Today, HM Queen Elizabeth II visited a relief centre for the Grenfell Tower fire victims, and there praised the bravery of firefighters and the generosity of the volunteers now helping out.
Hardly controversial, but I want to explain why generosity is, nevertheless, a failing – or at least, a sign of a broader problem.
I am, as part of my project to become familiar with classics in a variety of subjects, been reading Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, and the infamous author explains that a prince should not be afraid of a reputation for miserliness, since to earn a reputation for generosity he must overspend and then impose burdensome demands on his citizens, who will then resent him. Far better to spend wisely and give only what is needed, so that when a crisis occurs one has the resources available to meet the demands: thus, he will gain renown for the right reasons.
But the people whom the Queen praised were not princes. They were ordinary citizens responding to the crisis.
So I turn to another great, though this one of an altogether different reputation and era. Clement Attlee wrote a pamphlet explaining the leftwing thesis that charitable giving is a form of selfishness, whereas accepting higher taxes is the truly virtuous form of giving. The core of this logic is that, when a person gives to charity, they do not give to those with the greatest need, but those that apease the individual’s emotions: it is a reward for being “proper” in the eyes of the person giving. Sadly, nearly 40 years of Tory and tabloid pressure to push the idea of a “deserving” versus “undeserving” poor (and you will see already the tabloids *ahem* The Scum, The Daily Fail, painting the victims of Grenfell as undeserving – this is their SOP) have made people feel as if charity is the better course, because they wish to reward the “deserving”, when the focus should be on helping all the poor, regardless of subjective value judgements about virtue or “deserving”.
But the generosity of the people helping at Grenfell relief centres, is not “charity” of this nature. I am sure that the assistance being offered survivors is not offered with any kind of conditions, the way charitable giving is. These are likely not the same people whose votes put into power those who opted for low taxes, who made the decisions that led to this disaster, and who have pushed the shameful attitudes described in the previous paragraph. Their generosity is not a failing in that way. The only way it meets that category is that it should never have been necessary. Which is to say, generosity here is a symptom of a failing elsewhere.
Which leads me back to “The Prince”. This time, I ask, who is the Prince in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea? Well, it is the council itself! We could try to pick out one person to play the role, but the council as a whole is the body whose decisions have acted as the decisions of Machiavelli’s Prince would have done.
And what path have they followed here? They have sought to be generous to the wealthy and ignored the citizens, being miserly where they should have been generous.
The belief in charity and generosity as the solution to problems is what allows poverty to continue, and as such is a part of the problem. Poor people have to be generous to one another because that is the only way they can survive when society allows the wealthy to choose whether or not to be “generous”, and to let them claim it as a virtue when they choose to do so. Disasters happen when preventing them depends on generosity, instead of on the proper collection and use of taxes in a progressive system.
The generosity of volunteers should not be required. The council should be dealing with it, they should be spending money regardless of charity or generosity, because their citizens are in need.
So generosity gets praised, and the wealthy think they can get away without doing anything except what makes them feel good.
Generosity is a sign of failure.