Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Twue Wuv Rewarded

Ever since the Conservatives ventured a policy over the parapet (or almost a policy, or sort-of a policy) on the desirability of marriage, there has been comment from all sides of the political spectrum, from the Simon Heffer's of this world harrumphing that whatever it is that the Tories are going to do it isn't enough, and from the Yvonne Ridley's of this world wringing their hands and saying that this reflects a 1950s view of the world and discriminates against other equally valid lifestyles.

As I have previously stated, I have views on this - dictated by my own forthcoming nuptials. Every time this issue is debated there is an inevitable response: look at me, look at my family, we're not/they weren't married and they did a splendid job. Anyone who says that marriage is the better choice is denigrating all non-married parents. I'm not convinced by this logic. Marriage is the best state for raising children, not because of the symbolic power it possesses, still less because it is a holy and blessed state, but because all the evidence shows that married couples stay together longer - the ultimate pre-requisite for effective child-raising.

Now, this is not, of course, to say that some single parents are not fantastic, and some married couples appalling. But, faced with a nonagenarian smoker and drinker, and that jogging pioneer who didn't smoke, didn't drink and keeled over with a heart attack at 50, would we say that we shouldn't pick which lifestyle was 'healthier' because both are equally valid? It is tempting, but ultimately futile to generalise from anecdote.

So marriage is best. Does it therefore follow that the state should step in to encourage it? Since I've only just linked to Picking Losers I really ought to be chary of promoting state intervention. And in fact, I'm not wholly convinced that it is necessary. What certainly is desirable, is for the Government to stop punishing low-income couples for staying together. It's insane that the combination of reduced benefit and reduced services effectively reward a married or co-habiting couple for separating.

It might be socially desirable for the Conservatives to introduce measures such as making the tax-free allowance transferrable between married or civilly-registered couples. It might also be politically impossible. But Cameron has a belief that talking about a situation can help to imprrove it. He likes to cite drink-driving, which fell more as a result of social unacceptability than of legal changes. Resurrecting marriage might take more than mere precatory words, however.


Blogger bgprior said...


Thanks for the link. And you are bang on that this should be about not punishing low-income couples, rather than about encouraging marriage. If you watched Question Time last week, you will have seen Francis Maude getting ripped to shreds by the audience and the panel, trying to sell the policy on the latter grounds (in fact, he did so badly and allowed Peter Hain to get in so many shots, that one might almost suspect that he doesn't support the policy and wanted to see it damaged). For example, he was unable to answer the point: if the justification for supporting marriage is that it's the best environment to raise kids, which it probably is, why support married couples generally, and not married couples with kids?

I'd suggest reducing this to a lower level. Why do we care what the state thinks about marriage? Because its tax and welfare policies differentiate between the married and the unmarried. For as long as that is the case, you can never win. If you support the married, you attack the unmarried, and vice versa. It is the mess of our tax and benefits system that creates the issue.

It is none of the state's business how I live my life, unless I infringe on someone else's life (offending their sensibilities does not count). As far as possible, the tax and welfare system should be reformed to make the position neutral. For instance, if we had a flat income tax system, transferrable allowances would be irrelevant: if the tax-rate is X%, my income is £A and my partner's income is £B, (A+B)*X% = (A*X%) + (B*X%). Imagine how much less bureaucratic it would be than the current system, let alone the additional complication of transferrable allowances.

But you can't do that, the interventionists object, because if the tax-rate were set sufficiently low that low-income households were not disadvantaged, the loss in tax revenue from richer households would be unsustainable. And if you set the tax-rate at a level where revenues were maintained, low-income families would be penalised and high-income families would get a windfall. Under the current system, yes, but not if you replaced our byzantine welfare system with a Basic Income.

That might sound like a strange suggestion coming from an anti-interventionist. But you have to ask yourself a simple question. Am I prepared to see the unemployed and low-paid on the streets, or do I accept that some sort of safety net is unavoidable. I respect the intellectual consistency (if not the lack of compassion) of those who would do away altogether with the safety net, but for the vast majority of us, the answer will be that we must have a net. In which case, the question is simply, what is the most efficient, least preferential, least bureaucratic way of providing that net? Basic Income is the answer to that question, by a country mile.

That leaves a whole host of questions unanswered, but I'll offer that as a starter for ten. And I'll acknowledge straightaway that, though the ideal would be for the Basic Income to make no differentiation between people's living arrangements, it is probably unavoidable to include a single-person supplement for lower-income, single-adult households, given people's current expectations. The withdrawal of such a supplement from couples could be seen as an attack on marriage. But to a lesser extent, I think, than the current system, as it would only be loss of a single benefit from lower-income singles, and not a whole labyrinth of disincentives, as we have at the moment.

Apart from that tweak, the system could be blind to age, gender, sexuality, marital arrangements, living arrangements, race, religion, etc. (I consciously exclude disability - real disability that is - from this list, as the other criterion that would justify differential, supplemental support.) And it gets past the objection that a flat-tax can only be introduced in countries with relatively low incomes and low levels of social provision.

7:10 pm  

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