In the Old Testament of the Bible there is a story about King David and an affair he had. The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a boy. At this time, a prophet came to David and told him a story, to show him his wrong-doing in taking another man’s wife. In this story, a rich man with many sheep had to prepare a meal for a traveller. Instead of taking one of his own sheep, the rich man took a ewe lamb owned by a poor man – the only sheep the man had.
David rightly became angry and said that this rich man deserved to die. It was not just that the rich man had taken what was not his, but that he had taken so much from one who had very little, that he had not needed to take someone else’s sheep because he had so many of his own, and that he had shown no compassion. He gave no consideration to the pain the poor man would feel, the suffering he would experience. The rich man should have ‘suffered with’ the poor man, but he did not.
A time of recession is a little like this story. The recession means something has to go; there is less wealth, a weaker economy, and something has to be given to restore the country to a healthy state. Who should give it? You could argue that it was not the rich man’s fault that the traveller came to him for food, rather than to the poor man, and so the poor man was just as liable for the expenses. You could similarly argue that the rich are not responsible for the recession, and so there is no reason for them to bear all the expense of it either.
But that misses the point. The point is not about who could be considered liable; about whether the bottom 30% of the income distribution are more or less responsible than the middle 30% or the top 30%. The point is about who can afford to pay, and how much relatively it will cost that person to pay.
The poor man paid one sheep. And it cost him everything. The rich man could have paid one sheep, and relative to his wealth he would barely have noticed. But more important than whether or not he would have noticed, it also would not have affected his ability to live.
The poor man lost necessities by losing his sheep. The rich man lost luxuries.
In a recession, taking money away from the poor means they lose necessities. It means people walking twenty miles to reach a food bank and food banks doubling in size. It means an increase in homelessness and an increase of people in temporary accommodation. It means people living in fear and distress.
Taking money away from those who have more than they need might upset those people – the ‘squeezed middle’ or the rich paying ‘more than their share.’ It may mean that they cannot afford the slightly more expensive versions of things that they are used to. It may mean they have to cut back on some of their expenditure. Maybe their children can’t attend as many out-of-school clubs, or they can’t go on holiday abroad. Maybe they’ll have to use the car less often, or replace some meat with beans and pulses.
But the crucial thing they won’t have to do is to go hungry, stop heating their house or become homeless. Sad as it is to not be able to afford some of the ‘extra-curricular’ type activities that help make life more interesting and contribute to mature, well-rounded people, it isn’t as tragic as people going cold, hungry or homeless.
This isn’t about ‘class envy.’ I’m not talking about whether the poor can afford a iPhone or a huge new TV. I’m talking about whether they can afford to get to work; whether they can afford to eat – including paying for transport, having the time to walk to a shop, and being able to reach a cheap shop; whether they can pay their rent; whether their children can get to school – bearing in mind that the closer you are to a school the more expensive your rent is likely to be, but the further away the more expensive transport will be (including time costs). I would add heating to the list, but then I would get told by people who were alive before central heating that heating isn’t necessary.
I’ll happily except that, yes, it is ‘unfair.’ It is sad that people can’t afford nice things. It is sad that some people pay more than others, whether in total or as a percentage. It is upsetting for the middle class who think they’re getting a rough deal. But however sad it is, it is affordable. Which taking money from those in poverty is not.
You can argue as much as you like about ‘all sharing together.’ You can argue about whether that means everyone pays the same percentage, or everyone pays the same amount. But what you cannot argue against is that whatever anyone else pays, to take money from those who have less than they need is unethical.