t’s very easy for those, like us, who make policy recommendations to fall into abstract thinking. To forget that policy decisions have a direct impact on people’s lives. Often a dramatic impact.
This was brought home by a recent story in The Guardian about Jerome Rogers. The short version of the story goes as follows.
Rogers was a motorbike courier participating in the precarious lifestyle offered by the gig economy. He received two traffic fines for minor infractions – fines driven by local authorities’ desperation to raise money in an age of austerity and central government budget cuts.
When he failed to pay his fines, the local authority handed his case over to debt collectors. Interest charges soon escalated to a point where he wasn’t sure he would ever be able to pay his fines. The debt collectors sent in the bailiffs who confiscated his motorbike. Robbed of any way to make a living, the twenty-year old Rogers took his own life.
There are two lessons to be learned from this tragic story.
The fist is that austerity kills. It also maims and ruins lives. None of this appears in the clean spreadsheets put together by economists. In Greece, at the height of the austerity drive imposed on the Greek people by the Troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF, suicide rates soared. Those who tried to talk about the human cost of these policies were silenced. Yanis Varoufakis, who encouraged the Greek government not to comply, was summarily fired.
The second is the inhumanity of the relentless bureaucratic machine. Once Jerome Rogers was caught in the system, nothing could stop its destructiveness.
The wheels were put in motion. Everyone in the chain did their job. They performed according to their targets and performance objectives. Nobody was there to see the impact on human lives. The remorselessly destructive, inhuman machine could not be stopped.
Rogers’ crimes? Being in a bus lane a few minutes before restrictions stopped. And making an illegal right turn. For that he lost first his livelihood and then his life.
It is tempting to blame the debt collection company. But the rot starts with central government and then Camden Council – a Labour controlled council to boot – and the realities of the gig economy that we are enabling. It’s pointless to blame individuals in the chain. They are merely cogs in the monstrous bureaucratic machine that we have built.
Is this really the sort of society we want to live in?
I personally found this episode shocking. Not just of itself, but because it made me wonder how many other lives are being ruined or lost in similar ways. Crushed under the steamroller of the bureaucratic state in an age of seemingly never-ending austerity.
The BBC is, apparently, set to launch a drama about this tragic turn of events. If this episode shocks you as much as it shocks me, please share this blog as widely as you can.
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Paul Gregory says
Good morning Joe, much appreciated. As a moral philosopher on various blogs and more extensively on my own websites I have been long plying the line that it is Compliance itself, much vaunted and omnipresent, that lies behind many minor and some major tragedies. We need a system whereby individuals in professional roles can be held to personal (not financial) account not only for disregarding rules but, sometimes, for applying them. That is, applying them narrowly, dogmatically and therefore thoughtlessly.
Jerome Rogers (RIP) would seem to have used his good practical judgement in his technical infractions.
Austerity aside, we have been witnessing for some time a misconception about morality or “ethics” (the word is abused) which imagines that this can be encapsulated in rules. One hundred years ago British philosophers totally discredited this approach (Bertrand Russell, Whitehead, G.E. Moore).
Holding to account would need a non-legalistic framework. One such would be for all those in professional roles, roles that would be properly remunerated, to be required to hold membership of at least one corresponding professional association. Where their conduct seems to fall short of the mark of common human decency, they would have to answer to an association committee, partly constituted of members from other professions (to avoid in-group bias). It could just be a learning experience (for both sides). But if, after due process, they are found to have failed repeatedly to judge matters poorly, or once grossly, they could have their membership suspended., which would involve suspension from their professional role.
Rules and compliance only work if the two components of genuinely ethical conduct, namely good character and good judgement, – these are distinct – (or their opposites), can, in our largely anonymous society, be publicly reinforced (or penalised).