Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: October 2013

How Do We Defend the Welfare State?

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.

William Beveridge, Social Insurance and Allied Services, p. 6

If we are just interested in defending an existing social institution then we do not need to limit ourselves to any one justification or line of defence. Often it is helpful to have more than one argument, particularly as you will need to find common ground with people with whom you may not agree about everything. You may believe that your justification is the best or the only true justification, but this is not helpful as a defence of the welfare state if most people can’t see the truth of your justification.

For instance, the UK welfare state was largely developed by William Beveridge. But when Beveridge was making the case for his reforms he did not rely on any narrow moral or political theory, rather he tried to outline the central problems for which the welfare state was a solution. These were the the Five Giants: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

Rhetorically, evil can be much more helpful than good. For we can all quickly agree that something like the Five Giants are bad and agree that we will attack them. However we may find that we all define what is good in rather different ways. So while we may agree on the need to attack an evil we may have very different ideas about how to avoid an evil and what we should do instead.

So, from a design point of view, only knowing what you want to avoid is also something of a weakness. If we do not know what the welfare state is for – not just what it is against – then it can be rather hard to design it or defend it. We may find that we are so divided by our different conceptions of the good that we no longer agree on what it is we are fighting for.

In fact I think this is our current predicament. Sometimes critics of the welfare state seem to be against the welfare state, but it often turns out that they are really offering different visions of the welfare state. They still want to attack the Five Giants but they are arguing for different ways of attacking them. This does not make them right, nor does it make their arguments any less dangerous, but it means we are living at a time when it is no longer good enough to simply argue that any proposed policy change is a ‘threat to the welfare state’. Simplistic defences of the welfare state as ‘an obviously good thing’ have become far too weak.

It is no longer good enough to point – however truthfully – that a policy is an attack on the welfare state. The welfare state’s legitimacy has been weakened too much by decades of bad policy-making by Left and Right. Too many people are now convinced that the problems with the welfare state are so grave that they will allow government to fiddle with or undermine it – to their hearts content.

We will have to rethink our approach. We will have to develop a more positive account of what we are defending – one that can unite a wide range of different perspectives – but one that is specific enough to create a real challenge to the great erosion of rights we see today.

This is what the Campaign for a Fair Society is trying to do and why we have published a dynamic Manifesto for a Fair Society setting out key principles – as well as detailed proposals. It is also why we are going to invite anyone who has their own ideas to share those ideas with us. Its early days for this project – but if you think you could help I’d love to hear from you.

The Welfare State and Citizenship in Political Theory

We tend to assume that what we call the Left is broadly for the welfare state while what we call the Right is broadly against it. However the reality is more complex, in fact only a few extremist are exactly against the welfare state. Almost everyone is for the welfare state, but what they disagree about is what kind of welfare state is best.

From my perspective the kind of welfare state we want is one that supports robust and active citizenship – for all. I want to live in a society that welcomes all it’s different members into a real and vibrant community – not as cogs or components.

But do our political traditions seek a welfare state fit for citizens?

For example, within the conservative tradition, which tends to treat the continuity of state and society as the primary goal, while the welfare state may have been unwelcome to begin with it can also be treated as an inevitable accommodation with the forces of modernity. It turns out that the forces of terror, revolution and totalitarianism that were unleashed by the economic insecurities of the modern world are somewhat tamed by creating welfare provision. For example, Bismarck introduced many social reforms in Germany that were clearly motivated by this kind of conservative thinking.

Conservatives value established social institutions and they stress the reliance of the individual on the relationships and communities within which they develop. Conservative critics of the welfare state tend to focus on the need to maintain respect for non-state institutions or the structures of civil society. They often seek a welfare state that promotes family, faith or community. They often worry that notions of equality or citizenship are dangerous to the social order and if they use the term citizen at all it is largely as just another word for ‘subject.’

It is possible to defend the welfare state from within the conservative tradition, but it is likely that any such defence will focus on a welfare state that serves to underpin, without replacing, older social traditions, or which in some way renews those traditions. Such an approach has something to recommend it, but it will seem inadequate to those individuals or groups who are currently excluded from community and active citizenship.

Interestingly the socialist tradition shares some of the same assumptions as the conservative tradition. It deprecates individualism and it values the collective. However it starts with the assumption that social justice has been failed by the status quo. It proposes radical change in society, in order to promote equality. Typically it assumes that this change must be overseen and controlled by the state.

For socialists the welfare state is their own great achievement. The commitment to solve social problems by the means of state-directed activity is socialism in action. However socialists are currently in a slightly difficult position with regard to the justification and criticism of the welfare state. They become torn between seeking to defend or grow the current system or criticising the system in the light of their ultimate vision for social justice. Socialism is not a logically inconsistent, but it is interesting to note that socialist critiques of the welfare system (while they exist) have not yet led to significant social change.

There is a similar ambiguity about the socialist view of citizenship. While conservatives tend to reject citizenship, as a radical idea that subverts respect for proper authority, socialists tend to appropriate citizenship without valuing it. Citizenship becomes just a way of dignifying our shared status as cogs in the state-run machine.

Alternatively citizenship can be seen as at the root of cooperative action, mutuality and the trade unionism that was the initial life blood of socialism. For instance, the National Coalition of Independent Action in the UK, which represents small voluntary organisations has as its sub-title:

We’re not an arm of the state (or the private sector) – we have our own arms.

This seems to me true, but unfortunately it is a theme which barely registers within modern public policy and the media dominated debates of modern life.

The theory that currently dominates modern thought is liberalism, although this is liberalism is divided between Right and Left-liberalism. Right-liberals, like Nozick (sometimes confusingly called neo-liberals) focus on the precedence of civil and political rights, and treat the right to own property as having precedence over other socio-economic rights. They seek to maximise the space for freedom.
Left-liberals, like Rawls, tend to seek to advance the cause of social rights as one part of the full set of our proper rights and they focus on ensuring people have the means to enjoy freedom equally. Simplifying the matter, all liberals are interested in advancing human freedom, but they are divided as to whether they are interested in freedom from oppression or freedom for human development.

Liberals do sometimes use the term citizen, but primarily this is just code for an individual as bearer of rights and duties and as someone who is formally equal within the system of rules, safeguards and securities. We are citizens because we can call on the state to support our rights, although we are also expected to fulfil whatever duties are necessary to the fulfilment of those rights. For a liberal freedom come first, then rights and lastly duties.

[Liberals do often value equal opportunities and they sometimes propose that society be organised so that all citizens can make the best of their abilities within the system – we should all be equally free to climb as high as possible and to achieve as much as possible. This alerts us also to the meritocratic assumptions of liberals: all should be free, but all are not (really) equal.]

Another tradition, one that is closely linked to liberalism and is very influential in social sciences, social policy and contemporary political rhetoric is utilitarianism – the idea that social systems should be organised to maximise the overall level of welfare. Utilitarians don’t need to appeal to citizenship to justify the existence of the welfare state and, at least in principle, utilitarianism may be quite happy to sacrifice individual freedoms, rights and the notion of equality if there are more beneficial social outcomes available without them. Huxley’s Brave New World was a utilitarian dystopia where different ‘grades’ of human being are integrated into one harmonious whole.

Liberalism and utilitarianism can seem like opposing philosophies. Liberalism promotes freedom not the consequences of freedom; utilitarianism is interested in consequences and may sacrifice anything to the desired end. However these traditions of political thought are also twinned.

Liberalism and utilitarianism are both aristocratic forms of thinking. Each is offering a pattern by which rulers can manipulate the complex reality of society. Right-liberals often appeal to the interests of the elites that manage commerce; Left-liberals appeal to the interests of the elites that manage the public-sector. Everyone tries to exploit the kind of utilitarian arguments that can usefully appeal to the electorate.

Arguably what unties these traditions is a shared commitment to meritocracy – that the best of us, should rule rest of us, and for our own good. And aristocracy is just the ancient name for meritocracy – the “aristos” being the best.

Within this meritocratic framework the welfare state plays two roles. First it is an instrument by which power and influence can be exercised over society to the goals of political elites. Second it is an object of dispute in the on-going conflict between powerful political elites. In fact it would not be hard to argue that for the modern political elites the welfare state is more important as an object of political discourse than as an actual instrument of social change.

Such is the unreliability of the instrument and the rapid change in political fortunes that it is a rare politician who really expects to achieve meaningful social change through their temporary control of the instruments of welfare. It is more important to have a good story about the welfare state:

“We are for it – it needs to be made bigger – trust us to make the necessary changes.” 

“We are for it – but its too big or inefficient – trust us to manage it correctly.”

There is no assumption that perhaps people themselves could make their own decisions, at the level of the citizen or community. Where would be the political advantage in that?

Citizenship, real citizenship, is absent from contemporary debates and our analysis of the welfare state – because it doesn’t serve the interests of any of the political elites (Left or Right).

The idea of citizenship does not belong to any one political theory. If taken seriously it would temper the extreme and anti-democratic nature of all the main political theories. But unfortunately it is not in the interests of the powerful to imagine a world where their own power was limited by our citizenship.

Citizenship as a Moral Ideal

There are different ways of understanding the idea of citizenship. One of the most important distinctions is between those who think of citizenship as a status given to the individual by a community (passport-citizenship) and those who think of citizenship as a moral ideal that exists whether or not it is recognised by the community.

We can see this distinction clearly if we consider the following problem:

A community exists on an island – all the members of this community are citizens. They acknowledge their equal status as citizens and take seriously their duties as citizens and have regard for each other’s rights. One day a man is washed ashore on the island. He is clearly a foreigner, he has lost his home and all his possessions. He cannot even speak the native tongue. Is this man a citizen?

If you think of citizenship as just a badge – as defined and limited by membership of the pre-existing community then the answer is obvious: No. This man is the very opposite of a citizen. If he is owed anything at all it is not rooted in citizenship but in some other moral obligation.

But if you think of citizenship as a moral ideal then the answer is the complete opposite: Yes, this man is a citizen and just as much a citizen as every other member of the community. He is entitled to all the benefits of citizenship and must be supported to participate and to engage as a citizen. He is a citizen – disguised as a non-citizen and our duty is to take off the disguise.

We might note in passing that the same would not be true of holiday-makers or colonists who are either passing through or who aim to take over the land. However an economic migrant who abandons his home to come to live somewhere better might also be said to be a citizen. Although this might also lead us explore our global responsibility to the welfare of other communities.

This issue reveals a significant division in the idea of citizenship.

Those who doubt that morality is real or who see morality as secondary to our political and social settlements may well prefer passport-citizenship. For it is less demanding both metaphysically and practically. However it is seriously flawed and does not provide the right basis for moral or political thinking.

I think there are three reasons we must reject passport-citizenship:

1. The precedence of morality

Morality is real and it precedes any political or social settlement. Morality enables us to judge societies from the outside, without it we are left the victim of the norms of our society – however flawed they may be. If citizenship is just passport-citizenship then we have no basis to judge the way in which the rights of Jews or people with disabilities were stripped from them during the eugenics period.

Of course this argument is controversial and is best disputed within the arenas of philosophy and theology. However there will be some who say that they owe nothing to the man who is not part of their community because the only laws or norms they recognise are the those defined by their community.

2. The nature of charity

Of course most people would accept we owe the stranger something. But it is quite common for people to feel that any such obligation will be in some sense a lesser obligation. In fact this feeling is derived from a certain appropriate feature of the moral life: we do have special duties to ourselves, to special people and to our communities. After all each of us has our own family and own community and we cannot do justice to our duties by dissolving them into one general duty.

However it is important that such proper discrimination is not corrupted into clubbishness: only my people matter.

In our story the stranger has nobody to fall back onto. He has no family or community and so our obligation to him cannot be reduced in the expectation that other’s will help. So the question is whether or not we can reduce our obligations simply because the stranger seems not to be a citizen.

Here it is worth considering here what it is to help someone. The danger in any discussions of giving is that we tend to rather focus on the cost to the giver, rather than the purpose of the giving. Often this provokes the fear that to give is to lose and to give absolutely is to potentially lose everything. However this is not what is implicit in giving properly.

The best analysis of the nature of giving that I am aware of is provided by Maimonides in his analysis of the Eight Degrees of Charity. Starting with the highest form of giving Maimonides states:

There are eight levels in charity, each level surpassing the other. The highest level, beyond which there is none, is a person who supports a Jew who has fallen into poverty [by] giving him a present or a loan, entering into partnership with him, or finding him work so that his hand shall be fortified so that he will not have to ask others [for alms]. Concerning this [Leviticus 25:35] states “You shall support him, the stranger, the resident, and he shall live among you.” Implied is that you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Zeraim, Hilchot Matnot, Aniyim: 7-14

In other words equal citizenship describes the goal and character of perfect giving, even to someone who may not at first seem a citizen. Our goal is not to just give away something that we think is ‘ours’ but instead to ensure that the person is able to ‘live amongst us’ and ideally the way in which we give assistance should also reinforce respect for the person’s innate dignity. In fact, if you follow Maimonides analysis to the end, you would find that the the quality of charity is reduced as it becomes increasingly stigmatising and disrespectful.

So, I would argue that if you recognise the true nature of your obligation to the stranger you will find that you must treat the individual with respect and as an equal. In other words the ideal of citizenship lies submerged in our basic obligation to take care of the stranger even when they do not seem a citizen.

3. The nature of community

The final reason for rejecting passport-citizenship is that it kills the very nature of community itself. A community that defines itself by its existing members and which jealously guards its boundaries will become sterile and incapable of valuing even its own members. Whereas a community that treats the stranger as a citizen is a stronger community, not just in its respect for the demands of justice, but also in its capacity to be the kind of community that is capable of nurturing all its members.

I think this is where the focus on rights and citizenship is a little misleading. Not that rights are not important, they are essential – but they are not strictly fundamental. A one-eyed focus on rights will mistake the very nature of the community that aims to respect those rights.

Rights only exist because duties exist. As Simone Weil puts it:

The notion of obligation comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation to him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognised by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognised by anybody is not worth very much…

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Often this same point is made by those who want to limit the demand of rights. They drift from the correct observation that each effective right must be matched by some real duty, to the incorrect observation that therefore we must limit the set of rights and impose the minimal set of duties upon ourselves – in the name of freedom, private property or political necessity.

This is a very live political issues today, for example the Australian politician Joe Hockey recently wrote:

I wish to thank my friends at the Institute of Economic Affairs for the opportunity to discuss an issue that has been the source of much debate in this forum for sometime… that is, the end of an era of popular universal entitlement. There is nothing much new in the debate other than the fact that action has now been forced on governments as a result of the recent financial crisis. Years of warnings have been ignored but the reality can no longer be avoided.

Joe Hockey, The End of the Age of Entitlement.

But duties are not costs. Duties simply articulate the form of the good life.

Some duties are certainly constraints, forbidding things which will damage the negative rights of others (e.g. the right to life, the right to property). Some duties place upon us positive responsibilities, enabling other people to have positive rights (e.g. the right to assistance, income, employment). In addition, as Kant observed, some duties are perfect – in the sense that it is absolutely clear whether or not we are achieving the duty (Kant). Others imperfect – in sense that we can fulfil our duties to different degrees and with more or less discretion.

In addition our duties evolve and develop along with our form of life and our relationships with others. It is our relationships with others that place demands upon us – but those demands are not costs – they are the reciprocal connections by which the individual and the community develops.

Imagine a person free of all duties and you imagine someone who is utterly disconnected.

The structure of our duties describes the framework within which the good life is lived. There are still spaces that allow for discretion, creativity, enjoyment and licence. But it is the framework of duties that makes life possible and makes life meaningful. Pure licence is emptiness.

As Kant also observed the sense of burden we associate with duty is also an illusion. For the sense of duty as a burden is only how experience what we should do when it is not what we want to do. But often our duties are exactly what we want to do and the good life is not a life without duty, but a life rich with duties – that can be fulfilled.

We have now to elucidate the concept of a will estimable in itself and good apart from any further end. This concept, which is already present in a sound natural understanding and requires not so much to be taught as merely to be clarified, always holds the highest place in estimating the total worth of our actions and constitutes the condition of all the rest. We will therefore take up the concept of duty, which includes that of a good will, exposed however, to certain subjective limitations and obstacles. These so far from hiding a good will or disguising it, rather bring it out by contrast and make it shine forth more brightly.

Kant I, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

From a Christian perspective we might also say that acting merely from duty is simply the form that love takes when we are not blessed with the rights feelings.

In other words to deny citizenship to the absolute stranger is to weaken community. We fail in the exercise of our duties, we fail to give the stranger the opportunity to contribute to the communities network of relationships, and we fail to strengthen the exchange of gifts of citizenship.

A decent community is awake to the ideal of citizenship. Citizenship serves to frame the obligations of the community to its members and to the welcome it gives to others. Citizenship is both a discipline and an ideal.

Citizenship is a powerful moral standard which can be applied to social and political arrangements. It is a standard, not just of rights, but more importantly a standard for duty, virtue and social purpose (telos).

If we do this we will find ourselves exploring the possibility that rather than being ruled by one, or by a few, we will be ruled by ourselves – for this is how Aristotle defines citizenship:

A citizen is one who has a share in both ruling and being ruled.

Aristotle, Politics III 1

Of course some who embrace citizenship merely do so to keep at arms length those they fear or do not want to join them in community. But just because some misuse the concept doesn’t mean the concept should be abandoned. Citizenship is the means by which we can live as equals, in all our differences. Properly understood it is a vital moral ideal by which to challenge the current social and political system.

Simply an Unfortunate Human Being

Can you guess what I felt, Vityenka, once I was behind the barbed wire? I’d expected to feel horror. But just imagine – I actually felt relieved to be inside this cattle-pen. Don’t think it’s because I’m a born slave. No. No. It’s because everyone around me shares my fate now: now I no longer have to walk on the roadway life a horse, there are no more spiteful looks, and the people I know look me straight in the eye instead of trying to avoid me. Everyone in this cattle-pen bears the stamp branded on us by the Fascists and it no longer burns my soul so fiercely. Now I’m no longer a beast deprived of rights – simply an unfortunate human being. And that is easier to bear.

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate

It may be hard for us to imagine the kind of oppression that makes the camp, the barbed wire or the institution welcome. But it starts when you feel attacked and vulnerable and when being together with others, ‘like you’ creates a source of comfort.

What we so often don’t seem to realise when we see people stigmatised, slandered, and scapegoated by ordinary people and by the powerful – then those people feel deeply hurt and vulnerable. All those empty, lazy stereotypes – the skiving scrounger on the dole – the greedy immigrant stealing our jobs – the fraud pretending to have disability – they all eat away at someone’s soul.

The fact that the stereotype is a lie does not protect the person under attack – in a strange way it makes the stereotype even more toxic – because we find that the truth offers no resistance to the lies of the powerful.

So the weak end by seeking comfort in each other. Too often this ends in tragedy, herded together people are even weaker and easier to attack. But occasionally, just occasionally, people are inspired to resist, to fight back and to demand the justice that others have taken away.

The Blood Money of Charity or Why Entitlements Matter

If the present order is taken for granted or assumed to be sacrosanct, charity from the more to the less fortunate would seem virtuous and commendable; to those for whom the order itself is suspect or worse, such charity is blood-money. Why should some be in the position to dispense and others to need that kind of charity?

An infidel could ignore that challenge; for apart from faith in God there is really nothing to be said for the notion of human equality. Men do not seem to be equal in any respect, if we judge by available evidence. But if all are are children of one Father, then all are equal heirs of a status in comparison with which apparent differences of quality and capacity are unimportant; in the deepest and most important of all – their relationship to God – all are equal.

William Temple, Christianity and Social Order

This quote perhaps helps remind us that the Church has often been a powerful advocate of real social justice. Archbishop Temple does not seek to position the Church as a bestower of charity; instead he demands that society recognises the genuine rights that are created by our human needs.

He also reminds us that equality is the foundation of social justice – we simply are equal – in some profound moral sense – despite all our obvious and great differences. This fundamental equality of moral worth is central to our moral codes (whether or not you believe in God). There is also an aspiration that many of us share – to live ‘as equals’ in a community where those differences can be reconciled through our equal citizenship. The barriers to such social equality are great indeed – but the moral appeal of such equality is hard to erode – despite all the prejudice, discrimination and injustice that is such a feature of the modern world.

An example of this battle for equality is the conflict over ‘entitlements’ that rages around people with disabilities internationally. In the UK today the entitlement to social care is under a double attack: (a) funding for that entitlement is being cut by 33% (from 2010 to 2015) and (b) many local authorities are now undermining a policy position which had treated ‘personal budgets’ as the person’s money – an entitlement. Instead people find their control eroded by increasing regulations, bureaucracy and direct interference.

On the other side of the world, Australia, as it begins to implement its National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), is making a globally important commitment to secure the rights of persons with disabilities in line with the UN Declaration and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, even in this context, policy-makers struggle with the idea that disabled people are actually owed the intended budgets – that these budgets are entitlements which belong to people:

“It’s Jack’s money, not the government’s money.”

I will not rehearse here all the arguments for treating such funding as an entitlement (I have done it elsewhere and I have the feeling I will have to have another go soon). I simply want to observe the starkness of the choice:

If we give people money they are either entitled to it or they are not. If they are not entitled to it then why are we giving it? We would be giving what we ought not to give. If they are entitled to it then it is theirs – not ours.

What is at stake here – as Temple rightly observes – is whether we are giving people what they are properly due, or whether we are just giving the blood money of charity.

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