Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Let's Have Social Beneficence With A Big “S” & State With A Small ‘s’

Oh ah, a day after my blog post on the recent issues surrounding charity, the church and the State, we have The Guardian’s Zoe Williams perpetuating the leftist complaints that food banks are supplied by the Trussell Trust charity and not by a State agency.

Consequently, I feel compelled to add a tiny bit more to this debate, because we have lots of hard-right-leaning folk lamenting food banks as emblematic of a culture of welfare-dependent decadence, and lots of hard-left-leaning folk calling their very existence a national disgrace and emblematic of a failing State. Underpinning this is the hard-right view that welfare-dependent people are mostly useless wasters, and the hard-left view that the State should automatically be the custodians of everyone's skills, wages, vocations and social well-being. To me, both sides clearly are wide of the mark.

The State has a responsibility to its citizens, and should apply it better to our welfare needs, particularly those not in work. For me, finding the right balance is about seeing that both the State and we as individuals have a role. It's easy to delegate responsibility to the State to such an extent that we absolve ourselves of our responsibility to each other. In fact, I'd argue that we have been so accustomed to the State's role in our lives that we've forgotten just how much of our past, present and future relies on our own social beneficence (let's call it social beneficence for simplicity's sake). By 'social beneficence' I mean our necessity to help one another, show love, grace and kindness, and to generally demonstrate mindfulness for each other's well-being. We already do this all the time, of course - for friends, family, neighbours, work colleagues and people in our social groups - but the Christian message is that everyone is to be included in that mandate. 

As studies in evolutionary biology in the past few decades have shown, this mindfulness of our fellow humans in implicit in our mental hardware - and was an instinctive part of our evolution long before we developed sovereign States and trading. That is to say, we couldn't have arrived at those progressions without an up and running mindfulness of our fellow humans and developing empathy towards their needs. So while the Smithian notion of a free market of self-serving interested parties demonstrably engenders major social and cultural progress, the financial economy is obviously not the be all and end all of our social well-being - our social beneficence underpins a great deal of it.

It's strange to hear so many people automatically deferring problems to either the State or the market, without recourse to the most powerful of all human qualities - the freedom and ability to be socially beneficent to one another. The work of the Trussell Trust Christian charity represents the best of social beneficence, and serves to remind us of how much better society would be with even more beneficence on top of that. Yes of course the State needs to sort out its own bureaucratic house and ensure that people's welfare entitlements are paid, but I fancy that many modern humans of today may have become so accustomed to the State sovereignty and its involvement in our affairs that they've been habitually primed to give too little regard to our own individual responsibilities to each other. If you recall, the Christ-influenced acts of grace, love and kindness that spread through the societies in the New Testament portion of history were not bootstrapped by a benevolent, democratically elected sovereign State - they occurred in a society oppressed under a Roman dictatorship, with no welfare state or global free market. The solution, I think, is to have Social Beneficence with a big “S”, to enable us to have State with a small ‘s’.