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The problem is that sometimes different ideals are in conflict with one another. If the voluntary sector is to flourish without being taken over by the state, it requires philanthropic individuals with the freedom to donate generously to charity. But that requires the state to step back from punitive taxation of the wealthy. In his speech, Cameron deplores the fact that "the incredible wealth of the City exists side-by-side with some of the poorest neighbourhoods in our long as there is deep poverty living systematically side-by-side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it." But the East End, the first port-of-call for poor immigrants from Huguenots and Jews in the past to Bangladeshis and East Africans today, has always been poor. And it has always been the philanthropy of wealthy City merchants that relieved that poverty, without creating dependency. The example of the Jewish community demonstrates this process particularly vividly. A government committed to the egalitarian goal of increasing "general well-being" by reducing inequality, as Cameron (following the doctrine of The Spirit Level) proclaims himself to be, will have difficulty in permitting the large disparities in outcome that actually create the conditions for a philanthropic culture.

Cameron only needs to glance across the Atlantic to see what happens when egalitarianism and philanthropy clash. In the US, the society which has witnessed philanthropic altruism on a truly heroic scale, the Obama administration has recently slashed the tax exemptions for charitable giving of higher-rate taxpayers by as much as 30 per cent, while simultaneously raising their marginal rates. The net effect of this is expected to be a huge fall in the income of not-for-profit organisations, already badly hit by the recession. President Obama's budget director, Peter Orszag, reckons that the state cannot afford such generous exemptions at a time when huge sums are being spent on health care reform and other priorities of the president or Congress. In an article in Commentary, David Billet goes so far as to call this a "war on philanthropy" — an ironical allusion to the "war on poverty" promoted by the Great Society in the 1960s. Cameron, like Obama, puts great emphasis on government agencies directing the efforts of the voluntary sector. Obama's officials claim that tax exemptions for the arts or other areas of civil society that do not contribute to the administration's goals are unjustifiable in the present climate. Can we be confident that Cameron would be proof against such arguments? It would be reassuring to hear him say so. But his praise of Phillip Blond, who advocates an egalitarian war on "monopoly capitalism" that would certainly have a devastating impact on philanthropy, suggests that there is cause for concern. According to Professor Fung, the missing element in the Big Society speech is business. Without capitalism to provide the wealth and dynamism, the Big Society will be stillborn.

Then there is the conflict about family values. Iain Duncan Smith, the real architect of Mr Cameron's compassionate conservatism, has used his Centre for Social Justice to accumulate evidence in support of his central argument that the basic reason why our society seems "broken" is that the traditional family structure has collapsed, largely as a direct result of the way the welfare state works. He wants social policy to be focused on removing perverse incentives that privilege single parenthood or discourage fathers from taking responsibility for their children. And he has demonstrated beyond dispute that marriage is the institution that is by far the most likely to create stable, conscientious families, raising children who in turn will contribute to society rather than being a burden on it. Impressed by this argument, Cameron has made a firm promise to recognise marriage in the tax and benefit system, though some of his colleagues (notably the shadow Chancellor George
Osborne) seem less enthusiastic, given the exigencies of the recession. Unless Cameron makes it the central plank of a restoration of family values, the revival of marriage may prove to go the way of his "cast-iron" pledge to hold a referendum on Europe. 

Yet there are worrying signs that the Big Society won't give marriage or family values a high priority. True, the Hugo Young Lecture promises to end the couple penalty in the tax credit system, encouraging couples to stay together. But Cameron is careful not to mention marriage. Mr Duncan Smith's name is notable by its absence. Instead, he pays tribute to Cass Sunstein, the Harvard law professor who wants to abolish any recognition of marriage by the state. Again, such ideas are part of the equality agenda, in this case denying marriage any status that distinguishes it from cohabitation or civil partnerships. That equality agenda trumps the family values agenda that drives so much of compassionate conservatism. Cameron is nervous of challenging the radical egalitarians who have already succeeded, for example, in closing down the Catholic adoption service, which served many of the hard cases that state agencies were reluctant to take on, but which refused to place children with gay or lesbian couples. Which was more important here — the needs of the children or the demands of would-be parents? In the end, Cameron will have to choose.

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March 29th, 2010
2:03 PM
The article refers to Cameron having to make his mind up over the "radical egalitarians" who have succeeded in closing down the Catholic adoption agencies. He does not. He has already made his mind up. While Blair was dithering over whether to allow Catholic Adoption agencies an exemption, Cameron announced he would be voting against any exemptins as the principle of gays being allowed to adopt was right and no-one should be exempt.

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