22 NOVEMBER 1969, Page 9


Private charity or public squalor


Most members of the Labour party have now accepted the economic need for in-

equality. Few would deny that if top

management, for example, is to give of its best. very high salaries have to be allowed.

So far, however, the justification for this

concession is exclusively 'economic. Incen- tives are seen as necessary stimulants of

economic growth, at any rate in a mixed economy. Rich men, in short, are tolerated as a necessary evil.

The question which I would like to raise in this article is whether British socialism, having made this concession, should not go further. Having come to terms with the economic inevitability of rich men, should

not they begin to consider their possible social value as well? After all, if Britain for the foreseeable future is to put up with a lot of rich men and women, would it not be a good idea to see whether they could serve some useful social purpose over and above their economic function?

The first point to notice is that certain profound social consequences flow from the

oncession to economic inequality which

ritish socialists have already made. The xistence in society of a tap layer of rich ople means that there will be an example f luxurious living for the lower layers to ash to emulate or aspire to. The spectacle if a minority living richly will excite the ajority to wish to copy their life-styles as ar as possible. So much is obvious.

But it is also highly relevant to the future f socialism. It means a consumer-orientated iety, one in which the majority are in- vitably stimulated into wanting money in eir pockets- so as to be able to buy the uxuries which the example of the few tikes them wish to possess. This, in turn, as a very direct bearing on the level of

axation which is politically acceptable. By

m% it is surely clear that no socialist overnment is ever going to be allowed to esy' a scale Of taxation sufficient to finance truly civilised standard of state-operated ocial services.

Kenneth Galbraith has already coined a hrase to describe the present condition:

rivate affluence and public-squalor. But it

easier to diagnose than to cure. My point that so long as a minority are allowed to rich as individuals—this being the only ay of getting them to make a mixed econo- v work—the majority will also be tempted

want those individual satisfactions as well,

nd will never take kindly to the idea of ng taxed so as to enable the state to aPly a socialised version of the good life.

Yet manifestly the socialised version of the d life cannot simply be abandoned. There an immense range of highly important al service which has to be largely com- unally organised. Take, for example,

ntal health. It is well known that there is

crying, desperate need for more money in is sector, as in so many others. But it is

'Ally well known that it is politically un- listic to suppose that the state will ever able to do all that is desirable.

So what. is the answer? The answer, in view, is absolutely obvious—a major rudescence of the spirit of: voluntary al service and private charity. Super- ally, of course, everybody would agree. t a society overflowing with the spirit

of voluntary social service and private charity has to be created and maintained: has to be organised with the express purpose of promoting these qualities.

This, it seems to me, is where contem- porary socialist thinking is so limited and irrelevant. It has accepted the economic facts of life in a mixed economy—i.e., that there should be striking differentials in earning— but failed to realise that this is not enough.

For if the rich are to be more than economic leaders and consumer pace-setters it is necessary to encourage them to be socially responsible as well, and this means a major additional modification of the egalitarian ideal. Not only must the rich be allowed incentives to work well, to be first class businessmen or administrators: they must also be given social incentives to be first class citizens as part of the bargain. This means coming to terms not only with the problem of allowing economic privilege— this, as I say, has already been done--but with social privilege, too.

The truth has to be accepted, painful as it is to progressive thinking to do so, that the affluent are not going to be socially responsible if they are made to feel necessary evils, tolerated only because of their wealth- producing skills, or if they are kept in a condition of waiting for the next blow to fall. In other words, it is necessary to create or re-create a society where the wealthy feel secure: where they can use their money to buy themselves a privileged position which engenders a special sense of obligation to serve the community from which they have drawn such conspicuous benefits.

Nor is this a question of tolerating only those who are themselves successful and not allowing them to pass on the fruits of their success to their children. For a tradition of voluntary social service to resume its sway, it has to be passed down from father to son, the inherited responsibility being an essential part of the inherited privilege. Inherited wealth at the moment is a dirty concept.

Socialists are reluctantly prepared to allow a man to make a fortune, but draw the line at the idea of his son being allowed to inherit it. From a strictly economic point of view this makes much sense. First generation wealth pfoducers obviously serve the Exchequer better than do their offspring. A self-made tycoon, in this sense, is unquestion-

ably more useful than his children. But the children who have never had to struggle may, for that very reason, be precisely the sort of people most likely to give their life to social service, if this is what society encourages them to do: if this is what they are specifically brought up to do.

Surely the time has come when the ideal of a socially mobile society, in which every- one is permanently on the move either upwards or downwards, needs careful re-examination. In such a condition of enforced flux who can be expected to have the time and inclination to undertake the social tasks which the state finds itself increasingly unable to fulfil? The classical socialist answer is manifestly no longer rele- vant. It is not proving possible for a benevo- lent bureaucracy. operating on taxpayers' money, to meet anything like all the public's needs. For this ideal to materialise it would be necessary to envisage a socialist utopia which the Labour party has long since aban-

doned. By allowing striking economic dif- ferentials—and in a mixed economy it has no alternative but to make this concession— the Government has accepted the inevi- tability of an acquisitive society, which

means, by definition, a society resolutely opposed to high taxation. In these circum- stances the most pressing social task is to cease concentrating on ways and means of frustrating those who have made a success of acquisition, and to turn to putting their suc- cess to civilised purposes.

Let me recapitulate my point as succinctly as possible. It is now clear that a coach and horses has been driven through the egali- tarian ideal in so far as organising the economy is concerned. Salaries are being paid to the higher levels of business, com- merce and administration which guarantee an inegalitarian society. A small minority of the extreme left of the political spectrum object to these concessions, but they are unlikely to be reversed. The logic of econo- mic necessity has overcome the demands of ideological purity. A substantial rich minority, in other words, is here to stay.

Yet so far sadly little thought has been given to the social consequences of this con- dition, with the result that we are .fast de- veloping some of the ugly hallmarks of a plutocracy. What I am seeking to suggest is

that-since the middle class is here to stay its

permanence should be turned from a neces- sary economic evil into a potential social

blessing, and that its function should be recognised as far transcending the material one of serving the cause of national growth.

Of course this means very profound changes in contemporary attitudes: It means taxation changes which would encourage the middle class to be able to see themselves once again as a continuing body passing down a tradition of public service from generation to generation; changes in educa- tional policy which would encourage them to invest in a form of schooling suitable to families with this special responsibility: changes, in short, in the whole complex of present policies that commit this country to the egalitarian ideal.

This may be an impossible demand to make of the Labour party. If it is, then this is a good reason for believing that the truly essential task of promoting a civilised society in this country is more likely to be accom- plished by the Tories than by Labour. For surely the challenge is now inescapably clear. State-financed social services are never likely to meet the growing demands upon them. Increasingly, therefore, the need will be for voluntary social service on a major, expanding scale. But can anyone really believe that this need will be satisfied unless the middle class is accorded a 'degree of security and self-confidence which in recent years political rhetoric and policies have been designed to undermine?

The economic role of the middle class is now an established fact of political life. The next step to take is recognition that it has an equally important social role which an out-of-date commitment to egalitarianism must not be allowed to frustrate.