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Rebecca Lowe is Director of FREER—a new initiative promoting economic and social liberalism, based at the IEA, where she is a Research Fellow. She is also an Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

I’m going to devote this column to two things I read on Twitter that annoyed me this week. I know we’re not supposed to let such things get to us — but that just seems completely out of touch with reality.

The first thing that annoyed me was a statement made by Manchester City Council, as a series of interlinked tweets (a ‘thread’, as it’s called). Now, I’ll avoid any jokey comments here about there being a lack of precedent for such organisations using social media particularly effectively, because, well, one of the tweets was really just unbelievably brutal.

Its claim was simple: that none of us should give food and drink to homeless people. The reasoning behind this claim was that doing so reduces the incentive for such people to seek official state help.

Now, there are various ways to engage with such a claim. The calm, collected way involves searching out data, and there’s a place for such an approach. However, that approach also completely misses the key point.

This is a point about basic decency. About humanity. Even if it were the case that, on some aggregate measure of addressing total need, the ‘right’ thing to do was always to ignore people’s evident pressing need for sustenance, that cannot be the best — or indeed, truly right — way of assessing this situation. Aggregate measures and end-point calculations cannot be all we care about.

Not only does such an approach fail terribly the crying woman you see outside the tube station at midnight, who ravenously devours the McDonald’s burger and sugar doughnut you buy her because no other food shops are open. It also erodes our instinct to help her. It drives away humanity, and crowds out virtue. It stops us wanting to do the right thing.

The increased burden on the state – to do all, and be all – decreases our choices by putting extreme demands on our income for tax money, and reduces our opportunities to be good citizens, and full members of a shared community. To be human. And it decreases the people we want to help – the people who need us – by taking them out of it all together. By making them a number, rather than a fellow citizen. By counting them out on some greater aggregate score, ignoring that midnight moment of need. I get endlessly frustrated by consequentialist reasoning, but I’ve rarely been angrier that when I read that tweet.

The second thing that annoyed me this week also relates to a lack of awareness around costs when considering ways to help people. And again, the costs here are not just financial. This time it was a tweet – or several tweets – in response to the news that a Premier League football club was attempting to address ‘period poverty’ (when women can’t afford adequate sanitary protection to meet their menstrual needs), by providing free sanitary products in the women’s lavatories on match days.

Unsurprisingly, some people responded to this news by claiming it was hardly the women who could afford to go to first-class football matches who needed such gifts the most. Now, it was neither the misunderstanding that ‘most equals only’, nor the football club’s generosity, that got to me.

Rather, it was the sadly inevitable chorus of subsequent tweets claiming that because women don’t choose to have periods – because their need is not simply a preference – that sanitary products should always be provided to them for free.

First, of course, is the obvious point that no such product is ever ‘free’ (not least because down that path lies slavery, since we’re playing emotive, here), so presumably they mean ‘paid for by the taxpayer’. But, more importantly, this points up a crucial misunderstanding, all too commonly propagated by those who should know better.

Just because you need something – something you didn’t choose to need, or something perhaps even you have a right to – doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t have to pay for it. This is not only because our needs – even our most pressing needs – and the needs of those near to and far from us, are so various that they necessitate prioritisation. (I need food. You need shelter. She needs her slow-growing cancer removed. He needs to know about the ways in which he might be exploited on the internet.)

But it is also because if all of that prioritisation is completely taken away from us, ourselves, then we lose out. Our society loses out. Sure, we might agree that some of these things should indeed be provided by the state in some cases – and no doubt we do agree about that, in perpetuity, on certain basic issues. And on other cases, we deliberate again and again, and adapt and adapt, and then think again, responding to changing times and resources, and more.

But to leave all of that – to leave the question of all of all of our needs, always – to the state and to taxpayers’ expense would clearly be completely infeasible in terms of cost, as well as inevitably unfair, and much more. It would take away something human. It would take away our ability to have a say. Our right as members of a society to do that.

We’d all end up driving Trabants and eating fourth-rate hamburgers – the lucky ones among us, anyway. And we’d also end up with little virtue, and much lost humanity.

20 comments for: Rebecca Lowe: We must not let the state crowd out private virtue

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