Sunday, April 20, 2008

Repost - The unconscionable cruelty of Polly T

I think this is the best post I've written, so for those who haven't clicked through before, here it is again:

Almost twenty years ago I pitched up in London, found a bedsit and took a job as a minicab driver. Knowing I would otherwise be on my own, one of the controllers invited me for Christmas dinner.

He lived on the fourteenth floor of one of three tower blocks that backed onto wasteground in Camberwell. The lifts were broken so I walked up the stairs, stepping round pools of urine, looking carefully for the small piles of human excrement that lurked in shadows beneath shattered light fittings. I knocked at his door, and it opened into a room of lights, decorations, children laughing by a Christmas tree, and the smell of roasting turkey.

A couple of years later I used to visit someone who lived in a lower-rise block on the fringes of Brixton. The car park was always full of playing children, even during school hours. I drove a very old ex-gas board long wheel base Land Rover at the time and somehow it developed that I'd leave it unlocked and let the children play in it while I was upstairs.

I think it was the little mother who started it, a girl of perhaps eight who always seemed to have her youngest, snot-nosed sibling on her hip while she bawled at her five year old brother to stop whatever he might be doing at the time. She was a friendly child with a beautiful smile. One day she confided in me as though she were telling me about a rare feast that her Mum had let her have a burger with her chips that evening. Normally, it was just chips, from a shop a couple of hundred yards away.

I only ever saw her mother from a distance. When she wanted the children to come in, because she wanted to go out with her latest boyfriend, she would come to the balcony and shout down,

"If you don't get up here right now, I'll come down and kick your cunt in!"

After a few weeks, there would be a dozen or more children playing in the Land Rover. The oldest and most senior taking it in turns to pretend to drive, younger ones camping in the covered back. The more adventurous would climb up the sides and over the roof. One day, as I came down the stairs, I was met by a delegation. Someone had broken an indicator light cover while scaling the south face of the vehicle. The culprit was there, shamefaced, in the middle, with half a dozen concerned friends along for moral support. These were good kids.

Then I started driving them all, very slowly, round the car park. There'd be kids on the roof, on the bonnet, holding on to the sides, in the back and on the bench seat in the front. The rule was, I had to be able to see them all at all times - a leg or arm at least had to be visible in one of the mirrors. They policed this rule assiduously, as I drove at walking pace, yelling at each other to make sure they were visible.

One of the mothers came out to see what it was all about, a shy young Irish woman, and she rode in the front with her son on her lap, chatting with the other children as we crawled around the hardstanding.

There was poverty there all right, but it wasn't financial. The children were poor - they would all have counted in child poverty statistics, but some were properly fed and some weren't. Some were loved, and some weren't. Some of them would be getting jobs in a few years' time. The little mother would become a real mother. But with others, the passage of puberty would see a setting of the eyes into a flinty middle-distance stare, and they'd start burgling, mugging, dealing or go on the game.

What makes the difference? One thing is for sure: it isn't money. All these people were on much the same incomes, the devoted Irish mother and the one who would kick her daughter's cunt in if she was slow to come upstairs, the cab controller and the people who shat in the stairwell of his block of flats.

Milton Friedman died a few days ago. He once said:

A society that puts equality - in the sense of equality of outcome - ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality or freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality. Freedom means diversity but also mobility. It preserves the opportunity for today's less well off to become tomorrow's rich, and in the process, enables almost everyone, from top to bottom, to enjoy a richer and fuller life.
At Harry's Place, someone called Norman the carpet commented:
Well its nice to get some good news for a change. An appalling person who pedaled (sic) a dreadful ideology.
Like many Libertarian bloggers, I actually know what it is like to be broke. I have lived in high rises like the ones described above. I have gone hungry. Travelling in the Yukon twenty five years ago, after a lumber strike had closed down half the seasonal industries, I went three days without food - though my dog didn't - before I found work doing odd jobs in a motel. I treated my own frostbite, because I couldn't afford to see a doctor.

One thing, and one thing only, keeps people trapped in the kind of poverty of mind where they don't feed their children properly even when they could, and shit in their own stairwells. It's a lack of ownership; a lack of self-reliance. It's a lack of the very concept of self-reliance. It's an idea that the mere thought that they should be self-reliant is immoral, evil, callous and cruel. And though this idea is gibbered out by halfwits like Norman the carpet, it actually derives from Polly Toynbee.

Not just Toynbee, of course, but she has made a particular fetish of "social exclusion". And she claims that
...growing inequality multiplies all these problems
No, it doesn't. What multiplies them is continued state intervention in and control over these people's lives. They shit in stairwells because they don't own the stairwells and they don't feel responsible for keeping them clean. The same people will complain that the council are slow to disinfect them, before they shit in them again.

I don't know this because I've held focus groups; I know it because I've lived there and seen it. I have seen someone whose father sent him to school from a tower block in Walworth with the carving knife to stab a boy who was bullying him (which he did) buy a house and take his kids on holidays through sheer hard work, and I've seen middle-class lefties spend decades on the dole.

Telling people who are institutionalised into dependency that it's all the fault of unequal income distribution, that they are victims and that their salvation lies in more government money is hideously cruel, for all the fatuous false moral posturing of Toynbee and her carpet-brained acolytes. The only things that achieves are a deepening of the sanctimonious self-satisfaction in which Toynbee and her entourage wallow, and a broadening of the base of the state on which they depend and through which they thrive.

The answer lies not in the redistribution of wealth, but in the creation of wealth, by the poorest, for the poorest - for themselves. For that to happen, the state needs to get out of the way, not just by intervening less with "help", but also by hindering less with regulations and taxes. Taking money from the poorest, then giving it back to them in housing subsidies, tax credits and income supplements is grotesque - it wastes their few precious resources (unless tax collectors start working for free) and it institutionalises the recipients who could have just been left alone in the first place.

Constant regulation and "quality improvements" simply mean cutting off the bottom rungs of the ladder; instead, the focus should be on removing barriers to work and self-employment.

But then there'd be nothing for Polly and her friends to do, and nothing to give them that glow of self-righteousness that comes from stooping down from on high to hold the little hands of the poor. And that's the really unforgivable aspect of this: the sense that the unconscionable cruelty of keeping these people trapped is motivated in part by the self-interest of the advocates of statism.


dearieme said...

Well said.

rightwingprof said...

I'm not an immigration hawk, but one of the biggest problems with immigration here -- from somewhere other than Mexico, take note -- is that immigrants move to the inner city, and too often absorb the culture of resentment, anger, and entitlement there. The result is rising crime -- see DC and Detroit. You don't see this when groups settle in areas without this culture: The best example is Asian immigrants (meaning East Asian here). I exclude Mexicans because they don't necessarily settle in large cities, but all over the US.

The New Centrist said...

I got here from a link at Bob from Brockley's blog. I enjoyed the post a lot.

Rightwingprof, here in NYC all sorts of people--East Asians, South Asians, Africans, and many other groups--are moving into areas where there is a "culture of resentment, anger, and entitlement". But rather than reflect this attitude, they focus on education and success. In the rhetoric of the radical left, they have "sold out." I just think they were lucky to have good parents.

Unfortunately, the "culture" you refer to is deeper than being resentful or feeling entitled. I'm not sure what you teach or if you are even a prof. but there is an anti-learning (to say nothing of anti-intellectual) tendency among certain elements of the lumpenproletariat.

The question is why?

Like John, I don't think this can be reduced to structural factors (although poverty does suck and there is nothing cool about it). Nor do I think that any particular ethnic/racial/national group is predisposed to a certain sort of behavior. Rather, a lot of this has to do with basic parenting. Who is raising an individual child, a loving parent or is the responsibility falling on the institutions of the state?

I grew up poor on the east side of Los Angeles (1970s). Not in the projects poor but welfare poor, food stamps poor. But my mom, with two kids to raise on her own took the time to read to us, take us to the library (remember those?) and do all the things that we just expected good parents to do back in the day.

Our neighborhood was poor but safe, very mixed in terms of peoples backgrounds. I had white, black, Cuban, Mexican, and Chinese friends. I had Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist friends. And to the best of my knowledge, my friends parents were doing the same sorts of things my mom was as far as reading to them, encouraging them to learn, that sort of thing.

So what happened? What happened in our communities? Rather than examining the "culture", broadly construed, we need to examine what's happening in our families. Because there has always been negativity out there. There has always been drugs and gangs and all this garbage. But what was different was the attitude, motivation and actions of our parents and grandparents.

Marko Attila Hoare said...

A very good post. I don't agree with all your conclusions, but I agree that antisocial behaviour can't simply be explained away as a by-product of poverty or inequality.

I don't think it can be explained away as a by-product of welfare spending or state interference either, though - Victorian Britain wasn't exactly crime free, surely ?

Peter Risdon said...

Well, I don't think it's just welfare spending or state interference either. As a matter of fact, I think that without any help there'd be significant, though different, problems.

But it isn't going to be alleviated by more spending and interference alone, and these things do contribute. The focus for people in this non-working class has become not doing something for themselves but rather their relationship with the state and this lack of self-responsibility also translates into the kind of neglect I wrote about.

We need to avoid both this sort of dependency, and also the Hogarthian squalor that preceded it. Under present circumstances, the dependency is the immediate issue, surely?