In a recent BBC Point of View the philosopher and writer Sir Roger Scruton asked “What does the Tory Party really stand for?”. Scruton argued the most fundamental belief underpinning Conservative policies historically is the idea of responsibility towards others. (Click here for the transcript.)
One would only be tempted to disagree with what Scruton says after careful thought. Indeed, I tend to agree with almost all his argument. That I think one of his points deserves further analysis, and hence focus on that, does not mean I disagree with him in general.
However, I am concerned a misapprehension may arise from what he has not written. For example, I would take issue with a shallow interpretation of ‘If the responsibility to help those less well off than ourselves falls on us as individuals, then it can only be diminished by the habit of passing that duty to the state.’ This is nonsense!
The role of a legitimate liberal government is to do for a group of people that which they cannot do for themselves. (Indeed, this is affirmed by no less a market theorist than Milton Friedman). As individuals, we might be able to address some of the symptoms of social problems, however coordinated action is required to address systemic failure. To argue we should never look to the state to take action on our behalf is pretty much to ensure that such coordinated action never takes place.
Suppose, just for the sake of argument, there is a competitive industry in which employers might (or might not) exploit their workforce. If one employer seeks to reduce costs through exploitation, all the others have to resort to exploitation as well in order not to lose market share and ultimately go out of business. Without appropriate legislation and enforcement the market will tend to the lowest common denominator, irrespective of individuals’ good intentions. Indeed, it is not even the fact that someone is exploiting their workforce which drives this race to the bottom, it is the risk that someone might. Market competition is no respecter of ethics.
The UK government has, as Scruton notes, sometimes passed socially progressive legislation, as economic theory suggests it will when the political costs of inaction outweigh the political costs of action. Yet the state is not usually proactive. Laws against child labour, for example, follow from the observation of child labour, not from the observation that some employers refrain from exploiting children. History tells us, when a social reform movement begins, the goal is often to force the state to act. Individual progressives may seek to motivate the state, not to render its action unnecessary. We might refer also to Carnegie’s ‘The Gospel of Wealth’ in this regard.
As government is inherently reactive in promoting social progress, it follows we cannot leave it to the state. In any event, I doubt very much that the government on its own is sufficiently far-sighted to bring about social justice without the need for personal involvement – hence there is much need for personal responsibility. Notwithstanding, I do not see personal responsibility is all we need.
There is plenty of room for Scruton’s well-meaning individuals to act to reduce social injustice if they wish; addressing, for example, homelessness, poverty, &c.: and well done to the people who are doing what they can. If all of Scruton’s morally motivated private individuals brought about social justice (however that is defined), I do not doubt government would be more than happy to step aside. However that time is not now!
Perhaps one day we can build a society where the state, need not provide social security. We do not currently live in such a society, nor does (or has) any other nation in the world or in the history of the world. Rather, in reality, there is more than enough work for all. Both state and individual can complement each other in addressing social problems.
It is clear our current social situation demands more of both individuals and the state.