Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: November 2013

Do You Deserve Your Gifts?

quis enim te discernit
quid autem habes quod non accepisti
si autem accepisti
quid glorias quasi non acceperis

Who made you special, who gave you your gifts? And if your gifts were given to you why do you behave as if you’d given them to yourself?

1 Corinthians 4:7 [Vulgate and my translation]

I have noticed that people have a very inconsistent approach to entitlements: what I get I deserve, but what you get I’m not so sure about.

For instance, at a conference in London at the RSA, I heard a professor, and senior government advisor, speaking to a room of civil servants, academics, politicians, think-tankers and public service managers:

“The welfare state is how we take care of the poor.”

I’m afraid I was unable to resist pointing out that it was a bit rich for people who were all paid indirectly or directly by the tax payer that they were somehow doing a great favour to the poor. As far as I could see they were all making a very good living from the welfare state.

It seems that we think: what I get is an entitlement; what you get is a handout.

I am sure many would argue that they deserve their salaries, expenses, pensions and perks because they are so clever. But who made them clever? Not them.

As St Paul says, we didn’t give ourselves our own gifts. We didn’t make ourselves clever; it’s an undeserved gift. And if we have such underserved gifts we should be happy to have the gift itself – it gives us no reason to expect other benefits, like money or power.

We might say cleverness should be its own reward – except that its not a reward – for you didn’t really do anything to win it.

Of course the clever may have to work hard at being clever – it’s not always easy – it takes time and effort to learn, to think and carry out complex tasks. But then lots of other people also have to work hard, for low wages, carrying out tasks they don’t like, just to earn enough to look after themselves and their family. They do not get to enjoy the perk that the clever enjoy – of working hard at work that is also intrinsically enjoyable.

Our gifts should not be the cause of self-congratulation or an excuse for greed – our gifts were given to us to share – to convert back into gifts for others.

We Fell Asleep

We fell asleep.

We forgot that they don’t take care of us, we take care of each other.
We forgot that it’s the rich who need the poor, not the poor who need the rich.
We forgot that politicians work for us, we don’t work for them.

We forgot that government doesn’t innovate, people do.
We forgot that government doesn’t create wealth, people do.
We forgot that government doesn’t know best, people do.

We forgot about citizenship.
We forgot about families.
We forgot about community.

We confused good with big.
We confused achievement with wealth.
We confused love with control.

We forgot that the welfare state was made by us, that it belongs to us and it needs to work for us.

It’s time to wake up.

Beyond Rights – Citizenship in the Welfare State

The [new 1834] Poor Law treated the claims of the poor, not as an integral part of the rights of the citizen, but as an alternative to them – as claims which could be met only if the claimants ceased to be citizens in any true sense of the world.

T H Marshall in Citizenship and Social Class 

Marshall, and other advocates of citizenship in the welfare state, often focus their arguments on a justification of our socio-economic rights. They are right to propose that it is very helpful to see ourselves as holding such rights; rightly they refuse to treat the welfare system as a privilege – granted by the wealthy or the powerful.

Welfare systems which are not founded on rights are easily corrupted and will not be sustainable over time.

We can see the difference this makes in practice. In the UK when socio-economic rights are treated as universal (e.g. health and pensions) they seem to gain more support and are better protected from cuts. However when socio-economic rights are poorly defined and targeted, when they are treated as privileges that apply to just a few (e.g. benefits and social care) then they are easily undermined and reduced. Hence social care in England is being cut by over 30% between 2010 and 2015 – an unprecedented cut in welfare spending – but hardly noticed by the media or by the general public.

As the welfare state becomes increasing subject to means-testing, targeting and conditionality the whole edifice will become unstable. In particular some groups will be increasingly perceived as outside the pale of citizenship. People with disabilities, the poor, people with mental health problems, recent immigrants and exiles and many other groups are becoming strangers in their own land.

T H Marshall is of course not to blame for this corruption of the welfare state. But may be it was a mistake to define citizenship too narrowly. Rights are important, but being a citizen is about much more than being a right-holder. We can identify several other dimensions to citizenship:

  1. Citizens are contributors to the public good
  2. Citizens have many rights and duties, independent of their relationship to the state
  3. Citizens are equal
  4. Citizens are not paupers
  5. Citizens are free
  6. Citizens build community together
  7. Citizens rule themselves, though genuinely democratic institutions

1. The virtue of contribution

Positive obligations, like the need to pay our taxes, are more likely to go unrecognised if there is no stress on the virtue of contribution as an aspect of citizenship.

2. The limits of public expenditure

Taxation and public expenditure are not the only means for fulfilling our obligations. It is unhelpful to focus only on the role of the state in adjusting incomes or in providing services. We have other rights and other duties.

Citizens are free and yet bound by a web of obligations to themselves, family, friends, neighbours and the institutions of civil society – as well as their obligation to the state. It is important not to treat our rights (including our socio-economic rights) as merely a function of our willingness to pay taxes. It is critical to the ecology of community to understand the proper role of public expenditure and also to understand how other forms of contribution can develop in harmony with our obligation to pay our taxes.

For example, most support for children and adults who need assistance to grow, flourish and live good lives comes from families. When a parent takes care of their own child they are doing something which is important on very many levels. It is hard to see that there is any benefit in encouraging the parent to stop taking care of their child, go to work, just to earn enough money to pay for someone else to take care of their child.

3. The need for equality

Citizenship demands equality, not absolute equality (which is in fact hostile to citizenship), but a reasonable level of income equality. The focus of utilitarian and liberal theory has been to sacrifice equality to productivity. Even those who argue for equality can fall back on broadly utilitarian arguments which, while not false, somewhat miss their target. While it may be true that inequality is costly even for the wealthy it is somewhat peculiar to appeal to plain self-interest to justify greater equality.

Plato in the Laws [V, 744] suggests that the poorest must be guaranteed a minimum and that the richest must have no more than four times that minimum. For, as all champions of citizenship, like Rousseau, note:

…by equality, we should understand, not that the degrees of power and riches are to be absolutely identical for everybody; but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.

Rousseau, The Social Contract.

The requirement for relative equality for citizens is based upon the justified belief that high levels of relative inequality distort human relationships and make it harder for people to see each other as equals or to treat each other as equals. It is not so much income equality in itself that is important, rather it is the risk of damaging self-esteem, while inflating pride.

4. Limiting poverty

It is not just relative income equality that is required by citizenship. Citizenship also demands an absolute ban on poverty, in the sense that poverty means a state of need which overtakes the individual’s capacity to function as a free and independent citizen.

I neither say nor maintain that kings should be called rich any more than the common folk who go through the streets on foot, for sufficiency equals wealth, and covetousness equals poverty.

(Guillaume de Lorris) & Jean de Muin, The Romance of Rose

Citizenship helps us here in two ways. First it provides another important reason for protecting socio-economic rights, but in a different way. The imperative to end poverty requires that an absolute minimum be set which guarantees the possibility for free and active contribution. Such freedom from poverty becomes the condition which frees us for practical citizenship – not slavery.

As Aristotle says: You could no more make a city out of paupers than out of slaves

Furthermore the question of what constitutes poverty and what, therefore, constitutes the level of income and support necessary to overcome poverty, becomes central to the design of the welfare state.

In the UK at least the design of the welfare state fails to address either poverty or inequality. Public policy-makers have become very relaxed about excessive wealth, and have convinced themselves that excessive wealth fuels productivity – despite all the evidence to the contrary. Moreover poverty is defined relatively, and so is treated as an absolute fact, which can only be mitigated, but not ended. This is an error.

5. The exercise of freedom

Citizens don’t just have rights and responsibilities, they also have freedoms. Citizenship should be a creative engagement with other citizens; and through this engagement new forms of community life evolve. Unfortunately this fact is not recognised in the design of most welfare systems.

While the existence of the welfare state is often defended by means of the rights of citizens it seems like the design of the welfare state is dictated by the needs and interests of the powerful. Often it seems like a new form of aristocratic rule has evolved within the welfare state itself.

The most extreme example of this can be found in the treatment of people with disabilities. Many people find that their lives are dictated by the welfare state: where people live, who people live with, what people do with their time, what people own and earn – everything is fixed by the state. Other groups may have some more freedom, but they still find their experience of the welfare state stigmatising and damaging: receiving benefit payments, negotiating confused bureaucracies and entering crisis before any assistance is received. Even more, universal services, like education, are highly centralised and standardised – not defined by a partnership of teachers and families – but by the political elite.

People with disabilities have led the way in demonstrating that this pattern of state-controlled welfare is unnecessary and inconsistent with citizenship. The battle to convert social work services into reasonable entitlements, under the control of individuals or families, has been being fought since the 1960s and has led to significant improvement in people’s life experiences.

In public policy there is still a resistance to seeing the exercise of freedom as an aspect of citizenship. These ideas are associated with neo-liberalism or the invasion of the market into the public sphere. But for those interesting in defending the welfare state this seems a risky strategy. It should be the defenders of citizenship who seek to extend freedom to citizens, even when this requires increased accountability and flexibility from the welfare state itself.

6. The role of civil society

Another curious lacuna in our thinking about welfare is the limited role given to civil society. And by civil society here I mean all the institutions and forms of community activity that exist in between the family and the state.

There has lately of course been a great focus on privatisation – an increased role being given to commercial bodies to provide welfare services – and this does involve a partial recognition of the role of civil society. But the language and focus of privatisation has again been rooted in liberal and utilitarian models of public policy.

Again advocates of citizenship can again find themselves in a confused and constrained rhetorical space. They may be critical of state welfare, but then they are also fearful of how state welfare slips into being a new partnership between the state and large commercial companies. There is a sense that the elite of state employees are now making common cause with the elite  of commerce. Often these people turn out to be friends, people who went to the same schools and universities and who also know each other socially.

It seems to me that we need to restore for ourselves greater respect for civil society as a distinct space – what some people call ‘the commons’ – the area we all own, together.

On a recent trip to Athens I was struck by the discovery that the ancient agora was marked off from private property by a series of sacred markers. The purpose of these markers was to forbid private ownership and protect the limits of the agora. Also, it was interesting to note that the place of political assembly was not in the agora, but on a hill over-looking the agora. Within the agora people did deals, taught, prayed, sold things – it was a permissive and flexible space – with plenty of commercial elements. But it was a purely public space.

Without such spaces – agoras – we cannot exercise our citizenship. It would be interesting to explore the consequences of a more spatial approach to public policy and citizenship.

7. The role of government

The other striking feature of the the citizen in the welfare state today is how undemocratic the system has become. Three things are striking:

  • The modern welfare state tends to be centralised, and – at least in the UK – has become increasingly centralised over time.
  • The welfare state is subject to bureaucratic and regulatory control – it is not accountable through democratic, market or communal processes.
  • The party political system is increasingly distorting the proper functions of the welfare state for narrow electoral reasons and to pander to key electoral groups.

In other words we are not citizens, in charge of our own government, we are consumers of welfare services designed and delivered by political elites.

This was precisely the end that G K Chesterton foresaw in his keen intellectual battles with the great Fabian George Bernard Shaw. While Shaw argued that the state, and its elites, were the inevitable guardians and managers of the welfare state Chesterton argued that this would leave ordinary citizens disempowered, without rights and property:

It is characteristic of his [G B Shaw] school, of his age. The morality he represents is above all the morality of negations. Just as it says you must not drink wine at all as the only solution to a few people drinking too much; just as it would say you must not touch meat or smoke tobacco at all.

Let us always remember, therefore, that when Mr Shaw says he can persuade all men to give up the sentiment of Private Property, it is in exactly the same hopeful spirit that he says he will get all of you to give up meat, tobacco, beer, and vast number of other things.

G K Chesterton, Do We Agree? 

Chesterton’s point is all the more powerful today, when the UK stands as the country with the greatest level of debt per head. We don’t own property, we are burdened by debt – one of the oldest routes to slavery.

Finally

Of course we may prefer slavery, debt, consumerism and passivity, instead of citizenship. Citizenship may seem like hard work. But we will find that, without citizenship, the welfare state we come to rely on will become increasingly less reliable.

Modest Reasons for Hope

Citizenship is a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community. All who possess the status are equal with respect to the rights and duties with which the status is endowed. There is no universal principle that determines what those rights and duties shall be, but societies in which citizenship is a developing institution create an image of an ideal citizenship against which achievement can be measured and towards which aspiration can be directed. The urge forward along the path thus plotted is an urge towards a fuller measure of equality, an enrichment of the stuff of which the status is made and an increase in the number of those on whom the status is bestowed.

T H Marshall in Citizenship and Social Class

T H Marshall was one of the most important social theorists of the twentieth century. He argued powerfully that the development of the welfare state should be seen as the next logical step in the advancement of citizenship for all. After people had claimed their political rights, in the form of universal suffrage and other civil rights, it was right and inevitable that social rights would be extended to a greater number of people. Ultimately this would drive forward, develop and broaden the extent of citizenship.

Today all of this may seem a pipe dream.

Citizenship is not a resonant idea in modern politics – when it is used it is for ulterior motives – not out of any respect for the idea itself. In 1950 Marshall could look forward to further progress as “democratic socialism” demonstrated its virtues by meeting needs and extending social rights. Today “democratic socialism” seems tarnished and is unlikely to return, at least in that form.

Instead theory is dominated by various of liberalism and by practice is dominated by competing elites and powerful commercial interests. Social rights, especially in the UK, are being radically reduced and being redefined as privileges in the process. For example social care for people with disabilities will have been cut by 33% between 2010 and 2015.

So is there hope?

Progress is not inevitable. Elites can maintain their grip on power for centuries. It is foolish to simply expect a process of positive evolution to bring about a greater commitment to citizenship. In fact, if history teaches us anything both social rights and citizenship require people to demand and, if necessary, fight for them.

Citizenship cannot be gifted by the powerful to the weak.

Nevertheless there are a number of factors that might give us some encouragement.

First, it is noticeable that people don’t tend to stay passive. As the state centralises or commodifies more of its functions then it inevitably will leavs people exploring what it can do within the space that this process creates. This is not, what is called “Big Society”. Peer or community groups arise primarily out of a sense of injustice and dissatisfaction (not because they want to please the Prime Minister). They may thereby seek to create practical community-based solutions to problems; they may federate and organise and they may also put pressure on government.

For example, it is interesting to note that in the UK, while the established non-government organisations and big charities have been largely silent on the severe impact of government policy (perhaps because they themselves are so dependent on public funding or desire closer relationships with political elites) new disability groups are emerging and seeking to find new ways of working together. It is far too early to call this a success, but when leaders don’t lead, new leaders tend to emerge.

Second, there is a fundamental and growing social and economic problem which will continue to dog the political system – its inability to generate the kind of deeper solutions that foster citizenship, sustainability and broader forms of enriching productivity. Elites can promote ‘bread and circuses’ but they cannot build civilisations. Moreover, if our basic technical competence continues to grow (it takes fewer and fewer people simply to do the basic things necessary for us to live) then more and more people will become hungry for something better than consumerism and debt.

Third, there continue to be important points of moral leadership in civil society which offer a different vision of things. In the past religious leaders have often played a critical role in pushing society forward. Moreover the increasingly international nature of modern society may be helpful. It is fascinating to see what a powerful document the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is. If its principles were taken seriously then much of the current welfare settlement would look very different.

Finally there is perhaps the hope that some of our leaders themselves will begin to sense the vanity of ruling without citizenship. As Hannah Arendt often observes, to rule over others is inhuman, it puts you outside the equalising space in which you can be recognised as an equal yourself and where you can act without force. Perhaps there will arise some sense that the job of the leader is to enable citizenship, that this would not only be more productive for the whole of society, it would also be so more personally fulfilling for leaders themselves.

In the famous funeral oratory of Pericles we get the sense that leaders don’t have to apsire to tyranny or elitism. They can take pride in equality, citizenship and a community that makes that possible:

Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbours. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbour if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deepest respect.

Pericles, cited by Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian Wars

Whatever our leaders do we must become the kind of citizens who do not need the best kind of leaders in order to thrive. But may, just may be, some of our leaders will wake up to discover that deceit, manipulation and control – in the service of nothing but power and money – is hardly worth waking up for. May be some of our leaders may begin to recognise the deeper hunger – in all of us – for lives of meaning and equal respect.

Making Citizenship Real

Although we can call someone a citizen and say we wish to treat them as an equal it turns out that there are some very real things we need to do in order to make such a claim real. Stigma and pride take hold so easily, and so societies must learn how to clothe each other in citizenship.

My own account of the keys to citizenship is rooted in the practical work of supporting people with intellectual disabilities to build good lives for themselves. You can read more about these ideas and their practical consequences here:

Keys to Citizenship

There is a philosophical logic to my presentation of these elements of citizenship, but each element is distinct and can develop somewhat independently of the other elements.

In my account of citizenship we can identify seven keys to citizenship:

  1. Purpose – we live a life of meaning
  2. Freedom – we can pursue our purpose
  3. Money – we have the means to pursue our goals
  4. Home – we can belong in community, but also protect our privacy
  5. Help – we can offer others opportunity
  6. Life – we can contribute in our own way
  7. Love – we can build relationships and new life

A distinct sense of hope and purpose in life turns out to be critical to self-respect and to the respect that others give you. If we meet someone who is adrift, in a life without meaning or purpose, we struggle to respect them. If we meet someone who has a sense of purpose then it becomes easier to engage with them as a distinct equal. Notice however that uniformity of purpose is not helpful and does not stimulate respect. You have no reason to respect the purposes of people who share exactly the same goals as others or yourself. In a strange way such uniformity breeds contempt.

Beyond a sense of purpose people need to be free to realise their purposes. If someone is utterly under the control of someone else then their dreams and plans lack integrity. It is only when we see that someone is free to follow their purpose that we can respect them as a free individual. In the same way, our self-respect is diminished if we are imprisoned – even when that prison may be provided by the love and care of others.

In the modern world our active civic engagement also requires sufficient money to make our purposes meaningful. Although it is possible to imagine a world where there was no money it is uncomfortable to realise that this would mean that people would only do what you need them to do from either love or fear. Money makes possible free exchange, specialisation and a plurality of useful opportunities for contribution and employment. In passing it is also worth noticing that, from the perspective of citizenship, the right to money ceases when someone has sufficient money to be able to enter into and engage in citizenship – freed from gnawing poverty. However the super-rich are also at risk of leaving the realm of citizenship.

The fourth key to citizenship is a home – a physical location where one belongs, where one can retreat to in privacy and which one can leave to enter the public realm. Over exposure to the public realm or severe communality is a threat to citizenship. The private nurtures the capacity for self-development and offers a haven to families.

The fifth key to citizenship is the need for assistance – help. This is one of the most important, but most frequently missed, aspects of citizenship. A citizen who has no need of anyone is not a citizen. They offer others no opportunity for contribution – they are a ghost amidst the living. The balanced position is to avoid undue dependence, where the need for help leaves one in servile reliance on others. We can need the help of others, and yet still maintain our independence – our freedom.

Citizens recieve, and citizens also give, and while there is no virtue in achieving some perfect balance – that would be both impossible and meaningless – contribution is vital to citizenship and the self-respect of the individual. And we contribute by living – by joining in, working, caring and taking care of each other. Life can only develop though our active contribution to community.

Finally the fruit of citizneship, and its ultimate source is love. Love is of course a greater force than citizenship – nevertheless it does relfect successful citizenship. This is all forms of love: agape, storge, philia and eros.

This account of citizenship is offered as a bridge. Political theorists rarely think about disabled people or others who can experience severe disadvantage because of the prejudices, barriers and structures imposed by the majority. Disabled people have been developing interesting accounts of social value and social justice – but often cut-off form mainstream thought. I have developed this model of citizenship to demonstrate how relevant are these experiences and theories to mainstream political thought.

If our society is not aiming to be a community of citizens what is its goal? If theorists are not advocating citizenship for all, what are they advocating?

Spending is a Poor Proxy for Justice

The welfare state needs defending – but we also need to rediscover what it is really for.

Since its creation the major focus has been on its size – should we spend more on it or less on it. But this is the wrong question.

Public expenditure is a poor proxy for public good. Public services are a poor proxy for the advance of human rights. Advancing state power is not the same as advancing citizenship. Paying one’s taxes is important, but it is only one important duty for citizens.

For example, I can increase spending on healthcare and pay the cleaners more – and so reduce inequality, or I can spend more on doctors – and increase inequality. I can spend less on healthcare, but also reduce income inequality overall, which will thereby increase health and well-being.

In other words, it’s not spending on its own that matters, it’s what you actually do with the money.

Welfare systems can promote welfare, but the relationship between welfare and the welfare state is complex. It depends on the design of the welfare system.

Sometimes welfare systems make things worse. For example, it is well known that the Western mental health systems are correlated with poorer mental health. Mental health systems either damage mental health or merely cope with mental health problems created by society. There is little evidence that mental health services really improve our mental health.

If we value the welfare state we should pay much more attention to how it really works – not naively accept the ideas promoted by policy-makers or special interest groups.

The idea of welfare reform has now been captured by those who are merely dismantling it. However our challenge is that while trying to defeat them we must still examine – what kind of welfare state we really want. If we want justice then welfare reform – not cuts and attacks on the poor – real reform is going to be essential.

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