A horrific crime story from Britain, in which a father managed to kill six children while trying to frame a former lover for arson, has (dare I say) inflamed if not reignited a debate similar to the one often heard in the U.S. over the demoralizing effects of dependency on government. Britain's "liberal" news media has reacted angrily to a Tory newspaper's description of the perpetrator as a "vile product" of the British welfare state and typical of the "evil born of welfare dependency." For one columnist, this attitude amounts to bigotry against the poor and is consistent with a partisan propaganda campaign echoing American disputes, with "strivers" and "skivers" taking the places, respectively, of "makers" and "takers" in U.S. rhetoric. "It is a marked feature of the last three years that people claiming benefits have been represented in a particular way," Zoe Williams writes, " as worthless, immoral, grasping and, fundamentally, different to the rest of us." The nation's churches apparently tell a different story, joining forces to refute reactionary myths about poverty, particularly the cumulative assumption that the poor are lazy addicts who strive only to cheat the system.
So much for American exceptionalism, at least on this particular point. The attitudes decried by Williams and the churches are inevitable in any country dedicated to capitalism and free enterprise. Just as Leninists are compelled to blame their policy failures on counterrevolutionary sabotage, capitalist ideologues are compelled to blame any poverty in societies that should be the most prosperous on individual failings. If the premise of "free enterprise" is that anyone can succeed, those who don't succeed must be losers in every sense of the word. Even if you were laid off, I suppose, the fact that you had a job subject to layoffs proves you were a loser -- you come up short, never the system. It's the attitude we should expect wherever "liberty" has priority over life. The U.S.? Check. The U.K.? Check. Where else?
Are some people simply incompetent? Certainly. Should we all be more capable of adapting to adversity, no matter what the source? Sure. Should we also work together to perfect a society capable of minimizing adversity and facilitating adaptation? Why not? We all want a world without "skivers," but who gets to say who is and isn't pulling his own weight? It depends on what your responsibilities are, or what you think they are, and the self-styled "strivers" or "makers" in the U.K. and U.S. don't have the last word on that subject.
Postscript: here's a comment from a less outrageous British conservative -- a biographer of Pat Buchanan, no less -- who rejects the idea that the arsonist was a "product" of the welfare state but argues that the system lacks disincentives to discourage his type of behavior. The columnist is under the impression that the left is disinclined to denounce the arsonist for the scum he is, on the assumption that the left always blames society first, but if anything the furor over this case has made the British left more insistent on the point of personal responsibility, if only to refute the claim that the arsonist was the product of an ideal, if not an actually existing system, they still favor.