Something for Nothing?

Warning – this is a bit of a rant.  I would prefer to be for something rather than against something or someone, but I don’t feel able to keep silent.

Who would not support the idea of ‘hardworking families’?  Who could possibly support and justify a ‘something for nothing’ culture?

Well, if the ‘something for nothing’ culture includes bankers who are paid bonuses even when their banks lose money and need bailouts from taxpayers, and MPs who claim on expenses things that ‘hardworking families’ have to buy out of their salaries, then of course this must be resisted.

But other than such obvious abuse, could anyone stand up for a ‘something for nothing’ culture?

Well, I could, for a start, so I must declare an interest straight away.  I have retired from work, on the grounds of ill health, so I’m currently receiving a pension (earlier than I would have been expected or hoped) that is “something for nothing”.

And perhaps every parent would, if they thought about it: the alternative would be an attitude of “why should we spend our time, money and effort on supporting someone who does not contribute to the economic prosperity of this hardworking family?”

And what about followers of the various religions?

Judaism: “When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.  When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow”  (Deuteronomy 24:20-21, Jewish Publication Society TANAKH translation).  Do we say, “sorry, these commandments (or the equivalents in todays society) are no longer in force as they support a ‘something for nothing’ culture”?

Christianity: When Jesus says “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Matthew 25:42-43, New Revised Standard Version), do we respond “of course we didn’t; that would be giving ‘something for nothing'”?

Islam: “And in their wealth / And possessions (was remembered)  / The right of of the (needy,) / Him who asked, and him / Who (for some reason) was / Prevented (from asking).” (Sura LI.19, The Holy Qur’an translated by A. Yusuf Ali)  Do the needy no longer have rights?

And similar sentiments in the writings of other faiths – sorry that I don’t have specific verses that I can quote (please add these as comments if you are able).

In fact, I would go further.  Surely the whole rationale of any government is to provide services for those who can’t provide them for themselves.  We need armed forces (although this might be questionable) because not everyone is able to defend themselves.  We need a health service because not everyone is able to heal themselves.  We need schools because not everyone is able to teach and train their children in all subjects.  And we need pensions and benefits because not everyone is able to provide for themselves.

Of course we need to address the economic problems of our society.  But what does it say about us as a society if we do so at the expense of the most vulnerable members of that society? What does it say when increasing numbers of people are relying on foodbanks so that their families do not go hungry (not everyone has a breadmaker or access to high-quality flour)?  And what does it say when we stigmatise those in need as ‘scroungers’, ‘cheats’, wanting ‘something for nothing’?

Of course it doesn’t make long-term economic sense to borrow money to pay for essential services.  So  what does it say when people need to resort to payday loans (which surely cannot be sustained for any length of time!), not for luxuries but in order to buy food (report)?

Of course a small minority will abuse the system.  But then a small minority of people who go into a shop do so to steal something; does that mean we label all customers as shoplifters?

Perhaps the most insidious thing about the ‘something for nothing’ slogan is that, taken to its extreme, it could imply that those who receive benefits are worth nothing.  I used the example of parents earlier; of course parents don’t think like that, and they will give to their children – most of them giving sacrificially.  This is not just in the hope that their children will in turn support them in their old age, but because even as babies children contribute – by giving back love, joy, pleasure.  And those who are believed to be receiving ‘something for nothing’ actually do contribute – to their family, to their friends, to their communities, even when this is not financial; and by being supported now may be able to give back more in the future.

The problem is that ‘something for nothing’ is a nice simple slogan, and it sounds as if it ought to be opposed.  But it hides a complex reality of vulnerability and need, and doesn’t help the debate about how our society and government should work.

Actually, perhaps I am ‘for’ rather than ‘against’: I am unashamedly for those who really need something that I and my fellow-citizens can provide, and I am for making this a priority for those who lead or seek to lead us.

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