A national newspaper commenting on the affair of No. 144 Piccadilly referred to ‘the social grievance which provoked the whole affair, bad housing’. We are going to hear a great deal more in that vein in the next twelve months, as the election looms nearer and also perhaps as incidents of the same kind multiply. The first and most urgent point to make is this. Violence and breach of the law are no evidence of the existence of a grievance, let alone a justified grievance, or whatever can be the meaning of that oracular phrase a ‘social grievance’. Sometimes, indeed, intolerable injustice and oppression provokes the downtrodden into rebellion – or so the history books tell us, though even in the past the appearance of this was probably more common than the reality. That is not the phenomenon of our own day. Today violence and mob law are organised and spreading for their own sake. Those who organise and spread them are not seeking to persuade authority to act differently, to be more merciful or more generous: their object is to repudiate authority as such and destroy it. An elementary and dangerous mistake is made when those who observe and comment attribute the occurrences to some grievance. A whole series of errors is then set in train, which multiply the evil instead of eliminating it.
Look at the particular case. ‘Bad housing’ is said to be the grievance which provokes scores of ruffians into seizing a building and doing battle with the police in Piccadilly. The claim is simply untrue, whatever ‘bad housing’ may mean. But ‘bad housing’ can mean a variety of very different things, which it is dangerous to confuse. There is a tiny minority of people who by reason of some kind of fecklessness or incompetence are chronically unable to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families. This tiny minority has existed at all times and will continue to do so as long as human nature is the same. It is quite independent of the economic level of society or the form of organisation of society. The rest of society has to cope as best it can with this minority, so that they are as little nuisance as possible to themselves and other people: the task is an endless one (there is no ‘solution to the problem’) but is fortunately attractive in every generation to a certain number of able, and admirable, people. There is no connection between the ‘bad housing’ which is part of the bad conditions of this minority and what people talk about in general as ‘bad housing’. By this they mean that housing, either generally or a large proportion of it, is less good and plentiful than could be desired. That, however, is true of almost everything: man’s desires, fortunately, outstrip his current means in almost every direction. We speak of ‘bad housing’ in a way in which we do not complain of bad food, bad clothes, bad cars, bad television sets, but in which we do speak of bad schools and bad hospitals: in short, we speak of it as a ‘grievance’, as something which could and ought to be made better, here and now. Why? Answer: because it is widely believed that there is a right to good housing, and therefore an obligation on someone’s part to provide it for everybody. Sure enough, a person who is denied his recognised right has a legitimate grievance. The error, and the folly, is in the recognition of the right.
The folly is much, much older than the Declaration of Human Rights, but that document is a convenient anthology of it and has no doubt helped its propagation. The passage in the Declaration to our immediate purpose is as follows:
‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, widowhood, old age or any other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.’
There it is: the astonishing, the stupefying statement that everyone has a right to be adequately housed. Whether ‘adequately’ in his own judgment or someone else’s is not stated; but one thing is absolutely clear. It means a right to be housed at less cost to himself than that at which the same quality and quantity of housing would be voluntarily produced and offered to him. If I can buy an article in the market, willing seller, willing buyer, I have no need to claim, or be given, a right to it. If plums are 1s. a pound, I do not need to assert a right to buy a pound of plums for 1s.; but if I want them for ninepence, or sixpence, or nothing, I must set about providing myself with a right, because assuredly some force is going to be needed somewhere.
This translation of a want or need into a right is one of the most widespread and dangerous of modern heresies. We hear it on all sides. A need for higher education instantly appears as a right to higher education, a right of which the satisfaction is demanded as peremptorily as the highwayman demands the traveller’s watch and chain, and of which the non-satisfaction – and since the potential is limitless, satisfaction is impossible – becomes a ‘grievance’, justifying violence and anarchy. A need for care – medical, psychiatric, social – likewise becomes a right to such care. A need for security becomes a right to security; and so on, and so on.
Two distinct evils flow from this. First, the mechanism by which the need would be supplied, consistently with the supply of other needs, is damaged and even destroyed. Housing provides the classic case. The compulsion exerted for the last fifty years to provide rented housing at less than its market price has reduced production and perpetuated scarcity – ‘housing shortage’ and ‘housing squalor’ are the automatic consequence and accompaniment of below-market rents. Thank goodness we never got as far as a ‘right’ to cheap cars or a ‘right’ to cheap domestic appliances. From a ‘right’ to cheap food we were only saved in the nick of time in 1951. If the organisations which interest themselves in the cure of ‘bad housing’ mean what they profess, they would march to Westminster with placards inscribed ‘Give us market rents!’, varied here and there with a ‘Hands off housing’ or ‘Down with the right to a home’. I promise to go along, too.
The other evil of the ‘right’ to this, and the ‘right’ to that, is the limitless opportunity which is opened for the state to bring compulsion to bear on the citizen. A right of mine to something at less than it costs to provide must be counterbalanced by a duty imposed on someone else to surrender to me part of what is his. As these ‘rights’ extend, more and more of the income and effort of the citizens has to be placed at the disposal of the state, not so that the ‘rights’ can be realised and the demands satisfied – that is in itself impossible – but so that the extent to which the demands are met shall be determined by the state itself. It is a society in which the scope of compulsion will be constantly on the increase.
Of all the humbugging words with which politics is cursed, the word ‘compassionate’, applied to a state or a government or a political party, is the most detestable. We are doomed to hear a great deal more of it in the near future. Harold Wilson had the effrontery to inform the TUC not very long ago that ‘against the background of a grim economic crisis, we’ – that is, the Government – ‘have had the compassion and the courage to make provision on an unprecedented scale for those among us who were in the greatest need of help’.
‘Compassion’! If the hypocrisy were not so frightful, the brazenness of it would almost extort admiration. The Prime Minister does not mean that he and his colleagues in the Cabinet put their hands into their own pockets and, without anyone being told about it, passed on the contents to those ‘in greatest need’. Not at all. He means that they enforced upon their fellow citizens, by the use of the powers of government in general and taxation in particular, a redistribution of income which they hoped – for why else mention it? – would stand them, the Labour Government, in good stead at the next election in terms of votes.
Compassion is something individual and voluntary. You cannot compel somebody to be compassionate; nor can you be vicariously compassionate by compelling somebody else. The Good Samaritan would have lost all merit if a Roman soldier were standing by the road with a drawn sword, telling him to get on with it and look after the injured stranger. Because there can be no such thing as compulsory compassion or vicarious compassion, therefore it is a humbugging abuse of language, intended to deceive, to talk about a ‘compassionate Government’ or a ‘compassionate party’ – or even a ‘compassionate society’, unless one simply means by that a society which happens to contain a lot of compassionate individuals. Nor let anyone protest: ‘Oh, but when I vote for a party which will “make provision on an unprecedented scale for those in need of help”, it means I too shall have to pay my whack and so I am being compassionate after all.’ Nonsense! The purpose of your vote is not to make yourself subscribe – that you can freely do at any time – but to compel others.
There may be, and there no doubt are, satisfactory reasons why the compulsory power of the state should be used to redirect purchasing power from one set of individuals to another set of individuals. What is certain is that it has as little to do with the virtue of compassion as with the satisfaction of a right.