Last weekend I was at the Hay Festival debating the future of the family with social commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, philosopher Adam Swift and Baron Adebowale, chief executive of the government-funded ‘social care enterprise’ Turning Point. Over the last two days I have shared my contribution to the debate. Now I give my co-debaters’ responses and present my thesis in more depth.
The world would be a better place if there were more economic equality. Countries which have higher levels of economic equality appear more comfortable and contented, the assessments of those who have done rigorous statistical analysis prove it and none of us likes seeing people who are suffering and poor.
But economic equality is not the top priority I would strive for, and at the debate last weekend this set me and my co-speakers apart. In fact economic equality was so important to my colleagues that they were happy to subordinate their own family to that political goal. Everyone except me declared that if they could help their children to get a flat they would not do so. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown beat her breast and brow for having sent her children to private school. Lord Victor Adebowale informed his daughter in the audience that ‘she wouldn’t get jack’.
These are the sentiments of the privileged. A friend in the audience who spent a year in a caravan in the field of a kindly farmer could not imagine not wanting to help out his daughter if he were able to.
Since Marx we have kowtowed to the god of economic equality. But economic equality is an outcome, not a goal to strive for. Denmark, that paragon of egalitarianism, oriented its policies not around equality but around the family. Economic equality as a goal to strive for is a mirage.
Economic inequalities are the sum of our endowments – such as height, beauty or intelligence, as well as our choices and our luck. We do not need to rid the world of inequality. It is not being richer or poorer than someone which causes our problems. It is man’s inhumanity to man in its multitude of guises. As well as doses of very bad luck.
Suffering, hardship, physical and mental pain, illness, unhappiness, humiliation – these are the problems we should be challenging. And while pain can be dulled by economic comfort, it is problems in the family, how we conduct our relationships, lack of integrity in our business dealings and the indifference of those around us, not economic inequality, which breeds despair.
People carp about royalty. But is there anyone, anyone, who seriously would swap places with William, Harry or Charles?
For many years I lived in a council estate on a road with many mansions. But I can say quite honestly I would not have swapped my little flat for one of those residences. My son would have had no friends with whom he could play football. And my family would have fragmented into isolated individuals. Those houses were just too large.
People complain about ‘privilege’. But the inheritors of it often lead stressful, demanding lives. If it was just privilege they inherited, they would ‘chill’ and spend more time enjoying the world around them. Obligation, responsibility and expectation are the invisible burdens which our social hierarchies pass on.
All those I have known who are wealthier than me have shared their privileges with kindness and generosity. And when it is ‘advantage Belinda’ I hope I do the same.
Inequality can breed reciprocity and kindness, or selfishness. It is up to us. It is not inequality itself which causes the problems, but how we respond to it. To rail against the status quo is an easy alternative. More challenging is a personal response.
I have known people who were severely economically disadvantaged, but they invested in family and human relationships. And on that they built contentment and security. But where there is anguish, suffering and hardship, it is too easy to blame some structural inequality. At heart lies man’s selfishness to man. And none of us is absolved.
The less well-off understand the importance of friends and family and that this provides a buffer against economic concerns. In post-communist Poland I saw people ‘lend’ each other money. But the word ‘lend’ was used to ensure the pride of the recipient. To the lender it meant financial loss. When it came to house decorating, plumbing or the numerous other services required for daily living, people would sacrifice their time, energy and own immediate convenience for the wellbeing of family or friends.
Among Nigerians, if you are a decent earner there is an assumption that you will help certain members of your family. This help again involves sacrifice. It is not like British giving, where we don’t mind parting with our extra ‘fat’. And these family obligations extend not only to your children and your parents, but to your siblings and your siblings’ relatives, and no doubt other extended and fictive kin may also be involved.
Lord Adebowale, one of my co-speakers, appeared to know nothing of these Nigerian networks of giving, suggesting they are the prerogative of those who are less well-off.
Perhaps you don’t need extended family if you are embedded in the British establishment. We have devised cunning ways of being both great and good without incurring personal cost.
Traditionally, I suspect, it was networks of family which ameliorated inequality rather than caused it. And perhaps it has been our ability to shed family or exploit it which has caused some and not others to accumulate wealth.
The sickness of our own society is that the privileged, from their cosy two-parent homes, encourage the poor to shed their own families. That is what happens when one parent is missed out. And when voices like mine say ‘we must tackle single parenthood’, we are silenced.
Yet two-parent families would ease both poverty and inequality. Finding ways to facilitate this would be an obvious way out.
Liberals, socialists, anarchists and other political idealists look for new ways of redistributing wealth through co-operatives and communes. But the solution is staring them in the face. If we built up networks of friends and family, which are often wonderfully extensive with our new ‘combined families’, we would all find we had communal organisations ready-made.