George Walford: Yesterday’s Solutions are Today’s Problems

Frances Cairncross comments on a series of reforms, extending over more than three decades and costing immense amounts, which have now come to be seen as rather harmful than beneficial:

more public money is a cure for poverty to be applied with great caution. We tried it for thirty-five years: we built ghettos in which the poor are marooned, created an education system which three-quarters of our children desert as soon as the law allows, and devised social security benefits which make it too expensive to go to work. (TLS 20 Dec 85)

And – it sounds like,a sick joke – the “public” money used to inflict these things was taken partly from the victims, taxes being imposed, as Cairncross points out, on even the lowest-paid workers.

We can produce the most wonderful machines and – on the whole – they do what is expected of them. But we do not exercise corresponding control over our society; here our efforts produce results which were not expected and, very often, not desired. The right wing often point this out, using it as an argument against reforms, but to follow through on that would mean getting stuck in yesterday’s problems. The slums in which so many people lived in the 1930s had to be dealt with somehow, pre-war education was grossly defective, and society is bound to provide some form of security for its members. These things could not reasonably be left as they were, but the changes that were made have not produced the intended results, and the reason is that we do not yet have sufficient understanding of human behaviour.

Sometimes the behaviour that has not been understood is that of the people the reforms were intended to benefit; children have not displayed the expected interest in the further education offered and the unemployed have not shown the passion for work that was expected to drive them all towards it even though some of them were better off without it. (They behave, in this respect, in much the same way as the employers; in each group some show eagerness for work while others prefer to avoid it). In other cases the unforeseen behaviour has come from those carrying out the reforms; the architects, builders and municipal officials responsible for erecting the tower blocks did not all display the responsibility, the disinterestedness and the concern to do a thorough and reliable job that was expected of them.

It looks as though the worst blunders in housing are now being corrected, but little has been done to ensure that the resources being poured into education, social security and health services are not creating problems comparable with those they are intended to solve. In order to be sure of that we need to know much more about the way people respond in varying circumstances and that requires, among much else, a knowledge of the ideological influences at work.

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SEVERAL British towns have declared themselves “Nuclear-Free Zones.” A nice thought, but it would be more reassuring if the Russians had made the declaration.

from Ideological Commentary 23, July 1986.