Sometimes a thing so terrible occurs that it forces us to notice a reality otherwise unbearable. Such has been the case in Britain in recent days. A man called Mick Philpott, father of 17 children, has been jailed for life for burning six of his children to death in their own home. It appears that, while possibly intending to save them once the fire was started, Philpott lit it because he wished to persuade the local authorities of his need for a more commodious living accommodation to maintain his prodigious and promiscuous lifestyle. In particular, he appeared to wish to continue to produce the children which, thanks to the state of welfare in the UK, he saw as cash-cows to fund his lifestyle.
The precise contortions and confusions of this man's mind do not concern most people. The ineradicable fact of human brutality is something most people accept and can do little about in others. But the part of the case which has made people think – and caused even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne to intervene, is that Mr Philpott, his wife, his mistress and their many children did not just live on the state, but were encouraged to live on the state. Not only did the welfare state support the life of Philpott as he produced child after child with no intention of working to support them – it actually established an incentive for these actions. By taking his obligation to provide off his shoulders, disincentivizing him from working and incentivizing him by paying him to have as many children as possible, the welfare state – while hardly encouraging him to kill his children – most certainly did encourage him to live a life of indigence, irresponsibility and moral squalor.
Certain tabloids and conservative papers in Britain have noted the above and commented on it with alarm. And the response to this has been inevitable;. Many eager to politicize absolutely everything that fits with their own agenda and worldview have objected with outrage at what they call the "politicization" of this tragic case. They claim that conservative papers and commentators are leaping on this human tragedy with too much glee and using the deaths of six children for political ends. Their message is clear: yes this man burned six of his children to death and yes we paid for his lifestyle, but this does not mean anything. No need to analyze it. Tragic, yes, but let's not pretend it tells us anything.
The only problem is that the case does tell us something. And for several startling reasons. First, of course, the public outrage about the case is not just propelled by its horrific nature. It is caused in part because this man was so evidently a product of a welfare system gone horribly wrong. In the years before his killing of six of his children Mr. Philpott had appeared on many British television shows -- the mid-morning Jeremy Kyle Show (a sort of downmarket Jerry Springer) and on documentaries about the state of welfare, including one presented by former Conservative Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe. In these programs the public were invited to see – and gawp at – the awful moral universe of this man. He kept a caravan in his garden in which he could alternate between his wife and mistress. He produced more than a dozen children by different women with no intention of providing for them. It was hardly a surprise when it turned out during his trial that he had encouraged his wife into sex with other men within hours of killing the children.
Anybody watching Philpott's lifestyle of casual drugs and even more casual child-production would be anti-judgemental to the point of lunacy if he did not have the confidence to say that this was not a life being well lived or a life which should be anything but condemned.
But at the root of the public revulsion to this crime has not just been a revulsion to the life and crimes of this man, but a revulsion at the disturbing fact that taxpayers did not simply encourage, but actively paid for -- lavishly bankrolled -- this man's lifestyle. Many people are always very happy to say that "we" are all guilty when it comes to some obscure historical sin and "all guilty" when it involves some long-ago historical error. But take a terrible thing in the present, which all of us actually paid for and incentivized, and nobody is meant to notice anything.
If there is any good to come from such a terrible crime it may be that there is now wider public acknowledgment of a problem which has too often appeared more theoretical than real. Just before Christmas, in an interview with the Financial Times, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said something which should be inscribed above every civil servant's desk and above every pamphleteer's computer. With just over 7% of the world's population, Chancellor Merkel pointed out, Europe produces 25% of the world's GDP. Yet, with this it has to finance 50% of the world's social spending. Europeans, she said, "will have to work very hard to maintain [their] prosperity and way of life." The only reason Europe has got to that position – and why America may yet follow it – is that it finds it difficult if not impossible to draw moral limits around a welfare system at the point of unsustainable overreach.
Mr Philpott was a demonstration of another way of looking at things. He was a product of that recent historical fantasy in which the welfare state could be so benevolent that it could not just be stretched beyond the point of financial bankruptcy but stretched far beyond the point of moral bankruptcy. Of course the Philpotts of this world are an exception. People willing to take things to such pathological ends as he did are almost always in a minority. But a look at what led someone in such a minority into such actions is something the majority must take and do something about.
Not least they can think again not about the limits but about the purposes of welfare. At the beginning of that discussion should be one realization in particular: that it is not just unkind, but actively cruel, to encourage people to live lives of meaninglessness and indigence – that it is wicked to encourage people to live lives where not only is there is no punishment for bad actions, but there are incentives for them, to be paid out by the majority of people.
America is having the same debate about welfare as Europe and the rest of the Western world. If there is any good at all to come from such tragedies it should be for people to think again about what the limits of our welfare tolerance should be. Yes, the welfare system should be able to be kind. No one wants the helpless to starve or lack shelter. But as we all know, it is possible to kill people with kindness. And the fear that this is what we have done is the reason that Britain is now having a debate so rancorous and so raw.