December 7, 2003

Let's institute baptism by state

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A few years ago a mate told of a brilliant christening he had been to in Fermanagh. The grandad had had a few too many and was a bit out of sorts in the church.

An old-style Northern priest bamboozled the punters. Eyeing the locals, he demanded: “Do you renounce the Devil?”

The congregation,taken aback a bit by the hectoring from the pulpit retorted sheepishly: “We do.” The priest came back with “Doyou renounce the Devil, and all his works?”

“Oh, we do.” Grandad was getting fidgety, convinced the priest was fixing on him.

“Do you reject Satan and all his words and deeds?”

“Oh we do, we do,” bayed the punters. Grandad was freaking out. His mind was racing, filled with guilty images of himself up at the bar with old Ned – necking a small one – while the cloven one kissed the innocent child before him.

“Do you reject Satan, his works, his words and all his temptations?” growled the priest.

Before anyone could respond, up jumped Grandad in the front row and bellowed, “I do, I do, I hate the fucker, so I do”. The nave cracked up, shoulders going, the priest didn’t know where to look, and Granny was mortified.

With the passing of religion, it is sometimes easy to forget what baptism is about, and what a logical and brilliant idea it is.

All Christian baptism involves the man of the cloth saying welcome, here are the rules, abide by them and we will be here for you. In all other faiths celebration of a new member of the club is also seen as absolutely essential for the individual, the parents, the extended families and the club itself.

Membership of the club is conditional on the rules, and the contract is explicit: you obey the rules and we will look after you.

Arguably, there has been wholesale corruption of these original ideas (the strategic aim of growing market share can be dodgy for the integrity of any brand), but the basic idea of a contract between the members and the club is fundamental.

Looking at the emergence of an alienated underclass in Ireland, is it time to examine an alternative to our present worldview? Is there a role for a state baptism where the parents are given a contract? The contract between the parents and the state could entail obligations on both parties.

For example, help from the state might be conditional on the parents abiding by the contract, but the help, when it comes, will be absolutely effective.The more the parents abide by the rules for their family and their children, the more help they will get.

Thus, we link good citizenship to good behaviour via a conditional welfare system. The aim here is to get as many citizens as possible to buy into the state project.

This could start with a proper state baptism.When a child is born, instead of the mother coming home alone, maybe only to her own mother and family, should we not try to make her feel part of something bigger? Could we have a state baptism, so instead of a rushed registration of the child by the parents with the state,we could replicate church baptisms with state baptisms.

So from the start we are clear. The quid pro quo of a kind, generous and helpful state is a set of rules based on acceptable behaviour.

Let us examine closely the idea of a contract between the state and the citizens, based on a set of rules. When this has been suggested before, many commentators and politicians fly off the handle, saying that conditional welfare is some monstrous way the rich would subjugate the poor.This reaction perplexes me.

When you rent a flat, the landlord takes a deposit and the tenancy is conditional on certain behaviour, such as not trashing the place. If you get an overdraft from a bank, terms and conditions, as they say, apply.

All contracts are dependent on acceptable behaviour. If we did not do this there would be chaos, wholesale theft and commercial breakdown. In most aspects of life, contracts govern relationships and force responsibility on individuals.That is how our system works.

It seems logical to look at our society the same way. So why not start at the bottom? (For the sake of fairness, we obviously have clear and explicit tax penalties for rich people who do not obey the rules.) However, let us not be deflected by ideology, the aim of a society should be to get as many of us as possible to look after ourselves and our neighbours responsibly without the intervention of a third force such as the state – whether the Garda or the welfare officer.

Our problem in Ireland is that we are allowing an underclass to flourish with very modest education and very little sense of civic responsibility.This leads initially to low-level antisocial behaviour, leading to fear, especially among older people.

When a young lad hassles a pensioner, we are all on a slippery slope. When a couple of lads burn down a youth club or break the posts on a football pitch we begin the unravelling process. The issue is where we set the bar for acceptable behaviour.

If we introduced a contract of citizenship, with obligations on both parents and the state, we could use the state positively to change behaviour at home. From the state’s side, there would be a code of the benefits available and the rights enshrined to all citizens below certain income levels to avail of these benefits.

There would be an obligation on the state to deliver these in a timely and efficient fashion. Society’s part of the bargain would entail such things as the right to information, courteous service and the right to appeal against decisions. The contract forms the basis of the exchange where the rights of the claimant are enshrined.

The other side of the contract would spell out for the first time the duties that society expects in return for these rights.These duties would involve general aspirations such as treating your fellow citizens as you would like to be treated yourself.

It might also include specifics such as school attendance. If you want to avail of child benefit, for example, your child must miss fewer than five days a year in school. The conse-quences of breaking the contract would be spelled out clearly.

This would send a signal to everyone that you are not on your own.The state cares about you and is prepared to shoulder the burden of good citizenship.This would help teachers, social workers and the like, because for years they have felt they are isolated as the last line between the state and chaos.

By spelling out the rules to the young and their parents, the position of those charged with enforcing the rules will be strengthened immeasurably. Most important, citizenship based on a contract would make the deal clear to all sides.The state would know what it has to deliver and citizens would know what duties we all have to fulfil to avail of these services.

If we don’t get the services it would be because of our personal behaviour and individual choice.Contract-based citizenship could galvanise the nation, create buy-in across the board and reinforce muscularly the idea that we are not a bunch of individuals, but a functioning, interdependent ecosystem, commonly known as a society.      


  1. ronnie

    social contracts sound great to me david(i think labour
    were slated in the uk for proposing such an
    idea).incentives are the only way of inducing socially
    acceptable behaviour in a certain minority.of course these
    contracts already exist although not expressly. a criminal
    knows that the law will punish him for renaging on the
    contract that is the legally accepted behaviour which is
    analagous to societys morals.but having a more
    comprehensive clearly stated contract of social behaviour
    with incremental incentives upwards from a minimum level
    would work wonders for the people that only
    understand/comprehend the impications of their actions when
    their pockets are lighter and their perks of citizenship
    are reduced.QUID PRO QUO FOR ALL

  2. David Mc Williams

    Thanks for the comment Ronnie. Frank Field the Labout MP
    has written extensively on this, if you want to read more
    about it a book called “neighbours from hell” by F Field is
    a great source. regards, David

  3. Conor Mc Cabe

    I dont know about this one David. More rules mean more
    enforcement. More enforcement means less freedom. Dont
    forget that the state already holds a monopoly on the
    legitimate use of violence and by allowing the enforcers of
    laws to brandish this monopoly even further, can only lead
    to trouble for Joe Public. The cops would be in a position
    to blackmail all of us. Idealistically its a lovely idea
    but in practise,with the wrong kind of people in charge, it
    could lead to the creation of a police state. Could a moral
    education, approved of by the state and its sovereign, not
    improve things more?

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