The BBC’s coverage of the National Social Survey shows the BBC at its very worst. It has completely misrepresented the survey to promote its own political worldview that we are becoming more selfish and less concerned about others. The headline it uses on the front page of its website is: “UK less willing to help others”. I have just read the survey and, in 227 pages, I cannot find any reference to whether people are less willing to help others.
It would seem that what the BBC means is that we are less willing to pay taxes for redistribution and public services. This could be for one of several reasons:
1. With government spending over half of national income, people wish to rebalance their spending away from collectively provided goods and redistribution.
2. With government spending over half of national income and income inequality widening, people believe that more government spending is not the answer.
3. People wish the government to spend less but wish to help others more through their personal initiative.
4. People believe that the less-well-off are responsible for their own problems to a greater extent.
5. People are more selfish.
In fact, there is no evidence in the report, whatsoever – as far as I can see – for proposition 5, which the BBC suggests is the case. There is a lot of evidence that people are motivated in their answers by 2 and 4 and possibly 1. Issues to do with 3 (and 5) are simply not covered.
Page 36 of the report (table A.1) does , indeed, suggest that fewer people over time wish to pay more taxes for public services and redistribution – this is not surprising given how far taxes have risen and does not at all indicate that people are less willing to help others. Indeed, the answer to this question does not even demonstrate that people are less willing to pay high taxes now than ten years ago, given that the question is being asked at a time when taxes are much higher than they were then.
The explanation is possibly provided by table A.2. Fewer people believe that current benefit levels cause hardship and more people believe that benefit levels discourage people from finding jobs. So, there we have it, it is quite clear that the people surveyed actually believe that increased benefits do not help people. It is not that people do not want to help, it is that people believe that benefits do not provide that help. Perhaps people have a more realistic view of the problems in the benefits system than the BBC news editors.
Exactly the same issues arise with the question of whether people are willing to pay more taxes for the sake of the environment. The proportion who are willing to do so has fallen by between a third and a half (depending on the group of respondents) but, interestingly, the proportion who are willing to accept a cut in their standard of living to help the environment has fallen by only a quarter. There would seem to be one logical explanation here. Firstly, people believe that taxes are relatively less effective in terms of the ability to help the environment, as compared with other measures, than they used to believe. Secondly, if people have made more sacrifices (in terms of both higher taxes and cuts in living standards) over the last ten years, more people are likely to believe that they have made the “optimal” degree of sacrifice and would not wish to make further sacrifices.
However, maybe we should not try too hard to produce strictly logical interpretations of these surveys. The questions on education produce some interesting material. Only eight per cent of respondents believe that parents should not have the basic right to choose their children’s school, yet 85 per cent believe that parents should send their children to the nearest state school! Interestingly, the survey commentary suggests that the middle class might be more in favour of school choice because the research they cite suggests that the middle class gain most from school choice. In fact, where proper school choice exists (rather than limited options being provided amongst state schools) the evidence strongly suggests that it is the less-well-off who gain most.
This is no excuse, though, for the BBC leading its coverage by using a headline that reflects its prejudices but that relates to an issue that is not addressed in the survey. Rowan Williams, having seen the BBC coverage, will now be off like a rocket as he seeks to pontificate about how capitalism is making us more selfish.