Rotten from the bottom up

This is part two and a counterpart to yesterday’s blog post, “Rotten from the top down

Yesterday I had a good long rant about the political system and “those at the top”. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of examples of this poverty of progressive ideas at the bottom.

Here’s one. Last week the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI announced a visit to the United Kingdom later this year. Almost immediately the National Secular Society came up with a petition that the Vatican should pay for the cost of the security for the trip. I voiced my unease at the whole thing on Twitter and promptly provoked a strong reaction from others.

For the record, I’m a sky fairy-averse atheist with strong views on a secular society; I think the Lords Spiritual should be scrapped, the state should stop funding religious schools and the ‘religious hatred’ laws repealed. But even I think that throwing a hissy fit and demanding that the Pope pay his own way is reactionary idiocy of the most backwards kind.

Let’s get out of the way first the obvious – the Pope is both a head of state and head of a religion and convention is that host states provide security for visiting dignitaries, regardless of whether it’s an official visit or not; indeed states are obliged to ensure the safety of any foreign visitor – tourists are protected by our laws and justice system, and don’t get billed by the police if they are in need of assistance. To demand that someone be barred from this country unless they pay extra, purely because you don’t like their beliefs, is as backwards and discriminatory as the Pope’s own views on homosexuality.

Quite apart from the double standard, the real idiocy is that the basis for this objection is not the principle, but the attitude: “Well, I’m a taxpayer, I don’t like it, so why should I pay for it?” Because once you start to think about it, there are lots of things your tax money goes on that you’d rather not be spent. Personally speaking, I’d rather we didn’t spend money on subsidising the arms trade, illegal invasions of Middle Eastern countries, or on an ID card system that won’t work.

But in each of these cases, the fact that money spent on them isn’t the basis of my objection to them. Why I object to is the affront to my principles and the consequences of those policies, whether it’s the the needless deaths of foreign civilians or the continued intrusion into our lives or the adoption of useless technologies. The money “I” have spent on it is secondary. Of course, tax money should be spent as efficiently as possible and those in charge of it must be held to account, especially when the sums are in the billions or more. But the debate on how to allocate resources should be based on the costs and the benefits, not merely on the snark “well this is going to cost me money, isn’t it?”

(Aside: it goes without saying we can never perfectly foresee all the costs, benefits and consequences of every government policy; but we should at least try our best to properly plan and account, else there’s no point to doing anything at all, ever).

This money-obsessed reactionary griping has its roots in Daily Mail-land, with endless stories of what you will have to pay, even if it’s being spent on people you don’t like. This is often cheerfully fuelled by mendacious right-wing think-tank, the Taxpayers Alliance. Of course they don’t represent all taxpayers (I don’t ever remember signing up to join them), and some of them don’t even pay tax themselves. The TPA’s aim isn’t to debate about what tax should be spent on, but to avoid paying tax as much as possible, and these “what a disgraceful waste of your money” stories are the easiest ways to get the misanthropic, aggrieved and generally selfish on their side.

This obsession with “why should I pay rather than them?”, rather than the reasons for how the money should (or should not) be spent for the national good, ends up poisoning the entire discourse. No government is ever going to spend every penny in a way that is agreeable to any specific person. And once you start picking at something you dislike, focusing on the cost rather than any of the reasons for actually having it, then anything is fair game. You end up not only obsessing about every aspect of government spending that displeases you but anyone’s spending whatsoever, whether its lottery funds or a public figure. You even start joylessly complaining about how much a spell of snow or a Friday off work will cost the economy.

Why do people do this? Well, paying tax is not like going to the supermarket. You can’t pick or choose which bits of the budget you’d like to support; the system is designed to cater for the things the market alone cannot fairly or sufficiently provide. The means of control and influence on this process is not as simple as switching brand of washing powder or baked beans, and for ordinary people it’s often a lot less direct and timely – whether it’s the ballot box, petition, the media, a pressure group or writing to your MP or another way.

And this is where the web comes along. The web’s instantness and wide audience create a natural home for venting impotent rage at the powers-that-be. An indignant “why should I pay?” on BBC Have Your Say or the Number 10 Petitions site is an easy and quick way of connecting yourself with a policy and its consequences. Garnering a rapid response of agreement from like-minded knee-jerk reactionaries acts as a soothing substitute for the lack of timely action through the more traditional channels.

To be fair, the political system is partly to blame for this lack of proper response. But by playing along with it, the antagonists are playing their part in debasing the debate. Crying about how it will cost you money is not only self-indulgent, but solipsistic; putting the cost to you at the centre of the debate precludes any sort of intelligent discussion about what the actual policy is, what the costs are to the country as a whole, what the benefits and savings are, who the beneficiaries are, what the cost of inaction is, or what better alternatives there could be.

This is probably a deliberate tactic by those who choose to do it. With many of the examples of it in action, whether it’s paying for the Pope’s security, fighting global warming, housing asylum seekers or having a day off work, the objectors are conveniently avoiding examining the issue or any sort of structured argument for their stance; resorting to the objection that this is costing them and they are outraged acts as a convenient smokescreen for their own prejudices.

And most ironically of all, by whinging about the costs and not the reasoning behind the policy, it’s also the surest way of making sure ideas and policies never get challenged or changed. Which might suit you fine, if you’re the kind of person who thinks moaning about your tax bill alone counts as a reasoned opinion, and if it weren’t for that would probably struggle to validate your political stance, or even your very existence. But I’d expect more from progressives and secularists than I do Daily Mail readers – sadly it seems in this case they’re slipping the same way.

13 thoughts on “Rotten from the bottom up

  1. Indeed. I think it was on a rare moment of sparkling simile-use on the Now Show when Mitch Benn(?) suggested that complaining about the BBC funding you don’t like is akin to getting on a bus and insisting it takes you directly to your house. Obviously, this is on a wider scale, but the comparison’s a strong one.

  2. What annoys me about the “It will cost…” aspect is how utterly distorted it is from reality. Let’s say that Eddie Izzard’s “Babies on spikes” policy became enacted by government at a cost of £60m.

    Is that
    “YOU PAY £1 TO PUT BABIES ON SPIKES?” (divide by population)
    “NEWBORN BABIES TO PAY £10 TO BE PUT ON SPIKES” (divide by birth rate)
    “EVIL SPIKES POLICY COULD PAY FOR NEW ARMY CHOPPERS” (politically laden calculation based on multiplying the cost over 7 years assuming 20% inflation and dividing by cheapest helicopter on ebay)

    In every case you ignore the people who want the policy and are presumably happy to pay.
    It also ignores the fact that businesses have a tax burden. I have no idea how much money business contributes to the Government – let alone any investments, debt repayments, service charges etc.

    Money that the Government gets is fungible. I can, if I really want, think that my tax bill goes only to cottage hospitals and border control if that what makes me happy. Furthermore, I get a kick out of knowing that all of Boris Johnson’s tax bill pays for Arts Council funding for one-legged gay Belgian performance artists.


  3. I agree with practically everything you say , except of course, with your main thesis. The pope being a head of state shouldn’t trouble most intelligent people, but he is certainly a visiting dignitary. However, he is a visiting dignitary who intends to propagandize and proselytize, and he has a constituency within this country who will amplify everything he says. He has voiced opposition to a measure which the democratically elected government of this country has introduced to parliament, and he has encouraged adherents of his sect to oppose it. Visiting dignitaries accorded the privileges due to a head of state do not do this for reasons which are not solely a matter of good manners.

  4. Nice post. I agree, I think the root cause to all this is our wholesale acceptance of the “consumer-choice” driven agenda of politicians over the last 3 decades.

    The only thing I disagree with in your post is the notion that secularism somehow bestows some higher intelligence. It doesn’t. Absence of faith is not necessarily an intellectual function. Plenty of very stupid people do not believe in God.

  5. @don Phillips

    We should not pay for the Pope’s visit because of a lack of *manners*? I mean, I know we’re British and manners are key to everything, but that’s taking things a bit far old chap.

  6. @ibster Not saying secularists are more intelligent, but I would expect them to be more open to laying out reasons for their views , than all-out knee-jerk prejudice

  7. I’m surprised you are so uncritical of the Pope’s ludicrous claim to be treated like a head of state. Sure, Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty and all that. But it’s absurd.

    Secondly, “it costs you money” is central to secularism and always has been. To expect religions to support themselves financially has *always* been a demand of the secularist movement in this country. The state should not fund religions. For secularists, that’s a democratic argument, not a populist-“taxpayers” argument.


  8. @Dan I don’t think that is entirely true. The argument isn’t that the state should not fund religions – it’s that the state should not base it’s policies and decision making on religious doctrine. These are two very, very different concepts which plenty of secularist like to conflate.

    The state funding of religion can be seen as similar to state funding of many cultural activities from aforementioned gay Belgian performance artists, to the BBC to museums. The state using religious laws to govern the populace is an entirely different matter and what is truly at the root of secularist arguments.

  9. @ibster: you personally are sharply distinguishing between governance and finance, but as a matter of historical fact actual secularists have wanted to make both arguments, because in practice it is not so easy to draw the line. You don’t get to decide on your lonesome what “the argument is”; there are others in the room.

    There are countries which have a financial relationship with religions but still consider themselves secularist in some sense: France, for example. There are others which fund all religions (and sometimes humanism) equally: I believe Norway falls into this category.

    However, the British secularist movement as a whole has always opposed both state promotion and state funding of any religion or religious organisation. I don’t say that’s universal, but it has been the tendency of the National Secular Society since 1866.

    In which respect it perhaps has more in common with the establishment clause of the US constitution (and the arguments precisely about funding which that has led to), than with French models of laicite.


  10. Thanks all for your comments. A few replies back…

    Regardless of whether the Pope has bad manners or does not hold a claim in your eyes to be a head of state, the fact is he is a head of state, and a foreign citizen who has committed no crime in his or our country, and to bar him from visiting on grounds of his beliefs unless he pays is ridiculous.

    I didn’t make it clear in the post, but I edge more to the US ideal of secularism than the French or Turkish. It’s not a case of merely opposing taxpayer funding of religion – it’s not hard to find examples of state-backed religion while not doing so from tax income – Saudi Arabia being one such. That was more or less the point I was getting at the post – that to focus on tax is to miss the wide point. But even this US ideal is more accommodating and less athetistic-driven than the British Secular Society’s grassroots are.

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