Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The Economics of Disability

We all have abilities to varying degrees for certain things in life, and lack abilities for others. What we make of these differences between us is a matter of economics.

In the economic model favoured by libertarians, individuals are left to their own devices to deal with life’s challenges. People with latent talent would not be assisted by others in developing and realising their full potential. People with clever ideas would not get the backing of others in turning those ideas into a large-scale enterprise. Each person, with one’s abilities limited by lack of organised aid from others, and one’s shortcomings magnified through isolation, would thus be left with an impoverished life.

In a cooperative model, where reciprocity and solidarity take centre stage, people organise to give each other systematic support so anyone’s abilities are nurtured and promoted for the benefit of all, and the different inabilities around are compensated for to the disadvantage of none. It does not matter what mix of ability or disability any individual may happen to have. Everyone is treated as equal in so far as they contribute to and are assisted by the collective arrangements in accordance with their respective abilities and needs.

Economic arguments are sometimes presented as a tussle between these two models. But while the cooperative model is one which actually guides progressive reformists as an ideal to strive towards, the libertarian model is just a smokescreen.

In reality, the people who are most vocal with libertarian-sounding advocacy of leaving people to get on with life on their own, are the ones who have already secured the largest support for themselves. But using their status, inherited wealth, and/or a market system that facilitates their profiteering, they are in a position where they have a steadily expanding surplus to more than cover their own shortcomings and disabilities. What they want is to strip others of all collective support so they end up being even more vulnerable, and less able to resist the exploitative demands of the powerful.

It is vital we expose this deception. There is no serious ideology of rugged individualism. If everyone goes down that road, everybody loses out. What the plutocratic elite really wants is to keep preaching to those disabled by illnesses, injuries and poverty the virtue of self-help, while they carry on with the vice of helping themselves to the fruits of others’ labour.

Politicians with a progressive conscience should not be pushed aside by this pernicious rhetoric of unleashing the ‘able’, and resenting the ‘disabled’. It is the economic system that divides us into the elite whose disabilities are well compensated by the excess resources they take from others, and the downtrodden who are disabled by the refusal to give them the necessary support in terms of health, housing, education and employment so they can live a fulfilled life.

It’s not vulnerable people who need to pull their socks up. To adapt a wise saying, it’s the economic system, stupid!

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Who’s Afraid of Political Education?

The spectre of bias hangs over political education. Teachers are anxious that they can be censured for siding with one political party against another. But to abstain from discussing the flaws of any policy proposal just because it has been put forward by a political party is not a sign of neutrality but one of intellectual dishonesty. Teachers should feel confident in tackling the ‘why, ‘what’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ of politics.

The whole point about politics is that people’s choices are not just their own personal business, it is society’s business. If people made political decisions on dogmatic grounds, they would be ignoring evidence and jeopardising the wellbeing of others with their prejudices. If people adopted a ‘free rider’ perspective, their attempt to pursue their own ends at the expense of others would threaten the possibility of political cooperation itself. The only coherent guiding principle for why people should choose certain political options is that those options on the available evidence are more likely than others to bring about improvements for everyone in society, or at least improvements for those most in need of them.

But what policy would in each case enhance the common good is much more contentious. Political education’s role is to teach how critical reasoning should be applied to individual proposals. People need to recognize that the findings of empirical research, on which we rely for all aspects of our everyday life, must not be suspended when it comes to political evaluation. On the contrary, if research carried out by people not funded by vested interests points to problems or suggests solutions, then these should be taken seriously regardless of whether a political party happens to dismiss them.

Political education should also address the question of who is to be given the electoral support to carry out the most appropriate policies. Not everyone has the same degree of reliability when it comes to fulfilling electoral promises. Some achieve real improvements, but others are merely adept at convincing the public that they would, e.g., champion green policies or improve healthcare, when their intention is to do the very opposite should they secure power. From recruitment interviews to criminal investigations, we need to know how to apply evidence-based assessment to individuals and the claims they make. It is no different in politics.

Once people appreciate why, what and who would make improvements for more people, especially those with greater need than others, then it is essential they learn to exercise their electoral power in backing the appropriate policies and political candidates. In addition to the mechanisms of registration and voting for different elections, there are issues such as how to maximise one’s influence with different methodologies (e.g., with tactical voting, second preferences), or how to overcome attempts to prevent one from voting (e.g., complex bureaucracy to deter minorities, or making it easier for young people not to register to vote).

For the sake of democracy
Only those who dread the prospect of an enlightened citizenry reclaiming government institutions for the common good, want to marginalise political education. For the rest of us, it is indispensable to the functioning of democratic politics wherein objective reasoning and cooperative reciprocity underpin the improvement of society. Far from holding it back for fear of offending politicians, it should be taken forward in line with the approach outlined above, in every school, college, and adult learning class.

[For more information on the collaborative project with the Equality Trust to use dystopian literature to raise political awareness, see: ‘A Novel Exploration of Inequality’]