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Philip Booth: Rowan Williams sowed confusion last week when he raised the distinction between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor

Philip Booth 2010 Professor Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

In his recent New Statesman editorial, Archbishop Rowan Williams criticised the re-emergence of the seductive language of the deserving and underserving poor. The job of a Bishop is to teach and clarify. I have often thought that this particular Archbishop has a mission that is the opposite to that of the Institute of Economic Affairs (and in a different field). The IEA is supposed to take good complex free-market economics and expound it more clearly to a wider audience. The Archbishop often seems to take clear concepts and make them more complicated so it is extremely difficult to work out what he means.

There is an important debate to be had about the deserving and undeserving poor. Iain Duncan Smith ducked that debate in his response to the Archbishop by saying that he never used the words. I suppose it is quite reasonable for him not to use the words - politicians can choose their own terms for debate.

However, an Archbishop's job is to clarify and not to confuse and it is worth making some clarification here because all he did in his editorial was sow confusion. Indeed, this sort of clarification is one of the more useful contributions to political debate that Bishops can make. The obvious question raised by distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor is "deserving of what?" If that question is asked then clearly there is a distinction between deserving and undeserving for the Christian depending on what the "what" is? To trivialise, are the poor deserving of a Rolls Royce? Clearly not.

To give some more pertinent examples...

Are the poor always deserving of love? A Christian would answer "yes" - always.

Are they deserving of forgiveness (for example if the poor person has deliberately left their families)? A Christian would answer "yes", if they are contrite. Some judgement is, of course, needed here and Christians would, no doubt, argue in favour of the "benefit of the doubt".

Are they deserving of trust? Clearly, this is a matter for prudential judgement in the particular circumstances (would you trust a poor burglar - who burgled to feed an addiction which may not be his fault - with your front door key?). No. You may forgive 100 times but still not trust him.

Are the poor deserving of charity? Not always - charities themselves have to make such judgements.

Are the poor always deserving of compulsory income transfers from those who are working and paying taxes? It seems that this is what the Archbishop had in mind and clearly this depends on their circumstances and behaviour. If they refuse to work, arguably not. By suggesting that we should not make a distinction, the Archbishop seems to imply that every single person, no matter what his actions, is deserving of an income transfer from people who are hard working, paying taxes (and possibly poor).

The Archbishop (incorrectly) invoked St. Paul elsewhere in his editorial. He could have invoked the early church here. The early church certainly required work from those who received financial assistance. In conclusion, it is worth noting that this issue was put brilliantly by H. B. Acton (not Lord Acton) when he said:

"There is no morally defensible reason at all for forcing some individuals, irrespective of their incomes or circumstances, to give pecuniary help to beneficiaries whose incomes and circumstances have not been inquired into. In this way benefits are provided for people who may not need them by people who may not be in a position to afford them."

Perhaps, at root, the Archbishop cannot distinguish between love, charity and involuntary income transfers administered through the state at a philosophical level. Perhaps he cannot make the distinctions above. Indeed, perhaps this is at the root of many of his problems in making judgements about political matters.


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