Hopi Sen opens a can of worms: what should the left do about family breakdown?
In one sense, there’s not much policy can do. As Hopi says, dysfunctional families are centuries old. And they are not confined to the underclass; countless well-off people identify with Bree’s remark: “We might as well sit on the porch and play banjos.”
There is, though, one thing that could be done - stop giving people an incentive to have children. The tax-payer spends over £15bn a year in child benefit and tax credits - and that‘s before the billions we spend failing to educate kids and on the police and prison service for picking up the mess.
One result of this is that a single person on a full-time minimum wage gets an income of £72 a week more if she has a child than if she doesn’t - and, indeed, would be £6 a week better off even if she gave up work to have a kid.
There are three arguments against such subsidies:
1. At the margin, they give people an incentive to have children. And the marginal parent is likely to be a bad parent. One lesson of the Shannon Matthews affair is that even people who are long odds to win the economics Nobel respond to incentives.
2. There’s no good leftist principle that requires the tax-payer to write blank cheques to people who get into messes of their own choosing. We should be helping those who can’t help themselves - the low-skilled, the unlucky, but not parents.
3. Having children is not a right, but rather a burden one imposes upon others - it‘s not as if the country is under-stocked with people. And if one is going to impose such a burden, one should pay the price, not get a subsidy. On this point, John Stuart Mill was - as usual - more clear-headed than most liberals:
To bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society; and that if the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the State ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent…
The fact itself, of causing the existence of a human being, is one of the most responsible actions in the range of human life. To undertake this responsibility--to bestow a life which may be either a curse or a blessing--unless the being on whom it is to be bestowed will have at least the ordinary chances of a desirable existence, is a crime against that being. And in a country either over-peopled or threatened with being so, to produce children, beyond a very small number, with the effect of reducing the reward of labour by their competition, is a serious offence against all who live by the remuneration of their labour. The laws which, in many countries on the Continent, forbid marriage unless the parties can show that they have the means of supporting a family, do not exceed the legitimate powers of the State.
You might object that this is hard-hearted. Perhaps it would be excessively so if child subsidies were to be withdrawn immediately, as opposed to new claims being stopped.
Or one might wonder where it leaves the government’s target of abolishing child poverty. Well, I’ve never been clear what’s wrong with child poverty as distinct from bad parenting - indeed, there’s something to be said for it. I suspect the left’s concern with child poverty owes more to soft-headedness - “think of the ickle-wickle kiddie-widdies” - or to a desire to bribe median voters than to serious moral thinking.
And wouldn’t the billions saved on throwing money at the likes of Karen Matthews be better spent on improving fostering and adoption services, better schools in poor areas or upon early years education such as Sure Start?