The nation's wealth
The nation's wealth
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter comes from Parents revolt, an angry volume printed on cheap war quality paper, co-authored with Titmuss's wife Kathleen. It hypothesises a connection between the growth of acquisitive social values and the tendency of people to have fewer children. It argues that a nation's true wealth is not what it is called today ‘gross national product’; rather, a nation's wealth inheres in the vitality of its people, and in people from all social classes. It observes that the fear of population decline which fuelled Parents revolt was an aspect of a European-wide anxiety about the survival capacities of national populations. It further observes in part, that this was a worry about the eclipse of elites by the masses; in part, a eugenic fear of ‘race’ pollution. It discusses themes of altruism and of the narrow-minded computation of public services in terms of economic costs and benefits — both key concerns in later social policy writings.
It is essential that we should first place the problem of population in the right perspective. Where lies the true wealth of a country? In answering this question, we shall have to rid ourselves of much of the mental debris accumulated in the 19th century which still obstructs our thoughts on fundamental problems. We must cut through the fog of tradition and, like the King in Alice in Wonderland, we must “begin at the beginning and go on till the end then stop”. The reality of population is the root of all problems. It is the foundation of all else, the rock on which every social and economic problem is based. To assess sanely the future of man, we must have the right viewpoint; we must look at things in terms of men and women, and not in terms of money. We cannot discuss the problems of population objectively if we persist in using our present standards, which elevate material things above people and treat the national debt as of more consequence than the quantity and quality of our people. The history of all progress has been marked by the success of those who have refused to be obsessed by the fallacies of the past. Let us begin therefore by clearing from our path present-day society's overriding obsession.
We live in an age dominated and obstructed by the ‘money complex’, an age in which people are ever conscious of the presence of economic problems; an age in which people are forced more and more to regard money as the only means to security and the possession of material things. A hundred years hence, historians may say of us that the all-pervading mark of our generation was our abject servitude to the dictates of money and all that it spells. Such a forecast may bring an immediate protest from many readers. Some will revolt mentally and say that it is not true, and some who find it repugnant will do so because they are honestly trying to live a life in which money is not emphasised; others will find it distasteful because they find it hard to admit that, whatever the cause, money has dominated their conscious thinking. But let us be frank. Let us try to disabuse our minds and detach ourselves from the mass of moral platitudes which ooze in an unending stream from the churches, from Parliament and from the press to settle in the form of a smoke-screen of respectability over all our social institutions from Threadneedle Street to the local labour exchange.
It is not part of our social code to boast of acquisitiveness. In polite society, it is not fashionable to discuss the sordid means of distribution and exchange. Among the middle classes the most closely guarded secret is the size of money incomes, of salaries and wages. (p.18) “England”, as George Orwell (1941) put it, “resembles a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it, but with all the cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income.” But if many in our society do not talk openly of money as money, they boast of all those things which money alone can buy. The possession of cars, of detached suburban villas, of expensive clothes, and the capacity to follow the whims and fancies of conspicuous waste are openly paraded as marks of the personal success of the individual. The ability to indulge in luxury consumption is regarded as a measure of social status. Outward display is, in our day and society, a sign of inward grace. This showmanship is reflected, as social habits are always reflected, in our novels, newspapers, plays, films and the way in which people spend their leisure time. Our newspapers carry columns of advertising, much of which is designed to inflame personal acquisitiveness, while the remaining space offers an extraordinary collation of patent medicines as the remedy for the feverishness induced by an acquisitive life.
The tremendous growth in hire-purchase, both in England and America, and a placarded, bill-posted landscape designed by high-pressure, super-safe, advertising automatons, are both expressions of our reverence for ostentatiousness; in pre-war Britain, £125 million was annually spent on advertising by press and poster, £25 million more than was spent by public authorities on education. News is normally a mixture of society scandal and society spending, or records of property crimes, while inordinate space is allotted to gambling ritual, described for those with money as financial intelligence and for those without as football pools. The films offer no help, for they usually depict happiness as synonymous with money and money as the measure of individual prestige. “As is well known to the wise in their generation”, wrote Dickens, “traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world. Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners; have Shares”.
A society based on the Christian ethic – on values rooted in the dignity and courage of the common man – would not, indeed could not, produce the pattern of wealth-ostentatiousness and the degree of money-consciousness that surround us today. A community which permits society journals, bug-infested children and super-magnificent cinemas, expresses the fundamental truth that wealth opens the door of opportunity while poverty keeps it closed from the cradle to the grave.
Those who are rich, the majority of whom have inherited their wealth, gently humour the poor; for the poor have work to do, while the poor admire the rich. Esteem is bestowed on those who get, not on those who give, and thus admiration is devoted to what is not (p.19) admirable and happiness is sought where happiness cannot be found. It is difficult to believe that the conflict thereby induced can lead to anything but a frustrated society, a society epitomised in Mackinder's words as “the slumdom of the poor and the boredom of the rich”.
The values we set on money-wealth as opposed to the wealth of human life are expressed in our physical environment. The most magnificent buildings equipped with gilded doors, panelled rooms, luxurious façades, deep carpets, noiseless lifts, uniformed attendants and all the vast, smooth, portentousness of the City of London are merely the repositories of a number of books containing a number of figures indicating the money-power of certain individuals over their fellow Christians. On the other hand, the meanest buildings in the saddest streets, bereft of furnishings and comfort and with standing room only, are the places where human ‘labour’ is exchanged. We have our cathedrals of wealth, redolent with calm, with spaciousness and with reverence, and we have also our labour exchanges characteristic of the drab inarticulate misery of the underprivileged.
Let us not pretend that these examples are exaggerations. We have been so saturated in money-thinking, so impregnated by the economic principles of the 19th century, which held that the accumulated result of innumerable private greeds was the only road to national wellbeing, that we often fail to regard objectively the evidence around us of the treatment of wealth in contrast to the treatment of man made in the image of God. The physical fact and the mental fear of unemployment have forced millions to mould more firmly their individual lives and their individual thoughts to the compelling power of money, for money to them spells security even if the safety to be purchased is short-lived. Unemployment was the outstanding social phenomenon of the 1920s to the 1940s, and while only 10–20% of insured persons were out of work in Great Britain on any given date, the proportion who experienced some spell of unemployment in, say, five years amounted to at least half the insured population. If we add to these the wives, children and other dependants, then something like 20 million individuals actually experienced unemployment to some degree, with all the social degradation and the debasement of the dignity of man that loss of work entails. The men and women of Britain learnt one lesson and the lesson drawn, which has indeed been forced upon them by the newspapers, the films and all the outward and visible signs of a tinsel society, is that status in the community is measured by money; to be rich is to be important.
Many people are concerned about the size of the national debt, about the high level of taxation and about the cost of rebuilding our bombed and shattered cities. Sir Kinglsey Wood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, clearly had in mind a restriction in our already inadequate social services when he said in the House of Commons on 2 November 1941, “The size, form and cost of the war debt will (p.20) clearly have an important influence on post-war policy”. Lord Derby wants our educationalists to prepare for “the commercial battle for the world's markets which will follow this war”, while Admiral Sir William Goodenough warns us through the columns of The Times (12 September 1941) that “competition in seaborne commerce after the war will be tremendous”, and asks us, “for God's sake” to prepare to meet that competition. These eminent and admirable people are thinking backwards; they are mentally in the middle of the 19th century. They still believe, like Sir Robert Kindersley, President of the National Savings Movement, that wars are won by the biggest bank balance. Sir Robert seems unaware of the fact that, had the working people of this country returned from 1900 the same birthrate as the well-to-do, we should not have had sufficient manpower to wage this war. If the common people had restricted the size of their families in the same way as the well-to-do, Hitler's Wehrmacht might now  be goose-stepping down Whitehall.
It is perhaps to be expected that in the environment we have attempted to sketch, the thoughts of many should, as they turn to speculate on the pleasanter aspects of peace, tend to concentrate on the material things of life. These people are conditioned by their environment which in many ways, large and small, insidious and blatant, forces them to dwell on the physical things, the observable phenomena, the bricks and mortar of existence. It is in essence the atmosphere which, distilled as it is by the economic structure of our society, compels the individual to translate all human activity into the language of money. Curious as it may seem today, the provision of drains, of water-closets and clean water was advanced not to enhance human freedom but because, in terms of economics, they were a paying proposition and would protect the rich from contracting much infectious disease; witness the influence of the cholera epidemics. The economic argument also bespattered the provision of other social services such as health measures, factory legislation and state education. All these things spelt higher production and increased efficiency in the battle for world markets. Unemployment during the Depression of the 1930s was unctuously debated in terms of banknotes; the case for public works was not argued on the grounds that absence of work was an affront to democratic decency and the dignity of man but whether in terms of national finance public works would ‘pay’. We did not ask ‘Is it right?’ but ‘Will it pay?’, and as it was not deemed profitable for the state to build houses, to clothe children and to feed mothers, it was decided to pay a lot of men a little money for doing nothing.
The highest economic authorities have told us that the foundations of our society were dissolving and that the country would crash in ruins almost overnight unless we close the net deficit in the national budget of £70 million – a figure which in 1942 we spend in six days (p.21) and still regard as inadequate. It was even decided that Britain could not afford £1.5 million a year for extended services to reduce maternal mortality, a sum we spend in three hours of war! Even more fantastic was the announcement that Britain could not afford the sum of £30,000 once in ten years to find out in the 1931 Census at what ages British mothers bore children and a few other questions absolutely imperative to any study of the population problem. As there was no apparent financial profit to be gained from such expenditure, it was eliminated immediately.
The same insane values governed our thoughts at the beginning of the war; we were assured in official literature and by official spokesmen that ‘Britain must win’ by reason of our superior wealth. In war, as in peace, our yardstick was money. If, as we sometimes do, we attempt to measure the progress of our society over a period of x years, we immediately begin to think in terms of the level of real wages, the cost of living, the national income and so on. If we try to assess the change in different divisions of society, we automatically turn to the share in the national income, the trend in the ownership of property by the different classes, the savings of the poor and the accumulations of the rich. These techniques of assessing social progress have their rightful place, but their use to the exclusion of all other means is symptomatic, suggesting once again that unconsciously we are so saturated in money standards that we cannot visualise the use of any other mode of estimating social change. (p.22)