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.