O Hara Kieron

Kieron O’Hara is a philosopher, computer scientist and political writer. He is a senior research fellow within the department of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton.

Conservatism is not an ideology associated with analyses of poverty. Its dictionary definition is resistance to change, and those resistant to change are most happy with the status quo, and unlikely to be in poverty. Conservatism is also reactive, concerned with questioning innovation rather than identifying and correcting social problems.

Nevertheless, the issue of poverty is an opportunity for conservatives. Conservatism’s focuses on the effectiveness of policy, plurality of value, localism and the importance of meaningful institutions suggest that it has something important to say, even if only as a corrective to misguided and uncritically accepted policies.

Change is more desirable when the state of society is less satisfactory, and therefore when the risk of change is relatively small. Edmund Burke’s, in Reflections on the Revolution in France, the text of the classic Conservative tradition, wrote: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”

The loveliness of a country is surely inversely proportional to the extent of poverty within it.

However, it is important for those making decisions about a society to understand it. One must be realistic about its faults. Data and information are uncertain, yet also necessary; they need to be interpreted carefully. Most important are consistent series of data that can be used to understand the effects of policies over time.

Yet Conservative governments have often neglected data collection—Margaret Thatcher’s government cut funding for the statistics office, which she later regretted, while the current coalition government has also cut back on data collection. We have lost surveys on local services and community cohesion, on drinking and drug taking among children and even the national census. Local councils, too, spend much less time consuming data.

At a time when “big data” is has revolutionising science, business and social policy, UK governments are in danger of finding themselves in a position of almost total ignorance. Government policy will be even less informed than usual — and the consequences of that policy will therefore be even more unpredictable. It will always be impossible for policymakers to determine what their policies will achieve. This is the problem of unintended consequences. This is especially tragic for the poor, who are often harmed by half-baked interventions. And there are seven deadly sins of poverty policy:

Calls for redistribution

Taking money from those who have it and giving it to those who do not may seem a no-brainer, until we consider potential unintended consequences. Capital taken from its owners might alleviate poverty temporarily; yet left with its owners, it might be put to productive use funding permanent jobs. The net effect of redistribution might be to put people out of work, thereby exacerbating the problem it is intending to address.

Ignoring personal responsibility

People are the best judge of their present and particular needs, so interference in their decisions should be sparing. This is important to reduce moral hazard, where people indulge in riskier or less productive behaviour because they know that they are likely to receive support if the risks don’t pay off. Individuals should make the decision about whether to risk their current assets, but in most circumstances should shoulder the burden of risk. That does not mean that risks cannot be socialised, but we must avoid unrealistic discounting of risk and subsequent transfer of resources from the prudent to the reckless.


The valorisation of personal responsibility entails a mistrust of unconditional transfers to the poor. At a certain level of income it becomes rational not to work, which is hardly sensible.

We should reject the canard that people on benefits prefer that way of life, but many find themselves in a trap in which extra work will affect them negatively. Being sheltered, or trapped depending on your point of view, by an impersonal system is neither pleasant nor empowering. An important strand of conservative thought has documented the ill effects of welfare on the poor.

Ignoring local norms and existing identities

Surely no-one would maintain that “the poor”, despite always being with us, form a homogenous group with a single set of interests? Yet that is how the welfare system treats them. Poverty has multiple causes and multiple forms. Conservatism finds meaning in the local and the situated, not in some abstract statistical characterisation which draws an arbitrary line at earnings of, say, £2 per day or 40 per cent of median income. Experiences of poverty, and solutions to the problem, will vary across communities depending on the traditions, institutions and communal resources (economic, social and intellectual) to which a poor person has access. The implication is that localism should loom large in the search for acceptable means to address poverty. Giant, faceless bureaucracies are more likely to suck the humanity out of communities than to provide welcome support. They are more likely to dismantle local identities and to treat poor people as rational utility maximisers to be “nudged” towards a particular kind of lifestyle.


If we accept local norms, then we should eschew paternalism. Paternalism often arises when those on the left are frustrated at the failure of anti-poverty strategies—the poor are blamed, not the policies. Labour politicians complained about Britain’s “vulgar” 1950s consumer boom, despite the widespread dissemination of labour-saving devices which liberated a generation of women from drudgery.

Ignoring wider legitimacy

Transfers of resources from the relatively well-off to the poor have to be democratically legitimated, ideally by a politician standing up and making the case, risking rejection at the ballot box —something few politicians have dared to do for some decades in the UK . Redistribution of wealth “on the sly” can only end in tears. There are three likely outcomes. First, those who believe they make a net contribution without being consulted will become angry, leading to unpalatable and usually false myths about the “feckless poor” and benefit cheats. Indeed, the closer one is to the possibility that one might need benefits in the future, the angrier one is likely to be; the left has always struggled with the undeniable fact that those most irritated by alleged welfare “cheats” are often disadvantaged themselves.

Second, the relatively well-off will use their greater numbers and greater propensity to vote to co-opt the system and milk it for themselves. Education and pensions are areas where one suspects the poor get an especially raw deal. It is a reasonable hypothesis that the serious waste in welfare, both in terms of needless use of government-funded services and of evasion and fraud, is down to wealthier citizens, not those in poverty.

The third possibility is the New Labour solution of bypassing taxpayers by borrowing the welfare money, which is fine until the economy is bankrupted (when the money then has to be clawed back to pay interest to rich investors), and which anyway is less useful than borrowing to invest in infrastructure and education.

Universal, bureaucratic solutions

A faceless national bureaucracy is unlikely to provide the help that the poor need, because the poor are not homogeneous. It is also unlikely to weed out fraudsters, which requires a nimbleness it will not have. However, it will be set up to deter fraud, and therefore simply repel or confuse the majority of honest folk who it persists in viewing as helpless supplicants. The chief beneficiaries of a faceless bureaucracy are faceless bureaucrats, who become a political grouping with their own interests and claims on government resources. The poor are short of money, not stupid, and they understand this. It should be no surprise, therefore, that many view the welfare state not as a benign benefactor, but as a nut to be cracked. Small-scale schemes are far better.

Along with these seven deadly sins, many issues surrounding poverty could at least be ameliorated by increasing the respect afforded to the poor, and empowering them to make decisions and craft their own solutions to the problems as they perceive them, rather than simply transferring money. The welfarist solution to poverty does precisely the opposite, cheerlessly doling out money to no obvious purpose in a setting so mechanistic and dehumanising that recognition and respect are the last things one is likely to feel.

So conservatism should be well-placed to interpret and support the aspirations of disadvantaged groups and individuals.

However, since the general election of 1992, the Tories have been largely absent from our inner cities. Given that many successful initiatives to ease poverty—whether carried out by charities, community groups or churches—are often conservative in spirit, focusing on personal responsibility, respect, “taking control” and avoiding blunt bureaucratic solutions, one feels this is an opportunity missed. The lack of empathy that Conservative politicians have with the poor (who would never vote for them) is surely responsible for unnecessarily brutal policy ideas intended primarily to balance budgets rather than to help people out of a fix. It is hard to see the “bedroom tax”, or a benefit cap insensitive to variations in property prices, as anything other than kicking people who are already down. It is essential for the government to bring down the UK ’s spiralling debts, and preferably to eliminate them. Welfare spending will have to be squeezed alongside everything else. However, this could, and should, be done sensitively, and preferably at a local rather than a national level.

Similarly, Conservatives have form with the regard to the idea of the deserving and undeserving poor. Personal responsibility is important, but all too often Conservative politicians find the path of least electoral resistance to lie in demonising the poor as welfare scroungers (they are not alone in this: Labour has done its share of populist pandering). This is a shameful practice, but we should bear in mind that parties indulge in it because they see electoral gains in doing so. They go where voters lead them. It is far better to try to create opportunities. Translation roles, such as brokering between communities and government, and bridging between different cultures, are important. Training and education are vital functions of government. Spending on infrastructure is helpful too: for the equivalent of the staggeringly high sum being spent on the High Speed Rail link, many local rail, bus and tram networks could be improved or updated, making it easier and cheaper for people to find and get to work. Unhelpful Victorian ideas about the deserving and undeserving poor disappear when a politics of support, recognition and agency replaces bureaucratic redistribution.

Finally, markets are the most reliable source of the economic growth that has seen the number of people in poverty in the world halved since 1990. In many ways, the problem of poverty is to identify who needs which resources to pursue their own aspirations and projects, and then to target and distribute resources appropriately. Targeting and distribution is what free markets do well—it is important not to neglect their capabilities.

But it shouldn’t be mistaken that tackling poverty is the process of getting a fixed list of resources into the hands of a passive group of supplicants.

The inevitable failure of such a process leads to the normal frustrated paternalist scorn for the supplicants who, either through ingratitude, ignorance or fecklessness, have frittered the resources away before they improved themselves sufficiently to take their place as fully-fledged “stakeholders” in society. This is a fundamentally corrupting and disrespectful view which is almost designed to alienate the poor.

Ultimately, conservatism is about taking power from governments and giving it back to people, not as individuals but in their community settings. Empowerment can take many forms. Support needs to be personalised and targeted, and technology can be an important aid to this. Local solutions, including payment by results to allow experimentation and innovation, need to be tried. The tools for self-government should be provided, including open data to allow community groups to understand and negotiate their own environment more fully. Indeed, some techno-optimists, such as the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell, foresee government withering away and civil society stepping into the breach. Such an outcome is unlikely. But there is much to be said for supporting poor communities and devolving power. To understand a community, one needs to be involved in it.

Old-fashioned welfare provision often involved building a concrete bunker and plonking it down in a shopping centre —the poor would go in and out and interaction would be minimal. New-fangled welfare is now online, and the human element has shrivelled still further. We need data, which makes the government’s neglect of data collection so regrettable. But data is only one half the story. The qualitative side of the story is also important. Lines of communication need to be opened between policymakers and those who live or work in disadvantaged communities or campaign for disadvantaged groups.

There are many means of tackling poverty. Most of them involve leaving people alone to make their own decisions about how to earn money and providing an infrastructure to support their decisions where necessary. For the conservative, societies are vulnerable to interference. People understand their own situation. Outsiders don’t.

This essay is a shortened version of a collection including contributions from AC Grayling, Leanne Wood, Roger Scruton and Rowan Williams, published in partnership between the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Prospect Magazine. To read other essays or download the full report, please click here.

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