Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: inequality

Equality – The Kind That Really Matters

or why status is not a zero-sum game

This essay jumps headfirst into a complex debate which deserves a more careful set of introductory comments. However, I am pressed for time, and so I merely want to offer a few philosophical thoughts in response to some of the practical work that I’ve been involved in over the past few months.

The limits of reasonable income inequality

One of the most important political philosophers at the end of the twentieth century was John Rawls. He asserts:

All social values – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage. (A Theory of Justice p. 62)

In principle Rawls offers us what appears to be a highly egalitarian starting point for social justice. However, in practice, the publication of his A Theory of Justice, his ground-breaking work in political theory, coincided with the end of a moderately egalitarian period in the political development of English speaking countries. Since the 1970s income inequality has grown significantly in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia and governments of all colours have abandoned any serious effort to promote income equality as a social goal. I am not blaming John Rawls for the collapse of egalitarianism and the rise of neoliberalism – but it is a curious coincidence.

The principle that Rawls is most famous for advancing, a principle that arises logically from the assertion above, is the maximin principle: Social arrangements should be so organised that the position of the worst off (the min) should be as high as possible (the max) and that if a certain level of inequality makes such an improvement possible then – only to that limited extent – such inequalities would be justified.

As someone who studied Rawls in the 1980s I remember this as a convincing theoretical position. How could I as an egalitarian resist a level of inequality that improved the position of the worst off? However looking back today I wonder what real effort we made to distinguish Rawls’ position from the idea of trickle-down economics: Let the rich make as much money as possible in the hope that the poorest would benefit – for a ‘rising tide lifts all boats.’

It turns out, if we examine the data of the last 40 years – as I did recently – this is a forlorn hope. It is very clear that growing inequality has not improved the position of the poorest, nor even overall economic growth. In fact, in the UK at least, as inequality increased so have the incomes of the poorest fallen. What is worse, because it is clearly intentional, is that the political system further reduced the incomes of the poorest by policy changes that were highly regressive. In fact we’ve stolen from the poor three times: First by allowing greater economic inequality; second by redistributing money away from the poor by political policy; third by pouring scorn and stigma on the heads of the poor through shameful political rhetoric.

Rawls’ argument was equivalent to saying: Poison sometimes improves our health and so we should sometimes be willing take poison. For, in fact, all medicines are also poisons – what is critical is to take exactly the right amount of the poison if you want the beneficial impact. However instead of taking care to find the correct dose of inequality we’ve been swallowing inequality by the bottle and declaring our overdose success.

Meanwhile, if someone did identify the sweet spot for a legitimate level of inequality, then I guess I missed the news.

Instead of careful efforts to limit and control inequality in the interests of poor we’ve seen trickle-down economics rise unchallenged as the economic philosophy of our time. Instead of attempts to quantify the minimum level of inequality necessary to lift the incomes of the poorest we’ve seen a number of other more dangerous arguments and assumptions rush to fill the vacuum in Rawls’ argument.

For instance, some argue that the economy needs a free labour market to efficiently allocate resources to promote the skills necessary for the economy: If we need to pay an extra £10,000 to get the right doctor, an extra £100,000 to get the right CEO or an extra £1,000,000 to get the right football player, then we must do so.

This kind of free market argument seems quite persuasive, if we don’t think too hard. After all this seems precisely the kind of reason why Rawls might allow us to release the hounds of inequality from their leash: To incentivise better performance and recruit people for essential skills – whether they be medical, commercial or athletic. But a moment’s thought must make us wonder whether we’re confusing the good of the worst-off with the good of a particular community:

  • If we need more doctors, don’t recruit doctors from Africa or Asia (where they are needed even more) to come to Europe (where we have plenty already and could certainly train more).
  • If your company needs a better CEO then train one, don’t bribe someone to leave their current job by simply offering them more money than they get now.
  • If you are a fan then you may be happy that the wealth of your team allows you to poach the best players from other teams. But none of this adds to the quality of football.

Incentives may offer a different kind of argument: There is surely a case for rewarding people for good work and discouraging people from doing bad work. But very low levels of inequality leave plenty of room for incentives. Good work is surely what we want everyone to do as a norm and inequality makes it harder to reward good work when everyone is working well.

In fact I think the case could be made that what is more important than positive incentives is the possibility of failure. Failure is what makes all forms of progress possible. Systems that makes failure impossible or too expensive are systems that do not develop and improve. The failure of state socialism in Russia was not an excess of equality, it was an excess of security, where rigid economic structures didn’t adapt to changing circumstances. (One of the arguments for basic income, which I support, is that it would make economic failure, and therefore improvement, much less risky.)

Another weak argument for inequality, but one that is heavily relied upon by advocates of inequality, is that economic goods (let’s call this wealth) are not created in a zero-sum game. If you are not familiar with the idea of a zero-sum game let me try and explain what this means:

Chess is a zero-sum game. I can win and you lose, you can win and I lose or we can draw. We can’t both win. Some things in life are much more like chess: winners are matched by losers. Zero-sum games can only redistribute a finite (fixed) amount of resources. Land is finite and hence the distribution of land is a zero-sum game.

Not everything is a zero-sum game. For instance, education is not a zero-sum game (unless you’re doing it very badly). Everybody can learn, and if I develop some ability at Latin, I do not reduce your ability to understand Latin or anything else.

Whether economics is a zero-sum game is a critical question, but also quite complex. When we look at the economy from some perspectives then it can seem a zero-sum game. For instance, the UK’s recent Coalition Government increased VAT, increased income tax thresholds and cut benefits. The combined impact of these changes was to reduce the incomes of the poorest 10% (6.5 million people) by 9% and to increase the incomes of those on middle-incomes. Government redistribution like this is, in the short-term at least, a zero-sum game.

Not all economic change is like this. If people begin to find new ways to organise things then this may increase the overall amount of wealth. Better farming techniques can improve productivity overall. Industrialisation and technology can increase the availability of useful products. These changes are much more like educational changes, new ideas and technologies change how we do things to make more possible.

However, sadly, these transformational changes, that certainly do accelerate economic production, are also associated with the greater levels of social injustice, uprootedness and insecurity. Often they led to riots, rebellions and revolutions. So, while such economic growth can potentially benefit the many, it usually seems to benefit the few, especially in the short-run. We are discovering the same today as global businesses and technologies demolish old ways of working, accelerate inequality and reward socially irresponsible behaviour.

I think this means that economics is not quite a zero-sum game; but neither are most economic goods infinite. Distribution remains a critical issue, especially for obviously finite goods like land and access to basic resources (like water, food, clothing and healthcare). It is also clear that we should be constrained by our respect for the planet as well as the needs of each other.

The evidence that economic inequality is good for us and is justified by its impact on the poor is very poor. In fact we don’t seem in much of a hurry to gather evidence on this matter at all; perhaps we are simply in awe of the power of money and don’t know how to put the dogs of inequality back on the leash. When money can buy public policy and research, as it does today in the UK, there may be few incentives to be honest about the limitations of inequality. Perhaps also, the glaring failure of socialist states like the USSR, has rather blinded us to the obvious success of democratic welfare states, like Denmark, at finding a much better balance of equality and productivity.

The importance of status

One other thing that strikes me, looking back on Rawls, is that most of the discussion about equality has tended to be highly materialistic. Perhaps we should have looked rather harder at what Rawls called the “bases of self-respect” for surely the respect in which we are held, particularly our status as an equal, is of much more importance to an egalitarian than the particular bag of money we happen to be holding.

In fact neoliberals often deploy a version of this argument when they propose that egalitarians are simply promoting the vice of envy: There is nothing wrong with inequality; inequality is helpful and essential; you are simply envious of the better-off and your envy is wrong in itself and damaging in its impact. You’ll drag everyone and everything downwards in your quest for equality.

Now, I think it is rather easy to show that income inequality (perhaps beyond some modest level) is harmful. It is also possible to show that income inequality is controllable – if you want to control it. However I do think there is something to the argument that income is not everything and that there is something worrying about a society fixated on achieving income equality as if that were the most important goal.

True equality does not meant I have exactly the same amount of money in my bank account as my neighbour: It is to live with my neighbour as an equal – for us to value and respect each other as equals.

Moreover the reason that this kind of equality is important is not that my neighbour and I are equal: We are not the same and we do not want to be the same; we are different from each other, along an infinite array of dimensions.

What we seek is an equality of status, of respect; perhaps we could almost say that we seek spiritual, not material, equality. Moreover there is a name for this kind of equality and that name is citizenship. For at least two and half thousand years, and possibly longer, some humans have sought to live together in a community of equals.

One famed example is ancient Athens, the home of democracy, where Pericles once said:

We regard wealth as being something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the polis (community) as well: even those who are generally occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics (community life) – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics (the community) is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all… (cited by Thucydides)

What mattered in Athens was to be a citizen, and as such you had equal status with other citizens. Of course, Athenian citizenship excluded slaves, women and foreigners, but it still offers an important example of a different approach to equality. Moreover, in many ways it was much more egalitarian in its actual organisation and spirit than is a modern democracy. Athenian citizens had much more influence over and involvement in the life of their community than we do today.

And is this kind of equality not a more fundamental kind of equality? We do not want people to be uniform; we do not want lives to be standardised; we should surely not care too much about differences in roles, resources or relationships. Surely, what we want is a world where everyone can flourish, in all their diversity, and where everyone is treated with respect – as an equal.

If you accept this argument then you might think that it gives some support to the neoliberal position: Stop worrying about inequality; stop envying the rich.

However, this is wrong. It is in fact precisely because status equality, not income equality, is the goal of a just society that we actually need to take income equality much more seriously.

At this point I’d like to quote an argument from C. S. Lewis. But we moved house last year and most of my books are still in the garage; so I will try and make his argument from memory. The reason we should take great care to limit the visible and obvious differences between us, like differences in wealth, is not that we are all equal, but that we are all different. It is because of our much deeper and wilder diversity that should ensure that we clothe ourselves as equals. The disciplines of equality exist to help diverse people live in a spirit of equality.

This may seem a paradox, but it is not. We are beings who are each unique and diverse, but who are also each of equal moral worth. In living together we must find a way to appreciate each other’s uniqueness and yet respect each other as equals. We can do this by choosing to live as citizens; that is we can choose to live in a society that honours our shared status as equal citizens. In so far as we discover that certain kinds of artificial differences (like income) can become excessive, that they can threaten our ability to treat each other as equals, then we should restrict or tame those differences. Excessive income inequality does threaten our ability to see each other equals, particularly by stoking the pride and greed of those with the most; but also by encouraging a sense of worthlessness in those with the least. Income inequality is corrosive of most of our virtues and it makes it much harder to live in a spirit of equality.

Status is certainly not a zero-sum game. Societies can exist with very low levels of status; in fact the twin concepts of meritocracy and aristocracy offer us a vision for society where the highest status goes to the ‘best’ and the lowest become the ‘worst’ – the scapegoat, scrounger or outcast. Meritocracies produce very low levels of status overall by using a narrow and highly rationed account of social value. Almost everyone’s a loser in a meritocracy.

Citizenship maximises the distribution of status by equalising that status – everyone can share in it. Moreover society can not only adopt equal citizenship as its goal; it can go further and also seek to welcome others into citizenship. If male Athenians had welcomed women as equals, allowed foreigners to become citizens or abandoned slavery then it would have advanced equal status for all. There would have been no loss of equal-status for male citizens. (I accept that this would have made the category of citizen less ‘special’ within Athens – but this kind of enhanced status is actually a form of meritocracy and is not essential to the kind of true and equal citizenship which I am arguing for). To feel you are an equal and to see others as equals is a real form of non-hierarchical status and it is the best form of self-respect – because it takes nothing away from anyone else.

It is this is inclusive account of citizenship what some of us have been exploring as we develop Citizen Network: How to build a world where everyone is a citizen, where everyone is equal and everyone is different.

How to find justice

So, if we return to Rawls, then I think my argument is that Rawls has made a fundamental error. He forgot that a just society does not start by redistributing resources in order to advance the bases of self-esteem. Instead it begins by commiting itself wholeheartedly to equality, and it does so by establishing equal and universal citizenship as the basic role which everyone can occupy.

Rawls tried to get to equality ‘by going round the houses’ – by focusing on economic goods first – and I think this is connected to another mistake that Rawls makes:

There is no reason to assume our sense of justice can be adequately characterised by familiar common sense precepts, or derived from the more obvious learning principles. A correct account of moral capacities will certainly involve principles and theoretical constructions which go much beyond the norms cited in everyday life; it may eventually require fairly sophisticated mathematics as well. (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 47)

The fundamental problem here is that Rawls is seeking a formula for justice which must be applied to society from the outside. He is not offering us an attractive conception of justice, one towards which we can turn, around which we can rally and one which enables us to build a just society together. Instead Rawls is offering a complex and ambiguous template for ghostly civil servants or philosopher-kings to interpret on our behalf.

If we are not motivated towards justice by a shared conception of justice then no operating principle, however sophisticated will save us: For who is to interpret and implement such a principle? If we do not choose to live as citizens, and if we do not act to build a world for citizens, then we choose to live in a world where inequality is guaranteed.

If we are motivated towards justice then what matters is identifying it, living by it and disciplining ourselves according to its needs. Our fundamental principle must be that we are citizens, we are all equals and that we must welcome others into this world of citizenship.

Inequality is Inefficient

Over the past few decades inequality in the UK has grown considerably, by whatever measure you choose. After World War II, at the birth of the welfare state, inequality was at a very low level. Over time we’ve come to accept very high levels of inequality. In just a generation it has doubled.

And the UK is an extreme case. It is now the most unequal country in Europe. A land that prided itself on its sense of fair play seems to have readily abandoned the notion of a fair distribution of resources. It would be fascinating, in a rather disturbing way, to explore why the UK has been so particularly negligent of equality.

Often the explanations offered for inequality are economic. However it is particularly important to recognise that inequality is political, not economic. It is a social and political choice to accept or encourage high levels of inequality. Society can choose to control inequality – if it wants to. However the political nature of inequality is often wilfully ignored and inequality is often presented as being merely a matter of economics, as if economics was some natural and uncontrollable force, quite distinct from human decision-making.

Inequality is neither inevitable nor necessary; but this truth has been perhaps obscured by a rather different debate. Often the debate about inequality is confused with the debate about the role of the state in the economy: the conflict between dirigisme and the free market.

Now it is certainly true that some advocates of equality do believe that it is only possible to create equality if the state takes absolute control of the economy. Opposing them are advocates of extreme economic liberty who argue that any economic control is bad, taxes are theft and that the inevitable inequality that arises from free economic activity is utterly justified. In fact both sides share the same false view that there is no way to reconcile equality and freedom; instead they both believe we are forced to choose: so the Left choose equality, while the Right choose freedom.

But this is crazy. We need both freedom and equality. Even in economic terms we need a significant degree of freedom and of equality simply in order to make our economic system work:

  • Without freedom economies don’t develop: investment, risk, failure, success, learning and innovation all depend on our freedom to spend our time and money on things we value, even when others don’t.
  • Without equality economies don’t grow: fewer and fewer people have the resources necessary to purchase, consume or invest. An economy with only one consumer or only one producer is dead.

Even more importantly freedom and equality are not just economic variables. In life we need to be free, free to define a life of meaning for ourselves; and we also need to be an equal, valued as an equal member of the community. We reconcile freedom and equality by creating decent communities where we work together to create a better world for everyone.

One aspect of any decent community is that its members work hard to create the necessary conditions to achieve both freedom and equality. And, there are many ways to do this, ways that can combine a significant degree of economic freedom with a reasonable level of economic equality:

  • Create shared goods that are not distributed by the market, for example ensure everyone has access to high quality healthcare rather than making people pay for it.
  • Redistribute income, increase benefits to increase the incomes of the poorest, and increase taxes to reduce the incomes of the richest. Currently the net cost of benefits (benefits after tax) is very low indeed, hence the UK’s high level of inequality.
  • Exercise self-discipline when rewarding people for their work; keep the ratio between the best paid and the worst paid as low as possible. For example, Plato recommended a ratio of 1:5, but in the UK welfare state the best paid civil servants earn 50 times the average income of the poorest 6 million people.
  • Disdain greed and excessive wealth and encourage values that focus on other dimensions of human life. For example, Pericles, the great Athenian leader, suggested their society was best because it did not value people for their wealth, it measured people by their contribution to community life.

However interest in these disciplines is very low in the UK today. Redistribution is now treated with suspicion and excessive rewards for the rich are treated as the inevitable price to be paid for economic progress. There are many arguments of detail here and much evidence that can be provided to challenge the arguments for injustice and inequality. However I want to add just one argument, an argument from economics itself. I’m sure it’s an argument that someone else has made before, but I cannot remember seeing it, so I thought I’d try and outline it here.

Before I begin I’d like to distinguish my argument from two other important and valid arguments:

  1. Inequality is harmful – This argument has been made most effectively by Wilkinson and Pickett, and in great detail. In essence they have correlated economic equality with many other things that we find valuable and discovered that there is strong link between equality and many aspects of a decent society (better health, lower stress, less crime etc.). They show that inequality is bad for everyone – even the rich.
  2. Inequality is sub-optimal – This argument is often made by utilitarians and it rests on an observable truth. When you get something you want you feel some benefit; but the more you get the less you feel any increase in the benefit you get. Our desires are increasingly sated. Given this truth then the best distribution of any limited set of resources will be the most equal one. Inequality reduces the total level of happiness.

But the argument I want to offer is slightly different to these. I want to argue that inequality is also very inefficient.

At its simplest my argument is as follows. If I have a limited amount of money and I want to get the maximum amount of work done then paying people equally will maximise the amount of work that gets done. However, if I choose to pay some people much more than others then I will have to reduce the total amount of work I pay for.

This may seem obvious, but it’s perhaps worth underlining the point. Currently the false belief is that inequality is economically necessary – here I want to propose that inequality is inherently inefficient – in economic terms.

Imagine the distribution of salaries as a polygon. An equal distribution would be a rectangle, with salaries on the y axis and the volume of time purchased on the x axis. If some people have a higher salary then the polygon will be equivalent to a rectangle, with a right-handed triangle on top. Total spend is therefore equal to the volume of the shape.

Now if you assume that you have a fixed amount of money to pay for people’s time then the most efficient shape will be the rectangle. The more unequal the distribution then the higher the peak of the triangle and the shorter the width – in other words the less time you can buy.

In fact, if we make certain simplifying assumptions we can even calculate the level of inefficiency of increased inequality. If we describe the relationship between the base salary and the top salary as a ratio we find that efficiency is measured by the following formula:

e = 2 ÷ (R + 1) where R is ratio of base salary to highest salary

  • 1:1 means absolute equality and this has an efficiency of 100%
  • the 1:5 ratio was recommended by Plato this has an efficiency of 33%
  • public sector salaries are at a 1:15 ratio and have an efficiency of 12.5%
  • the ratio between the poorest 6 million citizens and the top civil servants is 1:50, which means that the welfare state has an efficiency of 4%

Now this exaggerates the size of the inefficiency. In practice the upward slope will be a long convex curves. Lots of people are on low salaries, fewer are on high salaries. However the basic truth remains, the higher the ratio the greater the level of waste.

Of course critics of equality will argue that we need inequality to buy the best. But this is a double fallacy. Of course, once you’ve allowed inequality to run amok, then you surely will have to spend more on some people to get them to work for you. But this is simply a side-effect of broken self-discipline: the Premier league may spend more to buy more of the better players – but it is not creating better football – it is merely skewing the distribution of better football away from one country and towards another. In other words inequality in incomes merely leads to inequality in skill distribution. This is not a good thing.

The second fallacy is that it assumes you have to pay people more to get them to do more complex or challenging work. This is clearly nonsense. Primarily people choose to do such work because it is intrinsically interesting, suits their talents and brings with it many other rewards. The things you should really have to pay people extra money to do are those things that are dirty, smelly and tiring (the things that in the real world people are paid less to do). If inequality has any real purpose it should be to compensate people for doing intrinsically unrewarding work.

The reality is that inequality suits those with the power to dictate the distribution. It is not the poor who set the salaries of the rich. Power – economic and political – is at the root of inequality. And power will be necessary to challenge and reverse it. The reason why inequality was low after World War II was that the poor had a lot of power and the rich knew it. Today the rich know the poor are weak and they exploit that fact.

Rebalancing things will take more than vapid debates about the state versus the market. It is not the market which is the real threat to equality, it is our low opinion of ourselves. If we choose to measure ourselves in terms of money then the state will not protect us, it will just adapt itself to our own low standards. We should instead choose to see ourselves as citizens who are worthy of equality – not because we are all worth the same money, but because money measures nothing of value. We should seek economic equality, not to pull anyone down, but to pull everyone up, to a higher level, to the status of an equal citizen.

Equality and the Market

 I like and loathe Twitter; it draws you into debates with all sorts of interesting people and challenges you to make your point as sharply as possible. But it is also frustrating when something seems really obvious, but you can’t convert its truth into 140 characters. There is also a danger that you will be pulled into making ad hominem attacks on people’s character – attacking someone for their failure to understand you – rather than focusing on being clear and truthful.

One recent enjoyable, but also rather difficult, conversation was on the topic of inequality and the market. The challenge began with a video from Mark Littlewood of the IEA who made what I think is actually a fair point: charities who are against poverty should avoid treating inequality as the primary cause of poverty. Western charities can quite often score easy points in this way; yet the actual causes of poverty in a specific country may be influenced by any or all of the following factors:

  • The state’s failure to uphold the rule of law, including property rights
  • Inadequate physical and social infrastructure to enable exchange and cooperation
  • Exploitation by corporations, stealing resources and underpaying people
  • The failure to invest in talents, skills of local people
  • Dependency on Western charitable institutions that don’t create local capacity
  • Too much state control, incompetence or corruption
  • Trade regimes that protect Western farmers or others from competition

This rather random list already reveals that it is a significant mistake to think of poverty as merely a matter of redistribution. It is not. Poverty is also a function of our productivity, of our ability to get stuff done, and this is influenced by many different factors.

This list also reveals how important the role of the state is, even before we come to any question of redistribution. The state, in partnership with the institutions of civil society, is the institution that protects rights, develops and protects vital infrastructure, protects people from exploitation, negotiates trade deals and ensures that markets can function. It is a foolish liberal who underestimates the critical role of the state in protecting the economic institutions they cherish so much.

However in my Twitter debate three false claims also emerged:

  1. Taxes (and benefits) do not thing to reduce poverty,
  2. Poverty is only tackled by the Market, and
  3. The state is essentially unproductive.

These three interconnected claims perhaps mark the point at which liberalism tips into the extremes of neoliberalism). Each claim is untrue, and dangerously so.

Let’s take them in reverse order:

There is no doubt that the 20th century advocates of state socialism were far too confident of the state’s ability to do too many things very well. There are limits to what the state’s can do well. But there are many things that we need the state to do and which are essentially productive. The state and its institutions (e.g. the creation of a valid currency) have been essential to social and economic development. This is demonstrated by examining the causes of poverty outlined above: economic development relies on effective state action. The state and the rule of law it guarantees are fundamental to most forms of human productivity in complex human societies.

At its core neoliberalism seems to be a form of idolatry – the worship of false idols. The market, which is essentially a useful tool (and like all tools limited) has been converted into a false god The Market. Markets make poor gods for many reasons, but primarily because they don’t exist. A market is a space, not a thing; it is a vacuum; it is a space within which human beings trade stuff. Trading stuff is also useful preparation for doing other stuff, like making, healing, building, growing and creating. The market does not do any of those things – people do – but the market helps people by because people can use trade to get the useful things they need from others. Markets can help people be productive, but they are not productive in themselves.

Worshipping Markets is a a bit like worshipping banks. We forget about human effort and ingenuity, we forget about the amazing natural processes that create things, instead we worship the middle-men, the priests and temples of liberal economics.

What is more we forget that, even at their best, markets are rather inadequate and imperfect institutions. We may all rather disagree about the extent and nature of those imperfections, just as we tend to disagree about what perfect means. But some of these ‘market failures’ are pretty obvious. I’ll just give two examples.

First, markets are very bad at organising a sensible and fair distribution of healthcare; because when it comes to healthcare humans are rather irrational. The fundamental problem is that we want to live, and we will pay almost anything to someone who promises to extend our lives, even to the point of impoverishing ourselves. So a free market in healthcare leads to lots of exploitation. That’s why the US system is twice as costly, but no better, than the UK system. Doctors are richer, healthcare companies make more money, but there is no real benefit for US citizens.

Second, markets inevitably increase levels of inequality because the winners increasingly dictate the outcomes to the losers. Anyone who has played Monopoly understands why monopolies are a bad thing. If you start to lose, you’ll probably keep on losing. That’s why we need tax and benefits; that’s why the state cannot avoid being drawn into trying to regulate or control the market for incomes.

Famously, in the 1970s, John Rawls argued that a limited degree of inequality might be justified if it gave people a better incentive to strive in ways that benefited the worst-off. Today this argument has been turned on its head. Some now seem to believe that any degree of inequality is justified because some inequality could provide better incentives. This is bad logic and bad ethics.

Poverty is a function of a failure in both productivity and justice. We need both to flourish in order to end it.

Figuring out what degree of inequality is acceptable and what practical mechanism are necessary to reduce inequality is also one of those practical things that we need the state to do. And this takes us back to the initial worry about extreme inequality. The fact that a small number of people control a great share of our wealth is worrying because it seems those people increasingly define what the state does. The election of Donald Trump as President of the USA reflects a further decline in the quality of our democracies and the growing influence of the wealthy oligarchs who may well believe that their own extreme wealth is good for everyone.

Well they would, wouldn’t they?

Is a Pro-Community Welfare State Possible?

In the space of a few days I’ve been lucky enough to be part of two workshops where we explored the question of how to narrow the gap between public services (the official welfare state) and the community. Each event was inspiring, with stories of exciting innovations that demonstrate the power of community action and the ability of the state, sometimes with a little help, to act as an agent for positive social change. There is a clear appetite for a new settlement, a new kind of pro-community welfare state, one which works in harmony with its citizens, not against them.

Now I know that for many fellow campaigners against the UK’s austerity policies even to discuss these ideas is to move dangerously close to the Big Society Bullshit that has been used as a screen by Government to disguise more than six years of cuts, stigma and increasing inequality. Some believe that the old welfare state was just fine, and that we must go back to the 1945 system; others recognise that all was not perfect, but think that any criticism of the old system, at this time, just provides dangerous ammunition for the new barbarians.

I certainly have some sympathy with both positions. The old welfare system had many virtues which we have lost sight of, including a much greater faith in the ability of officials in the welfare system to make sensible decisions, at a local level. Much of this freedom and flexibility has disappeared as Whitehall has taken over the ‘management’ of the welfare state. I also recognise that the Coalition Government did a brilliant job of covering its tracks. For every vicious cut they imposed there was some wacky new programme (usually funded by the Cabinet Office) that was used to grab headlines and scatter glitter over gaping wounds. We live in a cynical age.

But I don’t think we can hold back from considering some of the fundamental flaws in how the welfare state has evolved over the past few decades. It is particularly important to consider some of the deeper factors, which are much harder to see, but which not only damage the welfare state but also enable the Big Society Bullshit to gain credibility.

The best lies are wrapped around a small nugget of truth, and repeated lies cannot be defeated unless you can share some deeper, stronger and more hopeful truth.

To begin with I think it’s important to remember why we need the welfare state. The welfare state is a compensatory mechanisms that helps us deal with two kinds of inequality: inequality of wealth (income and assets) and inequality of need (disability, illness and age). The more equal a society is in wealth then the less you need systems of benefits, taxes and social housing to rebalance things. However, even if wealth were equal you would still need to deal with the fact that some people will also need further help which they cannot get on their own.

Now it is important to note that this second problem is also linked to how willing people are to do what is right without payment. Inequality of need is no problem in a community that naturally organises itself to meet those extra needs; however in a society where doctors, nurses and social workers want to be paid, and to be paid well, for using expert skills then inequality of need will also require additional welfare systems to ensure these important additional needs are also met.

So the purpose of the welfare state is to compensate, not just for inequality, but also for the insecurity that comes from knowing that you might have needs, and that nobody will be willing to help you meet them without payment.

Now, in the way of a thought experiment, let us imagine that you are the ruler of a community that already has a welfare state; and now imagine that (for some strange reason) you want to destroy the welfare system, but in a way that people won’t notice. Here are some strategies you could use:

  1. Forget about the importance of inequality, spend less on making the poor less poor, but spend more on services instead. In this way public spending will remain high, but inequality will grow. This is what the UK has done, spending about 50% less on poverty now than it did in 1977. In this way, fundamental needs will grow but the system will appear unable to help them. This helps to undermine the whole system.
  2. Encourage inequality within public services themselves. The Chief Executive of the NHS is paid about £200,000 – 50 times more than the poorest 10% of UK citizens who live on about £4,000 per year. Charity chiefs can earn similar amounts (e.g. £175,000 for the CEO of Mencap). In this way the public and charitable sectors can create the inequality that they are supposed to be there to solve.
  3. Make the poor poorer through hidden taxes. For instance the poorest 10% pay 50% of their income in taxes, meaning that their real income is closer to £2,000 per year (about £40 per week). In this way the poor are tricked into paying the salaries of those who should be helping them.
  4. Then create extra taxes, just for those people who have higher needs. This is called means-testing or charging, and it means that if you have a disability you will only get support if you are very poor or if you are prepared to pay the high ‘disability taxes’ imposed by the adult social care system. For this reason many people opt out of the welfare state and start to believe that that the system only exists for ‘them’ (the poorest, the most unworthy). At the same time the poor have to make themselves even poorer just in order to get vital services.
  5. Associate the welfare state with stigma, control and a sense of unworthiness; in this way people will not want to support it, use it or value it. Spending public money on campaigns which suggest people on benefits might be “benefit thieves” has been a highly successful means of spreading fear and mistrust through the general public. Today people believe benefit fraud is rife, whereas it is actually statistically insignificant.
  6. Pretend that public services are inadequate and will be better managed by private sector companies. This has the double benefit of reducing people’s sense of control and faith in the system, while adding to the inherent inequality of public services (frontline workers salaries are pushed down, profits are sucked out, yet senior public officials can now earn more as ‘commissioners’ rather than providers).
  7. Talk about the need for communities to take back control, for citizens to be empowered and then dismantle any of the remaining systems of support. And here we are today – Big Society Bullshit.

Some of you this may think that this is an unduly critical view of public policy over the past 40 years or so; others may think this is simply a restatement of what many others have been arguing for some time – “It’s the workings of capitalism; it’s the ideology of neoliberalism.”

So I’ll end by considering the question of motivation. Who wants to destroy the welfare state and why?

I asked you to consider how you would destroy the welfare state from within. But personally I find it difficult to believe that most of the politicians and the civil servants responsible for the welfare state have really been trying to destroy the welfare state. (But I may be being naive). In my experience (most of) our rulers want to do the right thing, but they do not understand the systems they control and act in order to gain short-term political advantage. Rationality and wisdom is harder to attain in a position of power.

Nor do I think that, for most of this period, greed and corruption by commercial companies has been the biggest factor in the destruction of the welfare state (although I think things have now changed, and it is certainly a significant factor today).

However I do think that shallow thinking has played its part; but I think that state socialism has been nearly as damaging as the kind of narrow economic liberalism that has now been relabelled as ‘neoliberalism’. It we think of people as merely animals, seeking selfish material benefit, then our thinking about the demands of justice and the organisation of society will be utterly inadequate.

So what are the real driving forces that continue to undermine the welfare state? Here are five poisons that I believe are eating away at the welfare state from within. I do not think they are the only corrosive factors at work, but I think they are important internal factors which should be given more attention as we try to think our way out of our current problems:

1. Centralisation – The more that decisions are taken centrally then the fewer the people involved in those decision, the easier corruption and the easier it is for powerful groups to get advantage over less powerful groups. Elites speak to elites, and after dinner comes the contracts, or the increased salaries for senior staff.

2. Meritocracy – The more hierarchical and the less democratic a society then the easier it is for its rulers to believe that they deserve their power, the money (that they award themselves) and their many other privileges. Meritocracy has always been the ideology of aristocracies – ‘we rule because we are the best’. The fact that the best are now the likes of Donald Trump, rather than the landed gentry, is merely a matter of detail.

3. Inequality – The welfare state exists because of inequality, but progressively it has treated inequality as an unavoidable fact, not as a problem that it was designed to tackle. Inequality make the poorest, not just poor, but weak and demoralised. Inequality makes the rich complacent and heartless. Today the welfare state not only fails to respond to poverty, it makes the problem worse by creating new kinds inequalities within public services themselves.

4. Insecurity – The ongoing dilemma for the welfare state, one that can be witnessed in the writings of Beveridge, Marshall and its other early designers, is the fear that the welfare state will give people too much security and encourage laziness or undue dependence. For this reason income security (unlike health security) has always been viciously means-tested. Strangely, as economic insecurity continues to grow in our increasingly global and technological economy, the state now works to increase this sense of insecurity through damaging changes to the benefits system. This toxic insecurity means that if people are unable to find paid work they are then punished if they volunteer or act like a citizen. The need to keep the poorest under control and feeling insecure eats away at the legitimacy of the system and further enables paternalism or bullying.

5. Individualism – The welfare state has been built around a highly individualised conception of the citizen. Family, friendship and community disappear in its gaze; instead bureaucratically defined solutions are offered to mere individuals. There is no role for collaboration, solidarity or cooperation in the modern welfare state, because all of those things move the centre of power towards community and treat the person as a citizen, not as a unit. Atomised we are weak – and that is how the system seems to want us.

The irony is that creating a good welfare state, or at least a much better welfare state, is quite possible. There is nothing inevitable about the ongoing decline of the welfare state. But in order to reverse the current decline we will need to think much harder about the real and underlying problems built into the current system itself.

Some of these problems cannot be solved by ‘policy’ (encouraging our rulers to have better ideas). The solutions we really need are constitutional, they require rethinking the fundamental structures of our democracy and our society. Unless we are prepared to do that thinking and begin advocating for more fundamental changes the legacy we were handed by our grandparents and great-grandparents will wither and die on our watch.

Questions about Disability Cuts

I was recently asked by the Almeida Theatre company to answer a few questions about myself and my point of view. I wasn’t sure what to do with what I had written to them, so thought I might publish the questions and my answer here out of interest.

1. Could you tell us a little about yourself and the job you do?

I am the Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform, which is an independent think tank, formed in 2009, to try and develop ideas and policies to strengthen and reform the welfare state. We believe everybody matters and work to help build a world which values human diversity and where we treat each other as equals. The Centre mostly relies on voluntary efforts from citizens to research and share good ideas or to examine policies and injustices. Personally I split my time between research, writing and helping people solve social and system problems.

2. Could you tell us (assuming we know nothing about it) how collective cuts are impacting the lives of disabled people and how they are being targeted by the government?

 When the Coalition Government came to power it announced a series of cuts across most areas Government, although largely protecting pensions, the NHS and education. These cuts were particularly severe in two areas: Benefits and local Government. What the Government did not say, but which anyone who understands the basics of Government finance would know, is that severe cuts to benefits and local government will directly impact disabled people:
  1. 60% of local government spending is for children and adults with disabilities – what is called social care – and local government was cut by 30% by the Coalition Government and is being cut again in the Conservative Government. More than half a million people no longer get adult social care – a cut of 30%.
  2. Once you exclude pensions, which the Government did, cuts to benefits means cuts in income to the poorest and particularly to disabled people. In fact only a small percentage of benefits is spent on the unemployed, most of the rest is for disabled people and carers. Disabled people have faced an array of cuts – the picture below perhaps shows it best.
  3. In addition the Government increased the rate of VAT and changed the rules on benefits so that they would lose value over time. Both these policies severely impact on those living in poverty. This policy has continued for the last 6 years, and the cuts get deeper each and every year.

3. Could you tell us a little of the difficulties that disabled people may face when using the job centre service? 

 I think you could break down the difficulties as follows:
  1. The current system is very complex and many people don’t even know that they are entitled to any benefits because of a disability.
  2. If people are aware that they might be entitled to support they need to get through a complex benefit system where entitlements vary because of a whole range of different factors: age, impairment, income, family status, previous employment status.
  3. If people are told they are not entitled to support or if the system just seems too off-putting then many people simply won’t claim money they are entitled to [approx £17 billion is never claimed].
  4. If people do claim then the process of assessment can be very negative and harmful.
  5. If people feel they have been treated unfairly its very difficult to appeal.
  6. Once people are deemed to be entitled to support they can then become part of a Work Programme which may sanction them. The Work Programme has so far given more sanctions than real jobs.
  7. Overall the whole process is depressing, stigmatising and underlines a sense of unworthiness.

4. What is ESA and how are disabled people affected by sanctions?

ESA is the benefit that you get if you are unemployed, disabled and without any other source of income. ESA stands for Employment and Support Allowance and it replaced another benefit called Incapacity Benefit. This benefit has been chiselled away over the past 6 years.
Disabled people confront sanctions in a number of different areas:
  1. Some people are not deemed to be disabled enough for ESA and may instead only get Job Seekers Allowance (JSA). If this is what they get then they must obey rules set by the DWP and the private contractors who run what are called the ‘Work Programme’.
  2. Some people are deemed as eligible for the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) but also must join what is called the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG). This also means being part of the Work Programme and being subject to sanctions.

5. What is the purpose of a benefit sanction?

 Benefit sanctions are meant to make people compliant with the DWP and its private contractors plans and objectives. They are punishments, taking away benefits, for failure to follow ‘the rules’. There are many examples of these punishments (against which you cannot easily appeal) being imposed for obviously stupid reasons.

6. Our play is about poverty and it’s affect on people. Could you explain how and why people on lower incomes are being targeted by the government?

 This is a big question. In brief I would say the reason that people on lower incomes are being targeted would be as follows:
  1. They are a politically weak group who do not always vote, who are not perceived as a swing voter group and who are (particularly now) no longer well represented by the Labour Party.
  2. Since the end of communism the rich and powerful no longer fear revolution and have persuaded the media and many in the public that growing levels of inequality are ‘economically necessary’.
  3. People on low incomes lack systems to organise and mobilise. Trade unions, working mens clubs, churches and other community groups have diminished in strength or don’t reach out to the poorest. In a sense poverty has been privatised.
  4. The systems that support folk in poverty are often detached from universal systems. e.g. a benefit like JSA is poorly understood and stigmatised. The majority of the population see themselves having no stake in the benefit system – it is for ‘others’. Even those needing benefits are divided from each other e.g. disabled people get different benefits to other people on low incomes.

7. Social and financial inequality is at the highest it’s ever been – why is this and what do you think it points to in the future?

 In addition to all the points above there is the problem that the world is changing in other unpredictable ways – climate change, technological change, growing debt (which is just a special kind of socially constructed inequality). Often we don’t know what we can change, what we can protect and what is worth fighting for. Since the development of the welfare state we have often entrusted what is important to government and to politicians and hoped that they would ‘do the right thing.’ Sometimes they have, often they haven’t.

Strangely I think that – after the development of the welfare state and after the cold war – we somehow managed to forget what we were fighting for during the turbulent twentieth century, which was: equality, rights and democracy. Now we seem to have gone to sleep and we expect some mysterious powerful elite to take care of us.

For me the question is whether or not we will wake up and start behaving like citizens: people who take our responsibilities to each other seriously.

If we do not then small problems, that are essentially easy to solve, will grow into cancerous problems that will overwhelm us. We are the key to our own future.

8. How has the bedroom tax affected the lives of people in this country either living with a disability or without?

The bedroom tax is just one other unjust attack on the incomes of the poorest. Its impact includes:
  1. Disabled people losing the space they need for carers or assistive flatmates
  2. People going into debt because they can no longer afford their rent
  3. People moved out of their home community because there is no suitable housing in their own
Essentially the bedroom tax symbolises our deep disregard for community – we can now be ‘priced out’ of our own place, our own history. Local government is not answerable to us – but to the money invested in our homes.

What Monopoly Teaches us about the Welfare State

I didn’t know until recently that the game Monopoly was originally designed to teach people about the perils of capitalism. Sadly I think I’m not the only one who missed the point and just saw it as a chance to win. How often our best intentions are mistaken and misused.

But for the sake of Elizabeth Magie and her noble, if flawed, educational effort I am going to reclaim Monopoly for its intended purpose, to show that it can still teach us some important lessons about capitalism and the welfare state.

1. There is no alternative but to play

Monopoly forces people to buy, to rent and to pay up. We keep going round the board, some getting richer, some getting poorer. Perhaps to some worthy souls this all seems sordid and material; but there is no choice. It’s how the game works and so far the only real world alternative to capitalism – state socialism – is far worse. State socialism is the equivalent of giving all control to the Banker. The Banker then decides what you’ll get and what you’ll give – and it turns out that the Banker is no more interested in equality than real bankers. Orwell’s “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” is an exact description of state socialism. You are no longer playing Monopoly, you are playing Who Can Please the Banker – a game which is both more boring, yet much more dangerous.

2. The goal is not the goal

Monopoly forces you to compete – kind of. But we also learn, often with great difficulty, that winning is not the point of the game. The game is about having fun, not winning. If only the victor enjoys himself then you have all missed the point. In the same way life is not about winning. Life is about joy, goodness, love and beauty. You can’t win life and if you think that having more money makes you a better person then you are a fool. What is the point, as Steve Jobs put it, of being “richest man in the cemetery?”

3. Skill doesn’t count for much

There’s definitely some skill involved in Monopoly, but it’s a pretty basic skill. You need to understand the power of holding property and of using it to squeeze out as much money from everyone else as possible. If you are playing against people who haven’t figured that out then you will win more often. But if all of you have figured that out then its mostly luck – who lands on the best squares before they’ve been purchased. Life’s much the same – it’s not the best, the brightest or the most worthy who get rich – it’s the lucky ones. Even our talents are mostly a matter of luck. The trouble is we also want to feel that all our victories were deserved – that we are ‘entitled.’  But in reality almost everything we have was given to us – without our deserving it.

4. Redistribution is essential

Monopoly, like capitalism, takes small natural differences and turns them into huge inequalities. If we are winning we kid ourselves into believing that we deserve to be winning; if we are losing we can feel unworthy, unlucky or even cheated. But in reality it’s just a game which some will win and some will lose. The key to Monopoly’s success is that it normally lasts a good length of time – but doesn’t go on forever. If we only had the money that we started with then the game would be finished much more quickly; however most of us are kept in the game because we keep going past GO and getting £200 from the Banker.
Of course Monopoly is a game. In real life we don’t want one person to ‘win’. We want everyone to win and that doesn’t mean everyone getting the same money – which turns out to be impossible. It means everyone living full lives – as equal citizens. It means everyone getting the chance to use their talents – in their own way. It means living with joy, finding love and experiencing beauty.
But this is impossible if we only look out for ourselves. Markets do not redistribute resources to the poor, they concentrate resources in the hands of the rich. The only way to rebalance things is to control the inevitable inequality-making machine which is capitalism.
This is the job of the welfare state – to make sure people are not driven to poverty, and to make sure that some people or some groups do not get too powerful. Instead, to help us all work together, to thrive, to create and to share.
So the lessons of Monopoly are:

  • Having money and property is okay, if it helps people have fun and do useful things
  • You can win Monopoly alone, but you can only win life together
  • Don’t kid yourself you’ve deserved whatever you’ve earned
  • Share – make sure everyone can keep only playing, with dignity and with rights
There has never been a better time to learn the lessons of Monopoly; and if we don’t then none of us will be having much fun in the future.

In addition, Monopoly can even teach us some valuable lessons about the true meaning of welfare reform:

1. No means-testing for the poor

Imagine if, when you got to Go, you weren’t given £200 but instead the banker looked at how much money you had and decided whether you poor were enough to ‘deserve’ your £200. Very quickly you would find many more people in poverty, barely struggling to get round the board. The game would be over much more quickly. But that’s how the UK benefit system works. Monopoly is actually using a system of basic income (sometimes called citizen’s income) – everybody gets £200. This gives you a much better chance of bouncing back if you do hit hard times.

2. Essential services are free

Actually there are very few safe spaces on a monopoly board: Go, Jail and Free Parking. But Free Parking gives us a good metaphor for the important way in which the welfare state works – free support for essential services. For some parts of life it is not enough to just distribute income – sometimes income is not enough. For example, if you are seriously ill you need good medical care and its much better that the community organises this than people go shopping for it. The same is true for education, disability support and many things we do to create a safe environment. Private property (or private insurance) is inadequate and it just leads some people getting unacceptably poor support. Something things need to be like Free Parking – free and a safe haven from the pressures of the market.

3. Markets can be disciplined

Monopoly also teaches us that measures to control prices and to limit monopolies can be very helpful. Notice how the price of rail fares goes up when one person controls all the stations. Notice how the price of energy goes up when one person owns both the energy firms. Imagine how quickly the game would end if rents could be set at any level the landlord chose! In the same way it makes sense for communities to discipline the market, to restrain monopolies and to set decent wages.

We’ve forgotten what the welfare state is for and welfare reform has lost its true meaning. The welfare state is now treated by politicians as if it were just some great exercise in Government sponsored charity; welfare reform has become a mean-spirited attack on citizen’s rights. Real welfare reform is needed, but it is reform that restores the welfare state to its proper role in ensuring everyone can live with rights, dignity and the ability to contribute to the making of a better society for all.

Cause, Effect and Human Freedom

Behind the man with the knife is the man who sold him the knife, the man who did not give him a job, the man who decided that his school did not need funding, the man who closed down the branch plant where he could have worked, the man who decided to reduce benefit levels so that a black economy grew, all the way back to the woman who only noticed ‘those inner cities’ some six years after the summer of 1981, and the people who voted to keep her in office… Those who perpetrated the social violence that was done to the lives of young men starting some 20 years ago are the prime suspects for most of the murders in Britain.

Danny Dorling from Criminal Obsessions

At the level of immediate political rhetoric Dorling’s point is strong and hard to contest. The relationship between crime and social inequality is strong and income inequality and other forms of social injustice are shaped by our political leaders.

As a statement of cause and effect of course there are too many other factors involved to bring anyone, other than the man with the knife, to trial. And the man with the knife was free not to use it. To believe otherwise is to perpetuate the disrespectful view that our leaders take of us – we’re all too stupid to be trusted with freedoms and resources. We must leave power to the powerful.

We must somehow find a way of exploring two dimensions of our society. On the one hand we must acknowledge the existence of social conditions that are ‘better for us’ – which promote better behaviour, well-being and moral development. [Noting of course that we don’t all share the same view about what ‘better’ means or how ‘better’ should be distributed.] We must therefore work to bring about a fairer society, a decent society, which reduces the risk of such criminality.

On the other hand we must not collapse our discussions of politics into a simplistic cause and effect narrative, nor forget that we can always be the difference.

So, alongside Dorling’s narrative one might imagine all the opportunities missed:

  • The small business man who refused to sell knives.
  • The entrepreneur who focused on helping recruit from that community.
  • The community leader who helped develop new educational opportunities.
  • The cooperative buy-out that saved the failing business.
  • The social policy expert who led the charge for a decent minimum income.
  • The politician who helped reform the welfare system without reducing rights.
  • The society that stayed true to its ideal.

Dorling is right, but the charges won’t stick, because we’re all involved and we’re all complicit. But that also means we can all help change things. We are not the creatures of the politicians who should be there to serve us.

Why Austerity is a Lie (updated)

[I updated this blog in November 2013 with more recent data and graphs.]

I find the repeated use of the word austerity very annoying. It implies that what is happening in the UK today is unfortunate – but somewhat accidental – like an act of God. But what we face is not austerity, it is a targeted assault on the rights of disabled people and people in poverty. The targeting takes at least 3 forms:

First the primary economic problem has been created by debt. But not everybody’s debt is equal. It is the debt of the home owner that is the most powerful cause of the economic crisis in the UK. And this debt is the logical counter-part to the enormous economic bubble in house prices that has made some people very wealthy, put others in deep housing debt and left others outside the house ownership system altogether. As the economist Lester Thurow pointed out many years ago – inflation is always a form of theft. The problems we face are rooted in inequalities of wealth and the irrationalities of greed which nobody wants to talk about.

This graphic shows the impact of reducing the base rate of interest down to 0.5 – an extraordinary annual subsidy to the better off:

Second the government’s response to this problem has primarily been to avoid letting the economic house price bubble burst. The worst political outcome is perceived to be that those people in housing debt should have to pay what they owe and that those inflated house prices should tumble. Hence these debtors are subsidised by pumping money into the banks that have made these bad loans and by trying to sustain an incredibly low interest rate – one that is killing the value of savings. The government hopes to pay for this subsidy to home owners and financiers by cutting back on public expenditure elsewhere. We are responding to a problem caused by inequality by increasing the level of inequality.

Here is the housing bubble – a 360% increase in house prices in just 11 years:

However, thirdly, the government faces the further risk that those important swing voters (most of whom are home owners) will also react negatively to seeing ‘popular’ welfare services cut. Hence the services that must be targeted for cutting are those that are just for the poor and disabled people. These are the unpopular, unknown or stigmatised public services – benefits, social care and vital community services for women and families. So, those who did not cause our problems must pay for their solution.

I have recently done another analysis of this:

  • 42% of all cuts fall on the 20% of the population who are poor
  • 27% of all cuts fall on the 8% of the population who have a disability
  • 17% of all cuts fall on the 2% of the population with severe disabilities

This calculation does not even take account of inflation or the impact of increased taxes, like VAT and social care charges, that also target the poorest.

The cuts are represented in the following graph:



You do not need a good understanding of economics to see the madness and injustice of this approach. Inevitably, saving money by targeting the poorest with more taxes and by reducing their incomes is not going to work – they have very little money to steal – and ultimately this policy will only lead to other expensive social problems. But long-term logic is a luxury for politicians who are just desperate to win the next election – at any cost.

Another way of identifying the real meaning of our current situation is to remember the marketing maxim – if your product has a weakness then pretend that it is a strength and positively promote it. So we have the rhetoric of the ‘squeezed middle’ and the ‘welfare lifestyle’. Politicians invert reality and distort truth in order to fabricate reality into a more electorally satisfactory form. Or, as Joseph Goebbels supposedly put it: If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. [Interestingly this quote is probably not authentic; and it certainly seems implausible that Goebbels would reveal his own strategy – nevertheless his strategy was certainly effective – for a time.]

Of course, if austerity were just some kind of accidental or shared social problem – not a politically designed strategy that targets the most vulnerable – then our response would also be very different. If we were simply making up for some accidental shortfall in the public purse then we could either (a) increase those taxes that fell equally on everyone (e.g. income tax) or (b) reduce the cost of public services by asking everyone to take a small pay cut. It is interesting to notice that the groups that benefit from this targeting strategy are not only the better off – they also include many who are in the middle and who are being encouraged to blame the poor for poverty.

One of the challenges for those of us in the Campaign for a Fair Society is to try and get people to understand that the unfairness of these cuts lies not so much in their severity but more in the way that they target those with the least ability to defend themselves. It is for this reason I think we should all refuse to use a word like austerity. We must not allow language to be used to distort reality – we must underline the choices that are being made by our political leaders. Even if this means that people will also have to accept that many of the problems we face are very much of our own making.

So instead of cuts, austerity, the recession or other misleading terms – remember – what we face is the targeting of disabled people, the targeting of the poor, and the purposeful creation of greater inequality.

You can read more on how cuts target disabled people in our latest report – A Fair Society?

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