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If your income was quarantined

By Andrew Hamilton - posted Tuesday, 29 June 2010

If we look at income quarantining as an ethical and not as a political question, it raises many questions. To answer them we would need to look beyond its effectiveness in preventing excessive expenditure on socially undesirable goods like alcohol and pornography. We would need to consider its effect on the dignity of the human beings involved. This means looking at many areas of their lives, not simply at the way in which they spend their money.

We can see what is involved if we imagine for a moment that we receive a letter in the post saying that we, as the citizens of our age cohort in our particular suburb, will have our taxation rebates or pensions quarantined. Our likely responses to this news suggest questions we ought to ask about the current legislation.

I imagine few of us would be overjoyed to be told that our quarantining will ensure that some pensioners will be unable to drink their pensions away, and that some other taxpayers will be unable to wallow in a sty of porn movies.


Most of us would be annoyed that the government had selectively restricted our freedom to spend our money as we please, to shop where we please, and to name the priorities of our own lives for a supposed higher good. We would believe our responsibility for shaping our lives was being infringed, and with it our human dignity.

We might also be annoyed because this selective income quarantining identified us as members of a group of people which was considered socially unreliable. We would feel ashamed to present our specially embargoed card at the supermarket check-out. We would feel the appraising gaze of friends from other suburbs as they learned where we came from.

And when we read the tabloid stories of the inevitable monsters from our group who drowned in drink and pullulated in porn, our respect for ourselves, a basic element of human dignity, would be under siege. We would be more likely to take to drink.

Some of us might also resent the good fortune of others who escaped quarantining and might suspect the government had an animus against our group. Our trust in the things that connected us to society would be eroded, and we would feel increasingly alienated. Connection, an important part of human dignity, would be threatened both by others who looked on us with suspicion and contempt, and also by ourselves as we became increasingly isolated.

If that were our reaction to imposed income quarantining, why should we expect the long term unemployed and youth to be differently affected? Particularly if their belief in their own dignity, their capacity to live fully and to connect with others may already be tenuous because of their life experience.

So at first reading the state will inflict significant damage to the human dignity of many of its citizens simply because they belong to groups some of whose members are believed to spend wastefully. And because this legislation will affect their self respect, it will exacerbate the problem it is designed to address.


These are telling arguments. But they are not conclusive. Faced with a virulent and lethal disease, a government might rightfully demand that the members of particular groups genetically at risk be inoculated, despite the infringement on freedom and the prejudice against them this might entail. But in judging whether the legislation were justified, we would want to know that the necessity was great, that the group at risk was targeted as narrowly as possible, that the inoculation would be effective and that the good social consequences would outweigh the bad.

In the case of income quarantining, this case has not been made well. We do not know how many long term unemployed and youth spend their money irresponsibly. We have been given only skimpy evidence of the effects of income quarantining in the Northern Territory. It is based on the opinions of program managers about the response of the communities. This is useful knowledge. But should we give it more weight than we would give to the judgment of a hospital administrator about the attitudes of patients to the care they receive? And reflection suggests that the legislation will diminish, not encourage responsibility.

Given the inherent damage done to the human dignity of those included in this scheme and the slightness of the justification for it, it cannot be said to be ethically justifiable. It is politically expedient because it is applied to groups whom we do not regard as people like us. But because it panders to that perception, it is hard to see how it can be effective.

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First published in Eureka Street on June 24, 2010.

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About the Author

Andrew Hamilton SJ teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne. He is the consulting editor for Eureka Street.

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