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.


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.