and alone in the world. Shame, guilt, stigma and a concern for our neighbour helped keep the poor safer and responsible. On the one hand one really did feel responsible for his or her neighbour and on the other hand pride in one’s dignity gave the poor energy to rise above impoverishment.
But the new morality casts the poor back onto a demoralised emptiness. What we used to call either the undeserving or deserving poor are now an identifiable victim group. At least that is the way they are encouraged to see themselves.
It is this evacuation of a received morality that lies at the heart of the entrenchment of poverty in New Zealand. The will to make things better for oneself has been seriously weakened. The great Irish parliamentarian Edmund Burke understood this very well. “Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more than there must be without.”
We have not had a full frontal assault of virtue in New Zealand ; it’s been more like a slow striptease. And, as we might expect, the poor have been left, largely naked, in the cold. Stripped of hope in the context of increasing domestic violence they have great difficulty protecting themselves from the ever-increasing ennui of dependency. The heart wrenching stories brought to us daily are about demoralised people, largely sole mothers and children without fathers trying to learn the self-respect which was once engendered by the old morality. The malign individualism of the new morality offers no protection at all. That is why we now spend so much of our time waffling about community.
The poor suffer more because an eroded moral climate has weakened the traditional protections. Marriage, which is the most critical of these protections, has been undermined by the doctrine of sexual recreation, no fault divorce and the legislative revaluation of all sexual relationships to the status of marriage. The loss of the ethic of sexual self-discipline makes it even harder for the poor to rise above their lot because family life has become so weakened.
Marriage is the foundation of family life and it is the intergenerational family, more than anything else, that creates and maintains wealth and protects the poor. We should be learning this from the compelling family cohesion and increasing wealth of Asian migrants if we are determined not to listen to our past.
We live in the worst of both worlds burdened with an expensive and intrusive government welfare trying to make do within a disorderly and decaying public ethic. Because we have broken the essential moral bond between the donor and recipient and turned charity into a latter-day taboo; welfare dependency and entitlement has become normative. The best we can do is to have expensive government-sponsored programmes to stop us smoking, eating too much of the wrong kind of food, or encourage teenagers to use condoms.
We should have learned by now that the government cannot solve problems which are essentially moral by technical means. The most subtle threat created by moral decay is that it inhibits successful people from giving moral and material leadership to the poor. The answer is simple. We return to the hard virtues of honesty, fortitude, faithfulness, thrift and all the others. We teach them in the schools and stop waffling about democratic values, diversity, inclusion and tolerance.