The Word of the Month for February 2024

UNCONDITIONAL

‘Unconditional’ means ‘without conditions attached’. If something is unconditional then it is pure gift. Nothing is required of us before we receive it. But is a gift ever unconditional? Can anything ever be truly unconditional? Can love or friendship be truly unconditional? Might God’s relationship with us be unconditional? Can a public service, such as healthcare or education, be genuinely unconditional? And can an income ever be unconditional? 

There will be no Third Thursday event at St Mary Abchurch during February, but you can leave a question or comment via the button below, or you could come to one of the services at St Mary Abchurch and ask a question at the end. Services are held on Tuesdays at 11.30 a.m. and on Wednesdays at 12.30 p.m.

Unconditional

Unconditional

‘Unconditional’ means ‘without conditions’, and there are good examples of social policy characterized by unconditionality at least to some extent. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is one obvious example: if we have an accident then we will be treated, no questions asked, and no invoice to pay. Apart from some glitches in the unconditionality, such as prescription charges, healthcare is unconditional in the UK. Education up to the age of eighteen is also unconditional, except when schools require uniforms and trips to be paid for, and a means-test decides who gets free school meals and who doesn’t. Social policy characterized by unconditionality is not as common as conditional social provision, but there are other examples, and there is now a lively global debate about the possibility of an unconditional income for every individual: a Basic Income.

Jesus

Two thousand years ago Jesus’ life was characterized by unconditionality. He ate with ‘sinners’: the unrepentant wicked—a socially unacceptable thing to do: and he offered them the Kingdom of God. He was ‘a friend of tax-collectors and sinners’,[1] did not demand repentance from sinners, and did not reject them if they did not offer it. Jesus made considerable demands on his followers, but the offer of the Kingdom of God to sinners was a rare example of genuine unconditionality. And his followers learnt this from him. They called the unconditionally generous love of God ‘grace’. 

Philosophers and anthropologists

Continental philosophers as well as Christians have pondered on the fact that everything that exists is given to us. The cosmos, each other, our minds and our bodies, and everything that we experience with our senses: all of it is given. It is all a gift: but philosophers have often debated whether a pure gift is possible. If the giver gets something back, even if it’s only self-approval, then has a gift been given? And anthropologists who have studied the gift-giving that takes place within and between communities have found that gifts are frequently given with an expectation of reciprocity: that a gift will be given in return. In the real world a completely unconditional gift might be an impossibility.

Social policy

Research has shown just how efficient and effective our unconditional National Health Service is compared with other kinds of healthcare service. Private healthcare systems paid for by insurance policies, or directly by patients, experience multiple inefficiencies and inequalities. The NHS has been starved of resources so isn’t as effective as it could be, but it is still among the most effective and efficient healthcare systems around the world. The same is true for education available free to everyone and paid for out of general taxation. No other system is as efficient. And the same is true for the UK’s Child Benefit. Every family with the same number of children receives the same amount of money. Child Benefit is highly efficient, it reduces poverty and inequality, it suffers almost no errors and almost no fraud, and it is incredibly cheap to administer, unlike most other benefits. 

The advantages experienced by Child Benefit recipients would be experienced by everyone if every individual were to receive an unconditional income: a Basic Income. For the first time, every household would experience a secure financial platform on which to build; administration would be cheap and efficient; even if means-tested benefits were still in place, many households would come off them and would experience an enhanced employment incentive; it would be easier to start a small business or a co-operative enterprise; and for the UK, a revenue neutral Basic Income scheme exists that would reduce poverty, reduce inequality, take lots of households off means-tested benefits, and increase Income Tax rates by only 3 percentage points. Successful Basic Income pilot projects have taken place in Namibia and India. 

Paradigms

A paradigm is a conceptual and methodological structure for the theory and practice of a scientific discipline. During and the after the Second World War, Keynesianism, named after John Maynard Keynes, assumed that it was a government’s responsibility to control unemployment and to create demand in the economy. This paradigm largely controlled economic policy for forty years. During the 1980s Keynesianism was replaced by neoliberalism, which assumes that private markets should determine how an economy functions, and that governments should have a very limited role. Might it be time for a new paradigm? And might Unconditionalism be what we now need?—an economy with unconditionality at its heart? We already have elements of Unconditionalism in the National Health Service and Child Benefit. We need more of it. 

A new book

This is the proposal made in a recent new book: Unconditional: Towards unconditionality in social policy, written by Malcolm Torry and published by Edward Elgar Publishing. The book explores what we mean by ‘unconditional’; asks how social policy characterized by unconditionality might fit within the spectrum of welfare states; and discusses what the Bible and some philosophers and anthropologists have said about the possibility of unconditional giving. Arguments for and against unconditionality are followed by a history of unconditionality in social policy, and then by a chapter on how and why unconditionality works. The penultimate chapter discusses the ethics of unconditionality; and the final chapter asks whether there is any prospect of widespread unconditional social policy replacing the increasingly conditional kind that we are now so used to. 

For further details about the book see the publisher’s website.

From the New Testament

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Matthew 20:1–16: New Revised Standard Version

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