How many children are living in poverty? According to one common measurement, almost 28 percent or 319,000 children. But on another measurement, it’s more like 11 percent, or 130,000 children. That’s a big difference, and it exists because the two measurements are looking at fundamentally different things. The first is measuring “income poverty,” specifically how many kids are living in houses with income below 60 percent of the median income. The second is looking at “material hardship,” meaning the number of kids living in houses that are going without certain basic goods, like trips to the dentist or suitable shoes and clothes.
So which poverty measure should you use? It depends on what you think matters most. Material hardship measures ask whether you have enough of life’s essentials. Income poverty measures ask how you’re doing relative to everyone else. The first focuses attention on need; the second, on inequality. The official slate of poverty measures covers both, and that’s a good starting point for asking whether inequality matters, and if so why and how much?
Roger Scruton’s chapter, “The truth in socialism,” sheds some important light on these questions about poverty measures, and a multitude of other issues. Readers may remember that we’re touring through Scruton’s 2014 book, How to be a Conservative, to discover what conservatism means, whether it’s relevant and if so whether it can be reclaimed. Scruton writes not only about conservative thought, but about other ideologies and what he sees as their truth and their mis-steps.
Scruton believes that the truth in socialism is that we are inescapably connected to each other, in ways that create mutual obligations. In his words:
The way in which our activities are woven together, binding the destiny of each of us to strangers whom we shall never know, is so complex that we could never unravel it. The fiction of a social contract fails to do justice to all the relations – promising, loving, coercing, pitying, helping, cooperating, forbidding, employing, dealing – that bind the members of society into an organic whole. … That, in my view, is the truth in socialism, the truth of our mutual dependence, and of the need to do what we can to spread the benefits of social membership to those whose own efforts do not suffice to obtain them.
But if “the benefits of social membership” should be spread, who should spread them?
Socialist believe that it’s the state’s role to spread social benefits, and we see some evidence of this in the New Zealand Labour Party’s commitment to “democratic socialist principles”. (Disclosure: I’m a National Party member.) Labour’s constitution states that, “people are always more important than property and the state must ensure a just distribution of wealth.” As Labour intends to “ensure the just distribution of the production and services of the nation for the benefit of all the people,” it’s clear that it thinks the state should have a lot of power. And as it uses this power to mould the distribution of wealth and opportunity the state also, inevitably, creates various dependencies which reinforce its power giving it, according to Scruton, “a way of summoning its captive voters.” For example, members of the 350,000 families who receive Working for Families payments have a strong disincentive to vote for any party that proposes to reform the scheme, regardless of reasons given. Even leaving aside that concern, there’s another question: how should social benefits be distributed?
Socialism’s usual answer is that benefits like wealth and opportunity should be spread equally so that we have social justice, says Scruton. Justice concerns rights and duties, things that we are entitled to and can claim. It’s not obvious that equal wealth or an equal distribution is one of these things, given that ordinary human interactions and choices inevitably produce inequality. Add in questions of responsibility and merit, and it becomes even less obvious. For example, I may have less money than one of my peers from law school simply because we’ve made different choices and pursued different goods in life.
Scruton argues this is due to the “zero sum fallacy” that he says underlies socialist thinking. The zero sum fallacy “sees life in society as one in which every success is someone else’s failure,” and “holds that the winners’ winning causes the losers’ loss.” For example, this would mean that the rich became rich by extracting wealth from the poor or, in my example above, that my classmate’s acquisition of greater wealth caused me to have less. Scruton attributes this zero-sum thinking to Marxism and, perhaps cynically, to envy, but whatever the cause the result is the same—inequalities are taken as prima facie evidence of injustice.
Of course, some inequalities are actually unjust, and there are other reasons to be concerned about inequality. Scruton points out that “inequality breeds resentment, and resentment must be overcome if there is to be social harmony.” This is one reason that he says those who have wealth have duties of charity to help those who are less fortunate than them, and we should all be concerned about maintaining the social cohesion that makes society functional. There are also fundamental equalities that make democracy and society possible, like equal rights to vote and to own property, that reflect the equal value of every person. So there are good reasons to uphold some types of equality, but they’re not found in the emphasis on social justice. In fact, the socialist emphasis on equality may be counter-productive, because if there is no evidence that the gains of the rich have caused the losses of the poor, “we cannot be sure that a policy designed to equalize rich and poor would, in the long run, benefit anyone.”
Scruton concludes by arguing that the “benign socialist state” suffers from “the temptation to remake society, by imposing equality from above.” But because we will never obtain perfect equality, the state’s “good intentions can never be questioned since nobody knows what it would be like to achieve them.” Applying his logic to our opening example of child poverty, we should pay more attention to hardship measures than income-based measures. We should also be more discerning about the inequalities we treat as problematic: not every discrepancy in wealth or position, but those that prevent us from binding together and that undermine our mutual dependence and interconnection. Those bonds are, ultimately, what makes us a society, and not just a collection of individuals. That’s why we should acknowledge the truth that Scruton identifies in socialism, “that we enjoy the fruits of society only if we are also ready to share them.”