Archive

Monthly Archives: September 2013

As promised, I will here address the issue of the immigrants within our own country. The empathy principle applies in a slightly different way here to how I have applied it in the past. Instead of examining how financial conditions and their treatment by the government create a Catch 22 for immigrants, I’d like to look at how an impossible situation is created for immigrants within popular opinion.

Surprisingly, given that the curry has become practically a national dish, the British have the propensity to be very hostile towards immigrants. Two opinions are particularly prevalent, and they create an obvious Catch 22:

a) Immigrants come to our country as ‘benefit tourists’, hoping to abuse our supposedly generous welfare system.

b) Immigrants come to our country as cheap labour, taking jobs from British workers by undercutting their wages.

Hence an obvious impossible situation is created for immigrants. If they work and ‘pay their way’, they are taking jobs which should have been given to British workers. If they don’t take those jobs, their only choice will be to take benefits, and hence become ‘benefit tourists’. We have to make up our minds! What can an immigrant do in order to please such critics? Of course, the only satisfactory option available to immigrants, according to their detractors, is to ‘go home’. This seems to me to be a disastrous answer.

For one thing, immigrants, now and on many occasions in the past, have contributed an incredible amount to this country. It is worth noting that many countries in the world, such as Bulgaria and Romania, so controversial lately, but also much of Asia, suffer from a ‘brain drain’ effect of their brightest and best educated young people moving abroad to maximise their prospects in life. We are one of the countries who are the lucky recipients of all those brains, which is part of the reason why we are and continue to be one of the world’s leading countries, despite being just some small, cold, rainy island. It’s also worth noting that, despite the popular image that immigrants are a drain on the national economy, immigrants as a whole actually pay about 30% more in taxes than they take out through welfare and other services. Our budget deficit would actually be worse if they weren’t here. They’re also far less likely to claim ‘hand-out’ benefits, or to live in social housing, than UK nationals (http://www.cream-migration.org/publ_uploads/CDP_18_09.pdf).

Furthermore, the British themselves benefit massively from their ability to emigrate. It is difficult to find reliable figures, but a handy BBC webpage, linked to below, claims that 5.5 million Brits live permanently abroad. Their are over 700,000 Brits living in Spain, a staggering 1.2 million live in Australia, and many hundreds of thousands reside in the US, Canada and France (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/in_depth/brits_abroad/html/default.stm). I have heard it argued that to compare Brits living abroad to immigrants living here is like comparing apples and pears, as Brits take money with them and are a boost to foreign economies, whereas immigrants coming here are a drain on our finances. I have shown above that it is not true that immigrants are a drain on our economy. However, I’d also like to point out that the number of Brits living abroad goes a long way towards nullifying the argument that “Britain is full”.

I’d also like to nip in the bud an obviously false argument which I’ve heard, that these numbers are misleading, because the British are spread over many different countries, whereas all the foreign immigrants live on our little island. True, but our immigrants also come from a lot of different countries, and all the countries we emigrate to similarly receive immigrants from many countries apart from our own. So the Bulgarians and Romanians send immigrants to many different countries than our own, and the Spanish and Australians receive them from many countries apart from our own. What is more, the Bulgarians and Romanians receive their own immigrants, including British ones, and Spanish and Australian people, I am sure, live all over the world. Therefore, it is not true that we lose out on the numbers game because of this patently false sleight of hand. The idea of our country purely as a receiver and other countries purely as senders of immigrants is a very misleading one.

What I’d also like to illustrate is that many British people do consider the ability to live abroad advantageous, and enjoy their ability to do so. What is more, I personally know people who speak of moving permanently to countries such as Australia and the US as if it is their automatic right. I think this is a fact worth rejoicing; now, more than at any point in history, people can truly choose where they want to make their home. It would be hypocritical, given our enjoyment of this privilege, to deny it to people who wish to come to live in our country.

Related articles

Advertisements

So how exactly would the Empathy Party’s philosophy apply to disability? To recap, the first tenet of the Party’s philosophy is that no-one should be left in an impossible situation, one in which there are no viable options available to them, particularly Catch 22, rock-and-a-hard-place situations. (From now on, this will be known as the ’empathy principle’). This is perhaps the area where the Party’s response would be the most obvious. The disabled are, after all, especially vulnerable to being placed in impossible situations. This is true not only of those who cannot work but also those whose work options are limited by their disability or reliant on the support of their employer. In this post, however, I want to focus on the issue of the welfare support of those who cannot work.

Many pixels have been spilt on the myriad ways in which disabled people who claim benefits are mistreated by the current Government through ATOS, the company contracted to perform work capability assessments (WCAs). Therefore, I will restrict myself here to discussing a few examples which I think illustrate particularly clearly how the present system seems to go out of its way to create impossible situations for disabled people. The worst example is the fact that attendance at the mandatory WCAs can be and is used as evidence that a person does not meet the criteria necessary to retain their benefit. The ability to travel to the assessment centre, which may be located in a pedestrianised area, and to sit in the waiting room for a period of time, is taken as proof that people claiming to have mobility issues or mental problems such as agoraphobia are fit for work. This means a Catch 22 situation is created whereby if a person does not attend their WCA their benefit is stopped, and if they do attend they are deemed ‘fit for work’ and still have their benefit stopped. (In the interest of fairness I should point out that ATOS can and sometimes does perform home assessments, but they are not required to and often refuse, and in any case these do not necessarily amount to a ‘fair trial’ anyway). This is clearly contrary to the Empathy Party’s philosophy.

The Empathy Party would view it as its duty to ensure that no disabled people were left in an impossible situation. Of course, the Party views this as its duty towards all people. But since, as mentioned above, the disabled are more likely to be left in an impossible situation, since they are more likely to have a greater dependence on others than most, they would be given some priority on this front. We must remember that engagement with social life in its many forms is an essential part of a meaningful life which most of us take for granted, but which may provide difficulties to those with mobility issues which may be very costly to overcome. For this reason, schemes such as Motability, a charity which provides a car to some disabled people in exchange for their mobility benefit, must be pushed. Funds must also be made available for the adaptation of vehicles where necessary. Such schemes are of course very costly, however the empathy principle makes them indispensable (as if they weren’t already). The ability not only to survive but to engage with society is something which we should consider it ‘impossible’ to sacrifice, a basic part of a fulfilling life, In order to avoid impossible situations, therefore, we must ensure as much mobility as possible is available to the disabled.

In order for benefits to reach those who need them, but to maintain a situation in which the system is difficult to cheat, doctors, hopefully specialising in the field relevant to the patient, would make the decision on whether their patients were, from a medical perspective, in need of benefit support. This sounds like a huge undertaking for already over-worked doctors. However, presumably most if not all disabled people are in contact about their condition with a doctor anyway, I see no reason why the process could not be administered in a similar way to prescriptions. Alternatively, if the practical burden will be too great on the existing NHS system, a separate division of doctors might be created to deal with the disabled, who would have specific training in the different difficulties confronting the disabled in their lives and how these are best managed in order to give the patient as full a life as possible, especially regarding their ability to engage with society. Having doctors administer benefits like this is obviously not without problems (I’m sure doctors don’t relish the idea of dealing with patient’s angry at having been denied their benefit, for one), but I see no other way to accurately determine who needs how much financial support. Those without appropriate and relevant medical training are in no position to apply empathy accurately to the disabled, and so we cannot expect and empathetic system without medical professionals being in charge of the decisions. Furthermore, the role of a doctor is already one of care, with their interests on making the life of their patient livable, and so we can hope that their priorities are already well aligned with the empathy principle whilst still having experience of administering available resources in a sustainable way.

On the issue of welfare, a lot of concern is focussed on ‘benefit cheats.’ However, given the Party’s priorities, preventing such abuses would not be of a high priority. Given that a fraudster takes valuable money from those who need it, it would not be disregarded. But the Empathy Party’s philosophy, in order to avoid placing anyone in an impossible situation, would prefer a situation in which ten fraudsters were allowed to cheat the system than one in which one genuinely disabled person was unfairly stripped of their benefits. Cheats are a burden on the system, but are unlikely to place anyone in an impossible situation, unless cheating becomes so endemic that it actually cripples the system, which I think is unlikely. On the other hand, the overzealous weeding out of fraudsters by making the application system difficult to navigate and pass does directly place people in impossible situations, since their is a high likelihood of those who legitimately require benefits being denied them.

Furthermore, given the Empathy Party’s stance on crime, which I will cover in a few posts’ time, actual cheats would not necessarily be treated purely as criminals, and their own circumstances would be examined to see why they felt the need to cheat a system designed to support vulnerable people. It may be that an impossible situation of their own is forcing them into committing fraud.

I choose disability as the first test-case for the Empathy Principle as it is an area in which the application of the principle is the most obvious. I’m hopeful that on other issues, interpretation of how the principle should be applied will be a little more ambiguous, leaving a little more room for discussion, but I hope on this issue the application of the principle has at least helped to illustrate the absurdity and inhumanity of the current system, and to provide a wider perspective on how we should be treating the most vulnerable in society.

I appreciate that my suggestions are very idealistic, and that I haven’t addressed the issue of economic practicality at all.  I’m no economist, so all I have to say on this is that the Government, even in times of economic crisis, has an huge amount of money to work with, and the Empathy Party would consider the prevention of acute impossible situations such as face many disabled people one of its highest priorities within that budget. There is an incredible amount of wealth within this country, both in public and private hands. We must find a way to direct some of that money into the prevention of impossible situations right under our noses.

One of the major inspirations for the Empathy Party philosophy is the book “A Theory of Justice” by political philosopher John Rawls. The book is both the foundation of modern political liberalism and the generally accepted starting point of modern political theory. In the book, Rawls lays out one truly genius thought experiment, called the Original Position. In the Original Position, (probably hypothetical) participants are placed behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, with no knowledge of their place in society or even of many aspects of their personal circumstances and personality.  From this position, they are asked to write the rules of society. What is particularly clever about the Original Position is that it forces people to engage in the fundamentally empathetic task of thinking “What would I do if I were in that position?” and thereby forces them to reject any society in which any member is faced with an impossible situation.

Below: A photograph of John Rawls.

Image

If I were to start my own political party in the UK today, I would call it the Empathy Party. And it would do terribly in every poll and election.

I’ve begun to notice that empathy is a quality which is severely lacking . Sometimes, it’s just small things which tip me off. I’ve noticed a number of times recently that people, both drivers and pedestrians, are reluctant, in a way I’ve never observed before, to move out of the path of an oncoming ambulance. Often, it’s bigger things. People’s attitudes towards welfare, for example, seem to me particularly lacking in compassion. Welfare is something we need to be ‘tough’ on, so everyone seems to think. This approach is precisely the opposite of what is needed in a system which is supposed to function as a safety net for society’s unluckiest members. Attitudes towards immigration are similarly dispassionate. That we deserve the wealthy country we were born into is assumed. That others were unlucky enough to be born into less wealthy countries with poorer prospects is not our problem. 

 Empathy is one trait in which I personally have always felt particularly well-endowed. Considering the perspectives of others is a fundamental and inescapable part of how I view the world. I’ve come to realise that one of the things that I absolutely abhor is putting another person in an impossible situation. Sometimes, an impossible situation will take the form of a Catch 22, in which a person is left between a rock and a hard place with no viable options. Sometimes, it will simply take the form of a person being left to fall into poverty with little prospect of climbing back up. Bringing such a situation about is unthinkable if you have empathy, and so it’s unthinkable to me. Sadly, though, the not-my-problem attitude (a fundamental lack of empathy) which allows such circumstances to come about is seemingly all too common in the UK at the moment. Since people are happy to ignore the question: “What would you do in that situation?” they are happy to leave others in impossible situations. And this leads to the existence and acceptance of a great many such situations in our country. As mentioned above, the areas of welfare and immigration are particularly strong examples. That is unacceptable.

Therefore, the primary philosophy of the Empathy Party is that, to the extent that it is possible, no-one should be put into or left in an impossible situation.

 So what would the Empathy Party’s manifesto look like? Over the next few posts I’ll take you through how the Party’s philosophy would interpret the current state of play in the UK on a number of key issues, and how the party itself would handle those issues. This will include:

  • a radical change in the Government’s approach to welfare, ensuring that no-one is put in an impossible situation by being denied benefits or by having their benefits removed.
  • The disabled in particular would be treated with far more compassion, as vulnerable people who need our help rather than as potential benefit cheats or, worse, as ‘customers’.
  • But the unemployed would also be treated more leniently in view of the fact that, in a country with more potential workers than available work, the inability to find gainful employment cannot be blamed on the unemployed.
  • Of course, those in employment would be considered too, particularly those who have no choice but to work for below the living wage, and so sell the valuable hours of their life for the privilege of living in poverty. Zero hour contracts are a particularly obvious example of an impossible situation.
  • I imagine it would also cast a more sympathetic eye on immigration; a empathetic approach here would lead us to look at the reasons people move to our country, from poorer countries with poorer prospects for themselves and their families.
  • Crime and punishment would be viewed very differently, too; empathy for a criminal would lead us to abandon punishment in favour of rehabilitation, or, in a worst case scenario, pragmatic detention.

Over the course of the next few posts, I’ll work through these issues individually, and perhaps then move on to explain more of what underlies the Empathy Party’s philosophy.