Charles Taylor tackles the problem of the false priorities of capitalism, particularly in the welfare sector, and asks the fundamental question: are these false priorities structural or marginal to capitalism?

the fifties have ended in a mood of celebration and self-congratulation. We felt we had a right to be proud of our achievement. Most people clearly felt that somehow we had managed to create a more humane, just society: one, if not fit for heroes, at least fit for average, normal human beings. A. J. P. Taylor went so far as to claim, in the New Statesman that “we are entering Utopia backwards”.

What justified all this? Whatever the fifties brought, it was certainly not a humane and just society. Quite apart from Suez, Hola and Nyasaland, can we call a society which was so incredibly stingy to its people in old age ‘just’? And as for a society fit for human beings. . . . Why on earth should we be satisfied with a public expenditure on education of £670,000,000, when we know that many schools are tumbling down, and there are 40 children to a classroom? Because we could not afford more? But we could afford to spend £400,000,000 on advertising. Why do we begrudge the Health Service its £700,000,000 when our hospitals so obviously need rebuilding? Because of a pressing lack of resources? Why then has the refrain been, “we have never had it so good”? If we are so short, must the packaging industry really eat up £500,000,000 a year? Brian Abel-Smith has calculated in Conviction that, at the present rate of construction, six new Shell buildings will go up before we have rebuilt the hospitals which now need rebuilding: and that by then, the date will be 2160!

“There are in Britain today wards (in mental hospitals) which haven’t been papered or painted in this century. There are ward kitchens without refrigerators, ovens or hot-plates. There are sluices without bedpan washers. There are patients being fed at a cost of 14s. l0d. a week.”

(B. Abel-Smith, Conviction, p. 64)

One has only to scratch the surface of our society to see that our priorities are all wrong. They are not only unjust: they are divorced from any real sense of human need, and strikingly irrational. It is not just that too little is spent on welfare—if we were an underdeveloped country, we would have to put up with that. It is that our society puts production for profit before welfare every time.

The problem is not just that the priorities are irrational. They also reflect the kind of society that we are, and are becoming more and more—a society where commercial values are uppermost, where what counts is what sells.