Great word, isn’t it? And so many of them around, too. I mean, we all know one or two ourselves, don’t we? Don’t we?

So, where to start with all this stuff…Mr Byrne and Mr Miliband seem but the latest to come out swinging at all these parasites.

Problem is, like almost everyone else, the rhetoric and the thinking are all pointing the wrong way.

To see it another way, think of a few different…lines.

Imagine a line of people with the most ardent hardliner on “scrounger culture” at one end of it. He (just a wild guess, but it’s probably a he) will maintain that if you can’t support yourself, and have no family or handy charity who’ll help you out, then you shouldn’t exist. Harsh, but life is harsh…etc. etc. Under no circumstance should the state try to do so, given it will be funded by compulsory subscription from everyone else. It’s not their problem, is it?

At the other end of the same line is the biggest bleeding heart do-gooder you could possible think of. Great at writing cheques on other people’s bank accounts, especially if their money is channelled by a faceless intermediary in the shape of a paternalistic state. Who cares about a few “false positives” in terms of the needy being supported? Better that ten doubtful cases are helped than that one genuine person starves.

These are caricatures, of course. But we’re all on that line somewhere. Even if we’re not exactly sure where. Or change position over time, or according to the individual case we’re looking at. We’re all on it. The line of the judgers.

Imagine a second line, the line of the judged. This one has the genuine case at one end, and the complete liar at the other. We know the two extremes when we see them, of course. Because they’re extremes. And many of us think, from a distance, that we have a pretty good idea of where on the line we can draw that “magic” point: to one side, you’re deserving, to the other, you’re a scrounger.

A few problems creep in immediately: where you draw it can be based as much upon where you stand on the line of the judgers as where they stand on the line of the judged. And can you be a judger and judged at the same time? (Erm, yes.) Are you really judging circumstance, or character? Plight, or background? (I still wince when I remember that phrase from the old advertisements: “distressed gentlefolk”…)

But the real problem is that these lines aren’t lines in any geometric sense. The nice purity of division and classification falls apart like a cheap suit under any sort of scrutiny.

Think of the coastline. Yes, another line. Isn’t it? It’s obvious where it lies. One side land, the other sea. Now look more closely. Still sure about that? Still confident that you can draw, with perfect accuracy, a boundary between the two? One that doesn’t shift faster than you can study it? One in which every crevice, nook, cell and grain can be defined as being on one side or the other?

Of course you can’t. The coastline is a great theory, but a poor reality. It only exists at a distance, rather like our dividing line of the deserving from the undeserving.

No, like the coastline, both the judgers and the judged are fractals: the closer you look, the more complexity you see. And it seems to me that the national debate here totally overlooks what’s really at issue: these questions of judgement. It’s just infantile to keep on throwing around vague concepts like “a horde of scroungers”–because we find, time and time again, that when you look at the individual cases there are no easy judgements–if indeed you can be confident of a sound judgement at all.

Nobody at all, really, wants to reward the feckless. Or cause the needy to suffer, given that overall, we have resources to help them.

What we all want, surely, is accurate judgement.

And at this point, a problem creeps in. Our line of judgers is not symmetrical in its appetite for the dispensation of “fair” judgement. At its right-hand extreme, this looks like a further grotesque waste of resources, as only the state (or its agents) is really in a position to assess. And any effort by the state is itself a needless drain on everyone as a whole (they’d say). Whilst the inhabitants of the left-hand end would be happier to put more resource into fair assessment, and if savings had to be made, trimming the thresholds of entitlement. Not symmetrical.

So we see funny little tunes being played: we delegate assessment to the ATOSes of this world–close enough to the state to do the dirty work, but far enough away to take the drop if it all goes horribly wrong. We see campaigns for “class action” to entitle a whole group without the need for individual scrutiny. We get caught between facile statements like “ministers believe as many as one in four people claiming sickness benefit will be judged to be fit to work” and safety nets like the human rights legislation that we’ve fought to secure. Debates, clashes, contradictions.

Reality. A reality which will not be helped by any politician claiming to be able to stand at a distance from a line of people and to know where their worthiness lies.

So. Of course we love certainty. We like stories with endings. Some would rather have a few hundred deaths from malnutrition than all this pansying about trying to get it “right”.

I’m not one of them. I want to see a commitment from my leaders, not to more macho statements of generalisation, but to funded, forensic, detailed judgement. To the effective and sensible use of technology (in the right places) in supporting that judgement. To a separation of the person from the situation. To a more considered balance between individual rights and responsibilities. To an acknowledgement of the power of culture to make an impact here.

We don’t need any more of this “scrounger” crap. It’s divisive, demonising, and it gets us absolutely nowhere. And even worse than that, it distracts attention from any real effort on reviewing how we make these vital judgements.