David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative party, is reported this week as saying: “We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it’s as if these things — obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction — are purely external events like a plague or bad weather. Of course, circumstances — where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school and the choices your parents make — have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices people make.” In one sense, this has to be true. However, the sentiment Cameron is expressing invites condemnation of the poor, and for that reason it should be treated with great caution. Poor people do not have the choice of avoiding poverty; the nature of poverty is that it limits choices. Condemning people with very little choice for making the wrong decisions seems peculiarly callous.
I should explain the title of this comment, for the enlightenment of those who haven’t had the benefit of a merciless British education. “Musical chairs” is a children’s game. There are fewer chairs than children, the children run round the chairs in a circle, and when the music stops, they have to try to sit down. Those who do not sit down in time are out. Now of course it is true that those children who sit down tend to be those who are faster, bigger or quicker. The children who hesitate tend to have made the wrong choice, and they have probably reacted more slowly. But it would be ridiculous to blame the children who lose; the game has been designed that way. The same is true of poverty. People who lose out are often less well qualified, less connected, or slower. They may have flaws of character; they may not have responded to opportunities; they may have made the wrong choices. It does not follow that their poverty is their fault. It is more important to ask whether society shouldn’t provide a few more chairs for people to sit on.