Friday, May 15, 2009

MP's Expenses and the Culture of Acquisition

I've resisted blogging about the current scandal surrounding MP's expenses for several reasons not least of all lack of time.

One simple observation that has come through loud and clear, however, is that there are a minority of individuals in the UK, both inside and outside Parliament, who simply earn vast amounts of money.

For instance:

  • LibDem MP and Home Affairs Spokesman Chris Huhne, is a millionaire and owns seven homes in Britain (according to the Telegraph)
  • BBC news reporter Carrie Grace (until this week a relatively unknown reporter) is paid £92,000 a year and gets defensive about it here.
My wife and I have never and will never earn a fraction of these amounts of money, despite having good university degrees and being professional people beyond our middle years. When writing this statement, it will be assumed by many that we are jealous or that we should in fact aspire to approximate these levels of salary. Neither assumption is true and that, in fact, is exactly my point.

The dominance of unrestrained capitalism post-Thatcher has created a culture in the UK that sees unlimited individual earnings as either morally neutral or a positive good - a state we should all aspire to.

I don't agree with that. I believe it can be harmful to the common good of a society if some within it earn vastly more than some others.

In my opinion, the story over MP's expenses is just a sideshow that misses the point. The big picture is entrenched economic inequality in Britain on a vast scale.

I think that's the real problem.

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Steve Smith said...

High inequality in earnings can be bad, as can low earnings in terms of their impacts upon the person's quality of life, and spreading out to wider society. But shouldn't the (general) argument be less about high level earnings per se and more about the uses to which such people put their money? Personally, I'd like to earn a lot more money, but mostly so I can give more money away.

Tom Foster said...

Thanks for article Al!

Steve: I'd be interested to read about any state examples of where such a model has worked, although I believe caring for the poor is at the heart of the God's plan for the church.

The trend is for greater wealth in the hands of the few ...

"By the late 1990s it was becoming clear in most of the industrialised world that, whatever the party identity of the government, there was steady, consistent pressure for the state policy to favour the interests of the wealth - those who benefited from the unrestricted operation of the capitalist economy rather than those who needed some protection from it." (Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy, 2004)

We need a serious new proposal which acknowledges why this trend is taking place, and puts forward a viable alternative... It may be called the Kingdom of God! :-)

I think this kind of ground has previously been occupied by the fringe crowd (e.g. those perceived as odd, dangerous, and with a questionable or unbalanced theology), but it may be time for us to embrace God's way of doing things, seriously engage the powers that be, and articulate and show there is another way which will do good for all.

Steve Smith said...

Tom: I'm not sure this is a 'model', and there aren't any 'state' examples that I know of. I guess in part I am talking about accountability - from those to whom much is given, much is required. We may need an alternative 'model' if the 'well-off' don't spend their money well (although how on earth wider society can measure that, I don't know), but the root of the problem seems less about money and more about our greed for it. I just don't think high salaries are morally bad in and of themselves.

Further, I'm not sure there is a 'state' solution i.e. something that can be imposed from above. There are efforts govt can make to redistribute wealth, but I'm aware of 'the road to serfdom' (Hayek). If there is a 'model', it has to be more locally organised.

atlanticwriter said...

Thanks for commenting guys.

For much of my life I would have tacitly agreed with Steve's first point - that there is no inherent problem with the amount a person earns only what they do with it and their motive in acquiring and disposing of it.

I think I've changed my mind in recent years and now believe that merely acquiring wealth that is vastly in excess of that acquired by the poorest is inherently wrong in itself. I'll need to blog further on why I now think this.

As for solutions, beyond the personal, I'm currently exploring whether distributism has anything helpful to say on this subject. More of that on the blog.

Thanks again!