We need knowledge and leadership for a good society, says Nat O’Connor

Posted on 19 Mar 2018   Categories: Responses to Rethinking Poverty, Rethinking Poverty Related Tags:  

Nat O’Connor is a Lecturer in Public Policy and Public Management at Ulster University

Barry Knight, and others, are right to move beyond the word ‘poverty’. It is a loaded term and people carry so many preconceptions into any conversation on poverty that it is difficult to achieve new thinking if we are forced to spend time unpicking different assumptions and biases at the outset.

Hosting a conversation on ‘a good society’ is one useful way to move beyond sterile political debates on poverty. When trying to activate people’s values and their more sympathetic, moral thinking, I’m influenced by Common Cause and related reports.

One barrier to conversations about a good society is the liberal argument that we (‘do-gooders’) ought not to specify what is a good life for other people. Instead, we should let them choose for themselves.

 

‘Primary goods’ or ‘capabilities’: alternative approaches to establishing basic needs

An aspect of this fundamental argument underpins the division between those who focus on people’s material condition or their ‘primary goods’ (John Rawls) and those who focus on building up people’s capabilities (Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum). Personally, I’m not convinced that these approaches are as incompatible as some would suggest. Sen is certainly very reluctant to describe what the capabilities actually are, and thus he allows for a truly diverse range of personal choices about how to live well. But I suspect that, at the very least, we can describe what a ‘bad life’ looks like, and suggest actions to avoid that, and thus derive certain conditions that need to pertain if a person is to develop capabilities, including the capability to identify what life they wish to pursue.

Rawls’s primary goods are: the basic rights and liberties; freedom of movement, and free choice among a wide range of occupations; the powers of offices and positions of responsibility; income and wealth; and the social bases of self-respect: the recognition by social institutions that gives citizens a sense of self-worth and the confidence to carry out their plans.

“What we are doing when we discuss either poverty or a good society is trying to establish what are the basic needs of human beings”

Nussbaum’s ten ‘central human capabilities’ are: life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; other species; play; and control over one’s environment.

In a way, what we are doing when we discuss either poverty or a good society is trying to establish what are the basic needs of human beings. There are plenty of other examples of that, including Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (although many critics argue against any hierarchy in such schemes). Some of my own work has been to explore the non-monetary aspects of economic inequality.

 

Can we specify a minimum standard of living?

When it comes to describing a frugal but minimum standard of living, which every person should be able to attain, I’m sympathetic to the work done by Loughborough University that underpins their Minimum Income Standards, and that, in turn, informs the real living wage promoted by the Living Wage Foundation.

However, crucially, identifying minimum income standards does not mean the best way to meet those needs is just to give people sufficient cash income. We see this argument played out, for example, with Universal Basic Income ideas pitted against the idea of Universal Basic Services. The latter can be more cost efficient to provide (eg the NHS) and it may only be possible to envisage the attainment of a good society through the cost-efficiencies of collective public services rather than increasing people’s cash income.

“There is a huge, under-explored space here to come up with innovative ways to meet these needs”

Work in the Republic of Ireland on a minimum essential standard of living offers 16 categories: food; clothing; personal care; health; household goods; household services; communications; social inclusion; education; transport; housing; household energy; personal costs; childcare (and other costs associated with children); insurance; savings & contingencies. Importantly, these derive from inclusive focus group conversations, so they come from the perspectives of many people, not an academic or elite view of what people need.

It seems to me that there is a huge, under-explored space here to come up with innovative ways to meet these needs. Loads of ideas in circulation already speak to this: setting up solar panels so people can meet their energy needs, and even sell back spare energy to the grid; setting up simple structures to facilitate small groups of parents to cooperate in the rearing of their children (outside of any formal organisation or market transaction); setting up co-ops to give people stronger purchasing power over insurance or other purchases; setting up mutual societies so that freelancers in the economy have an equivalent to social protection; etc, etc.

 

Can social science determine optimum conditions for human wellbeing?

For me, the question of human needs comes down to social science, within which I include psychology and evidence from health sciences, etc. Certain conditions tend to produce human beings who can act autonomously and make choices about their lifestyle and preferences. As such, it seems very possible to specify a set of (material, social, educational) conditions that would be optimum for human flourishing.  Conversely, we often rely on (social) science that tells us a person was compelled to illegal behaviour due to addiction or a mental/emotional disability. We excuse some negative behaviours in these people, but not in others who had a ‘choice’.

But people from other political perspectives will disagree about what people’s needs are, or if they can even be known. Moreover, some may argue that neither the state nor society should do anything to ensure that people can meet their needs. Various arguments are used here, including a demand that people take personal responsibility, a desire to maintain ‘incentives’ in the market economy, or even the belief that life is a competition and there are naturally winners and losers.

“Some may argue that neither the state nor society should do anything to ensure that people can meet their needs”

None of this is a new debate, but it remains unresolved and it goes to the heart of why it is so difficult to advance the discussion on reducing/eliminating poverty and bringing about a good society. We need to find a way to get beyond the political, ideological arguments that, even if we think we are doing people a favour by removing constraints to their greater wellbeing, we ought not to interfere with individual freedom.

 

Lessening the constraints on people’s lives

‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, from ‘West Side Story’

The political argument about freedom versus social determinism is comically addressed in the song Gee, Officer Krupke, in the 1957 musical West Side Story. In the song, the young ‘delinquents’ blame their behaviour on their upbringing (‘Our mothers are all junkies, Our fathers are all drunks’), their lack of love in childhood, their parents’ marijuana consumption, their need for ‘analyst’s care’ to cure their ‘neurosis’ (‘He’s psychologically disturbed’), and their social environment and need for jobs (‘we’re sociologically sick’; ‘juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease’), before an imagined social worker concludes: ‘This boy don’t need a job, he needs a year in the pen. It ain’t just a question of misunderstood, deep down inside him, he’s no good!’

One way to address the issues of individual freedom – and the related question of whether people can blame their social circumstances or need to take personal responsibility – is from a social scientific perspective. A foundation for any argument about a good society is that people’s lives, and their freedom of action, are ‘constrained’ by their genes, their upbringing and their environment. Only extreme advocates of personal free will and responsibility ignore the weight of evidence about how people’s choices are limited by their circumstances.

A good society then is one in which the constraints on people’s lives are lessened”

A good society then is one in which the constraints on people’s lives are lessened, particularly for those who face the most constraint (due to poverty, deprivation, parental problems, disability, etc). As an example of how the focus on constraints may be fruitful, policies that give children a better start in life tend to receive support from across the political spectrum.

Whether or not human agency involves ‘real’ free will or just its simulacrum can remain a philosophical debate. The more important thing is to identify scientifically what constrains people, and at what point the level of constraint is sufficiently lessened that we can insist that people take responsibility for their decisions and actions. I think we do – in any kind of good society – want people to exhibit autonomy and competence (to make good decisions for themselves) and to take ownership of their choices.

 

Equality or freedom – or both?

In other words, when it comes to bringing about a good society, do we risk paternalism and downplay human agency by focusing on how human beings are constrained, and how negative outcomes result from inequality of material resources, destructive family environments, and other influences on people’s lives? Or do we put our faith in people’s agency and capabilities to specify what they want in their lives, and seek ways to empower them to achieve a better life for themselves?

The strongly social democratic market economies of Europe (eg Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands) all exhibit strong individualism, civic activism and personal freedom, built on a solid basis of equality of access to public services and a much fairer distribution of material resources. Based on these examples, one can promote both freedom and equality, as Rethinking Poverty does.

 

The core message of Rethinking Poverty

The core message of Rethinking Poverty boils down to two things for me. First, the ‘five principles of a good society’:

  1. We all have a decent basic standard of living
  2. So we are secure and free to choose how to lead our lives
  3. Developing our potential and flourishing materially and emotionally
  4. Participating, contributing and treating all with care and respect
  5. And building a fair and sustainable future for the next generations.

This implies something like a compromise between the philosophies of Rawls and Sen. And this balance is in the final section (p 159) which suggests we need ‘a world that offers both security and freedom’. The principles do imply a degree of paternalism – through social science – in determining just what qualifies as ‘a decent basic standard of living’. But one can side-step this accusation by noting that many people agree on a minimum standard of living for our society at this time (through the focus group research). Moreover, in so far as we meet people’s needs in part through cash – as part of a good society – we already build in a lot of small but important consumer choices around lifestyle, diet, where to live, and so on.

I agree with the sentiment that ‘What we need is … the development of transformational relationships that shift power’”

The second core message of Rethinking Poverty is in its method – the many conversations held with diverse groups to inform the book – and the conclusion that ‘It’s time to listen to and work with young people to support them in achieving the future that they want’. In other words, there is an ethos of listening to people and letting them decide. And I agree with the sentiment that ‘What we need is … the development of transformational relationships that shift power’.

 

What’s missing: knowledge …

But I think something is missing in the final analysis. Before the five principles can be achieved, we need knowledge and we need leadership. Ideally, as knowledge and capabilities grow in our society, leadership can take a back seat (and most of us can play the role of leader on different occasions). But for the foreseeable future – and to shift the power of knowledge – we need champions and activists.

One example of the lack of power across society is that it is possible (and sadly frequent) for the large majority of people to be wrong. For instance, as a society, we were ignorant of the true harm of smoking and we are only beginning, across society, to accept that alcohol is pretty bad for us too (e.g. only 1 in 10 in the UK know that alcohol is an established cause of cancer). Many of us now look back in shame or incomprehension at some things that a majority in society used to accept as normal.

One example of the lack of power across society is that it is possible (and sadly frequent) for the large majority of people to be wrong”

There is therefore a need to be more specific about what we mean by ‘transformational relationships that shift power’. I would include helping people acquire (social) scientific skills, critical thinking, knowledge, broader horizons, and all of the other things that education (or self-learning as an autodidact) can achieve at its best. For one thing, this requires taking a principled, intellectual stand against the worst excesses of ‘postmodernism’ where people deny material reality in favour of subjective, ideological conceptions of the world. Growing our knowledge also requires us to engage in mature and respectful dialogue with others to better understand their perspectives.

 

… and leadership

As for leadership, there is no getting away from the accusation of paternalism, but we can at least give more detail on what open, transparent, inclusive, selfless leadership would look like. For example, ‘[We] need a model of leadership based on service framed in love’ (p 130). The UK’s Nolan Principles for public life are not a bad place to start either: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

When … we can’t educate everyone quickly enough to avert crisis, leaders are going to have to take actions on behalf of the wider community”

I’m quite sure leadership is demonstrated in the daily lives of many of the people whose voices are included in Rethinking Poverty. We can make our organisations as empowering as possible for all who are involved with them. Yet, we do need leadership, and in some cases the leaders will hold truths that surprisingly large numbers of people deny or can’t get their heads around (like climate change). When time or available resources mean that we can’t educate everyone quickly enough to avert crisis, leaders are going to have to take actions on behalf of the wider community. We can explain them afterwards and be accountable to electorates or supporters, but we still have to take those decisions.

 

Revised principles of a good society

So, I suggest there are seven principles of a good society:

  1. We need people who care about improving the lives of others to empower themselves with diverse forms of knowledge so they can be a force for good in our societies
  2. And to form networks and organisations where they can act as leaders, activists and champions for change so that
  3. We all have a decent basic standard of living
  4. So we are secure and free to choose how to lead our lives
  5. Developing our potential and flourishing materially and emotionally
  6. Participating, contributing and treating all with care and respect
  7. And building a fair and sustainable future for the next generations.

 

Nat O’Connor (@natpolicy) is a Lecturer in Public Policy and Public Management at Ulster University. He convened the Belfast discussions on a good society, which fed into Rethinking Poverty.


Read Barry Knight’s follow-up paper to Rethinking Poverty here.

Posted on 19 Mar 2018   Categories: Responses to Rethinking Poverty, Rethinking Poverty Related Tags:  

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