The real meaning of poverty is not having enough money to allow you to participate in the social life of your community. These days poverty does not mean having no food to eat; it's more about having no money to keep up with the Joneses. The idea of social inclusion as a fundamental human right introduces a whole new meaning of Deprivation and Want.
People define themselves by reference to other people, and it's really hard to feel part of the society if you don't have the same amount of stuff as the people you interact with. This is how the idea of 'poverty' came to mean making sure that everybody has an equal amount of stuff. So that they can all hang out together and nobody will feel excluded.
In societies where people actually don't have food to eat or clean water to drink, the word 'poor' can no longer be used with any degree of accuracy. After all, they don't need food and water simply because they need these things to feel socially included. For them it's more a basic matter of survival. So these people are now described as 'extremely poor', meaning they are probably going to die soon if nobody helps them. The word 'poor' can then be reserved for those in rich countries who are suffering from not having as much as other people in their society: not as many varieties of breakfast cereal, not as many toys for Christmas, not as many pairs of shoes or coats to wear, etc.
To give the most obvious example of how relative poverty leads to social exclusion, imagine someone in a rich country who doesn't have a nice interview suit to wear. He is probably going to remain unemployed forever, not because he lacks the capacity to do amazing work but simply because he lacks clothes that are as smart as those worn by most people. Unemployment in turn leads to persistent poverty. Tackling poverty therefore means that everyone should at least, as a bare minimum, have the financial means to get kitted out on Saville Row. Otherwise it's not fair, is it. Those who can afford fine clothes end up getting richer by the second, and those who are forced to wear cheap clothes never have a chance in life to get rich.
Some people are skeptical about the idea of relative poverty and prefer to focus on absolute poverty. So, a certain minimum subsistence threshold is identified and those falling below that threshold are poor. Nothing to do with comparing them to their neighbours, but simply asking whether they have enough to meet an agreed minimum standard of living. This is the approach of Maud Pember Reeves's Round About a Pound a Week (1913), examining the lives of families who had only a pound a week to live on. Or in modern studies, examining the lives of those who get by on only a proportion of the average income.
This matters because identifying and defining 'the poor' is the first stage in deciding how best to help. Everybody wants to help 'the poor', right? We're just having a bit of trouble identifying them, that's all, because sometimes you might be in for a rude shock when you discover that you also don't have the stuff that is being raised for 'the poor' in your community. Nobody wants to raise money for the poor, only to discover that they themselves are even poorer than the poor folk they were trying to help. Very disconcerting. Like when poor people in rich countries discover they've been sending money to line the pockets of rich people in poor countries. It's really not what anybody wants and this should be avoided if at all possible.
Self-employed workers are arguably the hardest working folks out there. The UK House of Commons Select Committee Report on self-employment and the gig economy, published in April 2017 and chaired by Frank Field MP, begins by observing that ‘the self-employed are a large and growing part of the UK labour force’ constituting some 5 million workers amounting to 15% of the total labour force.
The report observes that ‘self-employment can be a positive choice’ and supports measures that would make things easier for those who want to start their own businesses. The report acknowledges that self-employment ‘can represent entrepreneurial zeal and a highly desirable culture of self-reliance.’ The virtue of self-reliance indeed appears elsewhere in Field's other writings on welfare so we're looking here at a concept of welfare that involves more than a simple invitation to relax and let The Government look after you. This is good. Many welfarists could do with a reminder that the government is not their parent, and more importantly they are not children who need to be protected from the harsh realities of life.
The report does well to highlight the role played by technology in the gig economy, and to acknowledge the ‘large number of positive developments and opportunities.’ The gig economy is broadly defined in the report:
These digital platforms disrupt the previous model of work by vastly expanding the traditional capacity of self-employed workers to reach customers.
The main concern underlying the report is not exclusively with the potential for exploitation of workers (i.e. the morality of Uber making money off the backs of innocent drivers) but also with the potential for employers to avoid their financial obligations to contribute towards the welfare state, and to give their so-called self-employed workers increasing scope to avoid income tax and other social security obligations.
The report therefore offers proposals to ‘protect both those workers and the public purse’. The public purse in this context basically means taxpayers financing the welfare state. It is a huge problem if more and more people want to be supported by the free money available from the welfare state, and fewer people want to pay money in.
The report outlines the essential structure of the ‘social contract’ underlying the welfare state, beginning from its roots in the Beveridge Report of 1942. The report observes that ‘public support for welfare spending has been in long-term decline’ and attributes this to ‘wider public perceptions of the importance of contribution and the social contract’ which is a polite and rather fancy way of saying that people don’t want to pay for immigrants who pitched up two hours ago and paid nothing in to the system and also, let’s face it, people definitely don’t want to pay for strangers of a different race, nationality, language and culture regardless of how long ago they pitched up on these shores. Human beings are funny that way. Quite self-regarding and less worried than they should perhaps be about the welfare of Other People who are Not Like Them. They didn't have to grapple with mass immigration in 1942, did they, so of course everyone was behind Beveridge and his social contract vision. This is precisely why intelligent people argue that immigration and welfare should be delinked:
That argument applies equally well to all rich countries, not just the US. If there is lots of free money to be dished out in a rich country then it's only natural for people to feel emotionally overwhelmed by the fear of being overrun by orcs. Orcs are scary creatures that creep out from the deep and dark places in the bowels of the earth, and migrate in a heaving mass to rich countries to try and get their greedy little hands into every pot of free money they can find. Back in the real world, Griswold points out that most immigrants are exactly like normal people: they just want to work, and earn money, and support themselves. But no amount of pointing to the obvious facts will ever subdue the primal fears of rich country citizens about what looks to them like an orc invasion. So the best solution is to delink welfare from immigration. If citizens are not worried that they'll be forced to foot the bill, and forced to share their free schools and free hospitals, they'll be less worried about who's coming to live in the same country as them. Just make immigrants pay to support themselves. Ban them from using free schools and free hospitals. They can home-school their children and if they get sick they can self-medicate with herbs or something. It's not difficult. Where there's a will there's a way, and immigrants are remarkably resilient, hardy and self-driven: they had to be, to cross the desert for forty days with no water and then get into a leaky boat made out of tin foil to venture across the ocean. Let them get on with it, with no public funds. Then there'll be less squabbling over the spoils of welfare, and less fear and resentment in the world.
The Field report notes that the only remaining welfare recipients for whom people still have respect and support are the pensioners. Well, of course. The pensioners tend not to be immigrants. They tend to have put in their time, 'paid into the system' as it is euphemistically put, and do not tend to have recently washed up in a leaky boat from a poor country far away. They have worked hard all their lives and it seems right that they should be able to retire on social security support. None of this is very surprising. As the report itself says:
That will be a concern for the Select Committee, because of the fear that gig economy workers will avoid paying in to the welfare system but still require to be supported by the public purse when their business runs aground. Moreover there seems to be a perception that the self-employed benefit disproportionately from the welfare system despite having paid little in.
The terms 'poverty' and 'inequality' are often used interchangeably. As long as there are some people with lots of stuff, and other people who have less stuff, there will always be inequality. The only way to eradicate inequality is to ensure that everybody has exactly the same amount of stuff.
There are many people who believe that everybody should have the same amount of stuff, but there are also many people who don't care whether other people have more stuff than them. So there is no consensus on the inequality issue. But how about 'poverty'? What does it mean to be poor? Does being poor simply mean that there are folks out there who are richer than you are, therefore you are poor? Is poverty the same thing as inequality?
By viewing poverty as a relative rather than absolute concept, and identifying poverty by reference to income and wealth distribution, poverty becomes exactly the same thing as income inequality. In other words, it is not poverty in itself that is the problem, but the fact that some people are poor relative to others.
In one sense it must be true that poverty is always a relative concept. It would be meaningless to describe myself as 'richer' than King Henry VIII because I have a car and he never had one, the poor dude. By that measure I'm richer by far than everyone who lived in the centuries before I was born, which may be a comforting thought in an existential sense but this is not what most people understand by the notions of wealth and poverty. Common sense dictates that when we describe people as 'poor' we are comparing them to other people in the same time and place in which they live, and in that sense the whole notion of poverty must be relative to the context:
Someone too 'poor' to own a linen shirt when everyone around him owns one would not be 'poor' in ancient Greece, sure. Hence today people plead poverty because they don't have smart phones that you need to buy bus tickets in many cities, smart televisions that you need to keep up with the news, and smart cars that you need to get from your home to your place of work especially if you live in places where public transport links are inadequate.
But just because poverty is relative in this common sense way does not mean that everybody should have an equal amount of stuff. Nor does it mean that it is 'unfair' for some people to have more than others. If the so-called fight against poverty were simply about making sure that everyone has the basic 'necessities' however that is defined, it would not be so controversial: it is easy to imagine a society that agrees that everybody should own a smart phone or whatever, and then allocates tax dollars to make sure that everybody has a smart phone. The controversy arises when the so-called fight against poverty becomes an open-ended fight to make sure that everybody has the same amount of stuff and that nobody is richer than other people. When people are accused of not being bothered about 'the poor', that is not usually an accusation that they have failed to be concerned about those lacking food to eat or a place live or even a television to entertain themselves with; it is usually an accusation that they don't seem to care whether everybody in society has the same amount of stuff.
If your house is very modest, with a bed for you to rest your head and a hob for you to cook your dinner and a shelf for you to store your books, are you allowed to be happy with that? Or are you supposed to work yourself up into a righteous lather because out there some people have ginormous mansions and servants and expensive cars and yachts, so you're supposed to become very angry because it's all just so unfair? Also, what shall we do with those who have the temerity to be content with their lot and who don't give a flying fig about the rich feckers out there - if they refuse to get angry because they haven't bothered to cry 'it's not fair!' since the age of approximately 5, then what: should they perhaps be locked up until they become enlightened enough to join the revolution?
Of course not. The thing about freedom is that people are free to care or not care about all this malarkey. The problems only arise when those who care very much feel that they must wage war against those who don't care, forcing them to make the same choices as the choices made by those who care. Rather than quietly give to charity because of how much they really care, such warriors must create lots of mandatory laws to ensure that everybody gives the same amount of money towards the cause of ensuring that society becomes ever more equal.
Why is it that all the people who write about freedom are capitalists? What do socialists have to say about freedom, if anything?
The best thing to do if you get fired is to gather up your worldly possessions and hit the road in search of your next adventure.
Some people make risky choices, just for the thrill of it, but when it comes to work, who chooses to work and who can say they were forced to work by their employer? Yes, this is about Uber again.
You may have read in the news that Uber is guilty of exploiting workers, forcing them to drive when they’d rather be at home resting nicely with their families, and employing ‘psychological tricks’ to mask its inhumane treatment of the drivers. It's grim. 19th century sweated labour conditions, only worse. You’d think we’d have moved on from the days of the dark satanic mills, but no. We are marching backwards and before long it will be exactly like the days of prehistory when everyone was dying of the plague.
In the latest round of talks between Uber and its unhappy drivers, which are currently being conducted under the aegis of the Employment Appeal Tribunal, Uber is reduced to arguing that it has done nothing new, nothing innovative, nothing exciting, let alone revolutionary. The nature of their defence is: we deny that there is any such thing as the gig economy, or if there is, we deny that we are part of it.
There's a road, they say, that leads to a very bad place - and it's paved with good intentions.
The concept of job security has four different meanings, in increasing order of regulatory strength: