Should people’s kindness excuse government from duty?

Photograph of performer Dolly Parton playing the banjo.
Performer Dolly Parton has donated $1 million (£760,000) towards the COVID-19 research that resulted in the Moderna vaccine. Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Dolly Parton; Bill Gates; Marcus Rashford, heroes all! Trussell Trust; Sussex Hospices; Help for Heroes, all saints. Or are they? The wellbeing of thousands would be poorer without kind and generous benefactors. This is one of the finer aspects of our society. Doing things for others is political activism which is as rewarding for those who do it as for those who may benefit. But much of it should not be happening.

A government’s priority is the protection of its citizens from dangers, whether military, social or economic. It has a duty to deliver education and protect health; to provide infrastructure and anticipate risks. Failure to do so, or leaving it to others, is a failure of government; an abdication of responsibility.

Recently World Kindness Day was marked by attempts to define kindness. It can be argued that the work of philanthropists and charities typifies kindness. But is it a kindness to ensure that children do not go hungry? Is it a kindness to exonerate a government from carrying out its duty of care for citizens who fall on hard times?

The decisions made by any government as to priorities for use of tax revenue vary, but the basic entitlements must be protected. It is when they are not, when government abdicates its duty in some respect, that charity – kindness – may step in.

More from Sussex Bylines:

People are kinder than governments. People empathise with others who are suffering. When people see others going hungry, they want to help. People like doing good. Even businesses like giving, seeing in it a way of boosting their own image. There is genuine motivation behind charity but that very generosity may be taken by authorities as an opportunity not to fulfil their duties. The simple fact is that in a modern, affluent economy food banks, for instance, should not exist.

Is there anything wrong in this? Are not charities a good thing, operated by good people to fulfil an identified need? After all, their work saves taxpayers having to pay more. How can one even question the desirability of such kindness?

And herein lies the issue: if filling in the holes in the needs of the people is left to kindness, who will ensure that all such holes are filled? Left to the whim of philanthropists or charities, no matter how sincere, the safety net not being supplied by government will in all likelihood be a threadbare postcode lottery. Some will benefit; many will not.

A polity in which wealth and its disposal are left in the hands of those fortunate enough to have it is one which cannot merit the description of democracy. Only governments have the strategic overview of risk, capacity to resource and duty to ensure that nobody is left out of protective embrace. Let kindness come on top of necessity, as is often the case at community level, not instead of it.

David Cameron’s ‘big society’ has arrived by stealth, is divisive, inefficient and a dereliction of government’s duty. Johnson’s egregious version even channels tax revenue to enriching already wealthy party donors. Every time government encourages philanthropy or decorates a donor it should shrivel in shame at its own lack of kindness, at its own failure to provide.

Follow @SussexBylines on social media