Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Year: 2011 (page 1 of 5)

Fair Incomes and Welfare Reform

One of the simplest ways of understanding what is wrong with the current welfare system and why current efforts to reform it will continue to fail is to consider this question:

Do we want to ensure that nobody has to endure absolute poverty?

There may be a few extremists who will say no to this – they are happy to see their fellow citizens die in poverty, but their views should be discounted. Almost everybody from Right to Left actually agrees that we do not want to live in a society where anyone would be left without support.

So does that mean we have a guaranteed minimum income?

Well we do, and we don’t.

Our current benefit system – for all its craziness, complexity and poor design – does attempt to provide a minimum income – through the Income Support system. We will (almost) always get something if the system’s rules say that we are entitled, but these rules are designed so that this are right is conditional upon our poverty. This is how poverty traps work:

You can get x, but only if you are poor enough.

The current welfare system is an incoherent compromise and it reflects a point of indecision in the body politic. We don’t want poverty; but we don’t want to guarantee the end of poverty. We feel uneasy: Can we afford it? Do we trust each others to make the necessary contributions? Do we trust ourselves not to abuse the system? And so we continue with a crazy system that gives millions a pitiful income and at the price of robbing them of the natural incentives to contribute, earn, save and grow their own families. In a way we are all caught in a collective poverty trap – unwilling to trust each other, unable to move forward together – we guarantee social insecurity, fear and the waste of human talent.

But we can spring the poverty trap by moving away from conditional rights and towards universal rights. If instead of making a minimum income conditional upon poverty we make it unconditional – universal.

It is as if each citizen were to say to each other:

Let us each pay a fair amount in taxes, and guarantee to each other a fair minimum income; using this we can each of us build our own life and make the best use of our own talents.

In practice we could make this shift by (a) merging tax and benefits into one system and (b) creating a guaranteed minimum income for all which then acts as the threshold at which we begin to pay taxes.

I describe these ideas in more detail in a joint policy paper with The Centre for Welfare Reform and the University of Birmingham:

Fair Income Policy Paper

I am not the first to make these arguments. In fact societies have, from ancient times, constantly attempted to achieve the right balance between income security and personal freedom. The system of Jubilees, part of the Jewish tradition of social justice, had exactly this function. No one could be cast into the slavery of poverty for ever – there was always the potential for redemption and the chance to build afresh because land that was lost through differences in trade, luck or talent would be returned to the family every fifty years.

The current UK government has at least realised that the current benefit system does penalise the poor through high taxes (dressed up as benefit reduction rates) but unfortunately it is unwilling to take the next logical step and to create a universal system of income security. Instead it is attempting to devise a complex new tax regime for those on the edge of the benefit system – which will leave some people better off and some people worse off. Given that we already live in the third most unequal developed society it seems that increased poverty for some is a price we should not be willing to pay.

Ultimately there are only two ways to reduce poverty traps either (1) to push some people deeper into poverty or (2) to lift everyone out of poverty together. The government has quietly set about the first strategy. Surely it’s time to consider the second approach – the only sane and moral solution.

From Pooling to Differentiation

If I were constructing a Utopia, which God forbid, I should describe a higher civilisation in which every human being had a hundred names; in which each had a particular name known only to a particular friend; in which there were more and not less ceremonies differentiating the various kinds of love and friendship and in which the suitor had to go through ten names before he got to Glory. That would be a Utopia really worth constructing; for it would be a real question of construction. Most of the Utopias represent only a dull sort of destruction; the sort of destruction we call simplification. It would really be something like fun to invent a ritual; but since the neglect of religion, no man has really had the courage to invent a ritual. It would be a great lark to draw up a code of law, decorating Tom, Dick and Harry with their Seven Secret Names. But these things will not come until the modern world has realised that its cure lies in distribution and even in differentiation; and not in mixing up everything together in one great mess. Comradeship has become a sort of Combine; bearing the same relation to true friendship that a Trust has to a true trade. Nobody seems to have any notion of improving anything except by pouring it into something else; as if a man were to pour the tea into the coffee or the sherry into the port. The one idea in all human things, from friendship to finance, is to pool everything. It is a very stagnant pool.

G K Chesterton from On Calling Names

Chesterton is the great advocate for the road to social justice less travelled. He believed that the path of the Fabians, the communists and the social democrats towards social justice was the same path taken by the great capitalists: to destroy diversity and so to achieve a greater centralisation of power and control in their own hands.

One hundred years later Chesterton’s path remains untravelled. But could we not rethink social justice? Could we seek fairness, while still respecting tradition, complexity and diversity? Could we build, without destroying?

People with learning difficulties have already shown us the way. People who have been excluded, victimised and disempowered, do not want revenge or some meaningless token of ‘equality’. They want to be included, to live in freedom, to be safe and to make their own contribution, in their own way. People want citizenship and world that enables them to find their own honoured place within it.

The Problem of Giving

We do not quite forgive the giver. The hands that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson on Gifts

The problem of giving is profound and double-edged. If we are the recipient of a gift there is a danger that we see our own need as a weakness (which it is not) and this then erodes our sense of our own value. If we are the giver then the danger is that we view our gift as some subtraction from ourselves (which it is not) and that we feel a pride and superiority to which we are not entitled.

One approach to this problem is to deny the reality of property (the property as theft argument). But this leaves us all poorer – or all subject to whatever power is in the business of organising property (the state, the market or the gangster).

A better approach is to welcome the concept of property and the notion of property rights but to recognise that property rights are not absolute. Property rights must be balanced with other social rights in order to ensure that everyone has the right to enough – even if some have more and some have less.

Paradoxically the healthiest perspective is to recognise that everything is a gift – not from other human beings – but from God. Humility before God takes nothing away from the soul.

Design Requires Deeper Thinking

Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really work out what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.

Steve Jobs from Wired in 1994

This seems to me to be true of design in our welfare systems too. People are always in such a hurry, working so hard, but thinking so little. What this leads to in the end is poorly thought-through public policies.

It is not the lack of ‘research’ that is the problem – no design innovation ever came from research. But design should be driven by a deeper understanding of the problems that need to be solved and the outcomes desired. This understanding is certainly informed by research, but it also needs to be informed by an understanding of human psychology and a commitment to basic ethical principles. Without this moral and social realism new designs will just be short-term fixes that will fall apart under the slightest pressure.

Having been responsible for designing several new systems for the organisation of welfare systems (individual budgets, self-directed support, resource allocation systems etc.) nothing is more depressing than to see people get enthusiastic about new ideas without making any real attempt to understand how and why they work. This is what then lead to such poor implementation. Without any deeper understanding people implement a process, e.g. the seven steps to self-directed support, as if it were a magical formula.

Sometimes it is better that people are sceptical and resistant than that they naively embrace innovations for the sake of novelty. Innovation must serve powerful moral purposes; it must right real wrongs. Otherwise it will be wasted effort and distraction.

Long-shot Utopias

The hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine that they can control things in a sovereign manner, as though they were kings of the earth, playing Providence not only for themselves but for the far future – reaching out into the far future with the wrong kind of far-sightedness, and gambling on a lot of risky calculations in which there must never be a single mistake. And it is a defect in such enthusiasts that they seem unwilling to leave anything to Providence, unwilling even to leave the future flexible, as one must do; and they forget that in any case, for all we know, our successors may decide to switch ideals and look for a different utopia before any of our long shots have reached their objective, or any of our long-range projects have had fulfilment. It is agreeable to all the processes of history, therefore, that each of us should rather do the good that is straight under our noses. Those people work more wisely who seek to achieve good in their own small corner of the world and then leave the leaven to leaven the whole lump, that those who are ever thinking that life is vain unless one can act though the central government, carry legislation, achieve political power and do big things.

From Herbert Butterfield’s Christianity and History

I came across the wonderful book in a second-hand book store in Sheffield – it is a real forgotten treasure: a great history Professor reflecting upon the relationship of history to faith and moral action.

I love this passage partly because it describes so well one of those tempting traps all dreamers can fall into. We think we know what should be done, we think we know what the future should be like, we think we should be the one to push the buttons. But this is all vain: the truths we’ve grasped are only partial, whatever we want others may not want, and there are no buttons – life is far too complex to be directed by anyone – least of all us.

These points seem true regardless of our faith or any lack of faith. However Butterfield also describes how faith in Providence – God working his purposes out over time – can help us manage our anxiety and our passion for moral change. A combination of utopian dreaming and atheism is particularly dangerous because you can have no faith that change will happen right, unless it is you who are in charge of that change (for there is no guiding Providence at work). More frighteningly still, you are free to breach all moral principles in pursuit of your dream, because nothing matters except the dream.

Social Mobility and Meritocracy

At the same time there existed in the sphere of the world a land that was called the country of wealth after the nature of its inhabitants. They saw in money alone the goal of their life and would recognise no other profit and no other perfection than possession. Thus all posts of honour and all ranks among them were regulated by this valuation. It was necessary to own a certain amount in order merely to be a man; he who did not possess this much stood lower and occupied in their esteem the rank of a manlike animal, and was called such. He owned more than that minimum amount occupied a higher position, and a very rich man stood near the stars; for he had, so they believed, the power of the stars, which cause gold to grow in the bowels of the earth. But the richest of all, who could never grasp all that was theirs or even merely survey it, these they exalted to gods above them and served them in the dust. It was ordered that each show his possessions every year so that he could maintain his station, rise, or fall, and it was then possible at times that from a man, an animal would come into being, and from an animal, a man.

From The Master of Prayer by Rabbi Nachman, as told by Martin Buber

Rabbi Nachman’s fable captures brilliantly the interwoven madness of two contemporary obsessions:

Meritocracy involves the crazy desire to equate wealth and power with merit (today often equated to academic excellence). Once we think this through we can see that there is no merit in meritocracy – in fact we might say that as those with merit are already blessed perhaps we should be happy to see those without merit get the distinct benefits of power or money. Meritocracy is greed.

But meritocracy also invites the craziness of social mobility. On one reading social mobility – if we can abandon the notion of up and down – is harmless or good. It is certainly bad if a natural footballer is forced to play cricket, a natural comedian runs a funeral parlour or a natural gardner becomes an accountant. However the idea that there is any virtue in people getting much richer than their parents and (and by logical necessity that there is virtue in seeing people become much poorer than their parents) is nonsense. It is an illusion that is only credible if we also believe in meritocracy.

The Value of Stories

It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the “day of judgement.”

Hannah Arendt from her essay on Isak Dinesen

Many academics are rather snobby about the value of stories.

But think about what a story does.

Telling a story is a way of revealing the reality of a person – not trying to fully comprehend that – but to try and see it – honestly. Any individual life is too much, too rich and too mysterious, to be captured by any limited perspective. But we can listen, we can learn and we can explore meanings – together.

On the other hand if we discard all that and say that truth must be in the numbers then first we need to create some simplistic account of what matters – one that will give ‘good maths’. We then abandon persuasion and exploration. We try to win – but often it is mere a trickery, an illusion that depends upon ignoring all the other questions you didn’t ask.

The Survival of Justice

The lucky man’s great good fortune
Ruins his children.
This was old wisdom.
Is it true?
Surely the father who breaks heaven’s law
Ruins his children.
The father who denies heaven’s right
Blinds his children.
The father who forgets to be humble
Crushes his children.
Evil begets evil.
But the children of the man who fears heaven,
They tread with care. They care for the good.
They are rewarded.

Rich pride mounts rich pride
And begets insolence.
Pampered insolence begets
And anarchy, where every man
Is the tyrant
Of his own conceit,
Begets all-out-war –
Striking at heaven and earth.

Justice lives in poverty.
She survives. She measures
What is necessary.
She honours what ought to be honoured.
She seeks out clean hearts, clean hands.
She knows what wealth and power
Grind to dust between them. She knows
Goodness and the laws of heaven.

From Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, translated by Ted Hughes.

The chorus sing of justice just before Agamemnon arrives, to be slaughtered. They see how the powerful, always believing themselves to be justified, in fact deny justice. And they see how all of this will unravel. Evil begets evil. Justice survives, even as it is ignored – it cannot be eliminated.

Space Disabled

The use of the term ‘disabled’ is complex and disputed.

In the UK the term ‘disabled people’ is preferred to ‘people with disabilities’. Disabled people can wear it with pride. It is used as a badge of identity and, if it refers to anything, it refers to the prejudice or obstacles that confront some of us because of our impairments or our differences. Disability is not in me – disability is in the social circumstances that make life more difficult for some of us.

Other English-speaking countries take exactly the opposite approach and reject the concept of a disabled person because it seems to imply that in some way our personhood is disabled – as if we were not fully functioning as a person.

For instance, the Canadian philosopher (and woman with a disability) Judith Snow rejects the concept of a disabled person because being unable to do certain things without assistance does not make one disabled.  “I cannot get to the moon unaided – but I am not space disabled.” The fact that someone needs more than an average level of assistance in one area of life, where others require less assistance, does not mean that they are any less of a person.

Personhood does not depend on our ability to perform some set of tasks: there’s no ability test for being a person.

As she points out, any distribution of abilities follow the normal curve. For any specific ability there will be some who are very able, some who are less able, while most will be in the middle. There will be those of us who can’t run, those of us who can run very fast indeed and the rest of us who might just manage a jog.

The crucial point here is that the normal curve is normal; it is just the way that inevitable variations in the natural world get distributed. There’s nothing special about it.

But it seems that we struggle to treat these variations and differences as natural. Natural variation gets turned into a kind of weapon. Some are tempted to see themselves as superior, just because they are lucky to have an ability at one end of the curve. Some may start to feel they are inferior, just because they happen to have an ability at the other end of the curve. Some may even glory in just being normal. The normal curve becomes a weapon for oppressing and harming others or even ourselves.

Even worse, the idea of disability may be treated as if it refers to some kind of failed version of a thing. As she notes, we do not really think of a ‘disabled car’ as a particular kind of car, we see it as a failed car – a car that does not work anymore. Applying disability to humans in this way is dangerous nonsense.

Judith Snow does not reject the existence of abilities or disabilities – so long as we understand that this concept is a doubly relative term: relative to a particular human activity and relative to the distribution of that activity. There is nothing bad about these variations in the distribution of capacity – and nothing unfair. It is all just a part of our natural human diversity.

Snow rejects the notion that our human status that can be switched off, or even diminished, by our abilities. We ourselves are not disabled, we cannot be disabled.

However UK perspectives also makes perfect sense. In a world where people use the term ‘disabled’ of people then it makes good sense to say: Okay, that’s me – but if you see a problem the problem is in you – not me.

But it also makes sense to say that you can’t apply the term ‘disabled’ to people – its bad grammar.

Both agree that the adjective ‘disabled’ does not really qualify the noun ‘person’ – but each chooses to make a different moral point in their response to the fact that some people do use the term as if it does apply to people:

We are a group – we have an identity, which we control and of which we are proud.


I am a person – don’t rule me out, don’t ignore me or degrade me.  

Both perspectives are entirely valid. So let’s use them both.

The Incompetence of the Clever

Much of society is organised on the principle that we should leave decisions in the hands of those who are most competent to make them. But we often confuse competence with cleverness. However clever you are there are very real limits to your competence at making decisions on behalf of other people:

  • Understanding – you don’t really know how I think or what I value
  • Position – you can’t take the opportunities or avoid the hazards that lie before me
  • Social – you can’t replace me in relationships of love, work, friendship
  • Motivation – you can’t really avoid putting your own interests before mine

It is a special temptation for the clever to think they can act on everyone else’s behalf. It is a deep incompetence which is often masked by phoney rationality and a dismissive attitude to those they see as somehow beneath them. The clever folk who rule us do appear to have made this error – and have left the wisdom of true leadership behind.

How to Make a Life

You are a citizen when you are defined by your contribution, by what you create in the company of others, not by what you consume…

We need to find ways for all of us to act together as citizens on the truth in Winston Churchill’s statement: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

Mike Green from Citizenship and Person-Centred Work

Modern economic and social theory has failed to capture this important dimension of citizenship. Philosophical theories like utilitarianism and liberalism and the accounts of rationality used by modern economics are badly distorted by their inability to understand the need to give, the need to contribute and the reality of obligations.

The Medicine We Bring

I believe what Native Americans believe: that every person born to this earth is born with gifts. It’s totally impossible to be born without them. No one’s birth was a mistake. We all come here with something to give. And it is in the giving that these gifts become medicine, for the world, for the tribe, for the family the school, the agency. The health and the wholeness and the vitality of any community requires 100% participation of every member of that community. 

Denise Bissonnette from Citizenship and Person-Centred Work

This is a hard truth. It demands that we ask ourselves what has been lost and what will be lost every time a child with a disability is terminated before its birth, or killed just after its birth. What is lost every time an older person or a person with disabilities is ‘hurried towards death’ or is just left, segregated, within a care home.

It seems that society doesn’t always want to take its medicine.

We are choosing to be the kind of society that only values the shallow and the temporary. We want to be happy, at any price; but we don’t want to have to show love, pay attention or take care. Perhaps we think we already have all that it takes to be human within ourselves – we just don’t need other people. Or perhaps we only value the famous, the rich and the powerful.

But, if this is so, we are on a long journey to deep disappointment.

True value cannot be found within inevitably scare and fleeting moments of celebrity or in the enjoyment of rare pleasures. True value lies all around us – in every moment, in every person – but it can only be found in love – not self-indulgence.

Citizenship and Higher Purpose

Citizenship is related three ideals of democracy that are at the core of person-centred work. First, all people are created equal, which means that everyone is equally entitled to reach for their higher purpose. Second, in order to reach for higher purpose there must be equal opportunities to do so. Third, our work as citizens is not simply to receive but to give back; not to reach for our own higher purpose, but to do so in a way that contributes to the greater good. Pursuing these ideals strengthens society and enriches culture for us all.

Beth Mount from Citizenship and Person-Centred Work

Beth Mount is the real inventor of person-centred planning, although her work has largely gone unrecognised in the UK – perhaps because in her hands it is too subtle for the kind of industrialised approach that was encouraged by the Valuing People White Paper.

What is important about what Beth is saying here is that notions such as person-centredness must also be tied to a broader concern with citizenship. This means making two changes to how we currently think about both ideas.

First, we must recognise that the notion of person-centredness only really makes sense – and it does make sense – if we begin to see human life as having real purpose where each individual has their own purpose, their own distinctive role to play. Human beings are not just animals, merely meeting their needs; human beings are individuals, each with their own distinct contribution to make.

Second, we must stop treating citizenship as if it is primarily a political concept – that we are citizens because we are a certain kind of member of a certain kind of society. Citizenship is something we create, we create though our own individual contribution. This means it has an important and foundational moral character – it offers a pattern for how we should be with each other. This means that all of us can be citizens, can strive for citizenship, even when we live in a deeply paternalistic, meritocratic or oppressive society.

Reflections on William Beveridge

In proceeding from this first comprehensive survey of social insurance to the next task—of making recommendations—three guiding principles may be laid down at the outset.

1. The first principle is that any proposals for the future, while they should use to the full the experience gathered in the past, should not be restricted by consideration of sectional interests established in the obtaining of that experience. Now, when the war is abolishing landmarks of every kind, is the opportunity for using experience in a clear field. A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.

2. The second principle is that organisation of social insurance should be treated as one part only of a comprehensive policy of social progress. Social insurance fully developed may provide income security; it is an attack upon Want. But Want is one only of five giants on the road of reconstruction and in some ways the easiest to attack. The others are Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

3. The third principle is that social security must be achieved by co-operation between the State and the individual. The State should offer security for service and contribution. The State in organising security should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family.

William Beveridge from Social Insurance and Allied Services

At the foundation of the welfare state it was clear that Beveridge was under the same pressure to ‘patch’ that we have faced ever since he designed it. Revolutions are difficult precisely for the reason he identified – they challenge sectional interests. Today the welfare state itself has become one of those sectional interests.

He also noted that social insurance is only part of what is required, and this is surely correct. However it is noticeable that in the delivery and funding of the welfare state social insurance is one of the weakest elements of the current system. Once we take out the taxes that the poor pay we find that only £25 billion is actually being spent on lifting people in the lowest 40% of earners out of poverty (that’s 2.5% of GDP). The vast majority goes on fighting the other ‘giants’. May be we’ve got the balance wrong?

The final principle seems more honoured in the breach than in observance. We have neither a clear minimum nor an encouragement for voluntary action – quite the reverse – obscure entitlements and perverse incentives.

For more thoughts on this see my essay for The Centre for Welfare Reform – Who really benefits from welfare?

Adam Smith on Celebrity

This disposition to admire, and to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean conditions… is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.

Adam Smith from Theory of Moral Sentiments

Adam Smith gets it right again. The love of celebrity and wealth does not just cause social injustice it distorts the basic fabric of our everyday moral instincts which becomes tattered and confused. We forget where our sympathies should be directed, we admire those we know are not admirable and we drop our standards to the level of those we admire.

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