How Do We Defend the Welfare State?
Sometimes critics of the welfare state seem to be against the welfare state, but it often turns out that they are really offering different visions of the welfare state.
The second principle is that organisation of social insurance should be treated as one part only of a comprehensive policy of social progress. Social insurance fully developed may provide income security; it is an attack upon Want. But Want is one only of five giants on the road of reconstruction and in some ways the easiest to attack. The others are Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.
William Beveridge, Social Insurance and Allied Services, p. 6
If we are just interested in defending an existing social institution then we do not need to limit ourselves to any one justification or line of defence. Often it is helpful to have more than one argument, particularly as you will need to find common ground with people with whom you may not agree about everything. You may believe that your justification is the best or the only true justification, but this is not helpful as a defence of the welfare state if most people can’t see the truth of your justification.
For instance, the UK welfare state was largely developed by William Beveridge. But when Beveridge was making the case for his reforms he did not rely on any narrow moral or political theory, rather he tried to outline the central problems for which the welfare state was a solution. These were the the Five Giants: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.
Rhetorically, evil can be much more helpful than good. For we can all quickly agree that something like the Five Giants are bad and agree that we will attack them. However we may find that we all define what is good in rather different ways. So while we may agree on the need to attack an evil we may have very different ideas about how to avoid an evil and what we should do instead.
So, from a design point of view, only knowing what you want to avoid is also something of a weakness. If we do not know what the welfare state is for - not just what it is against - then it can be rather hard to design it or defend it. We may find that we are so divided by our different conceptions of the good that we no longer agree on what it is we are fighting for.
In fact I think this is our current predicament. Sometimes critics of the welfare state seem to be against the welfare state, but it often turns out that they are really offering different visions of the welfare state. They still want to attack the Five Giants but they are arguing for different ways of attacking them. This does not make them right, nor does it make their arguments any less dangerous, but it means we are living at a time when it is no longer good enough to simply argue that any proposed policy change is a ‘threat to the welfare state’. Simplistic defences of the welfare state as 'an obviously good thing' have become far too weak.
It is no longer good enough to point - however truthfully - that a policy is an attack on the welfare state. The welfare state's legitimacy has been weakened too much by decades of bad policy-making by Left and Right. Too many people are now convinced that the problems with the welfare state are so grave that they will allow government to fiddle with or undermine it - to their hearts content.
We will have to rethink our approach. We will have to develop a more positive account of what we are defending - one that can unite a wide range of different perspectives - but one that is specific enough to create a real challenge to the great erosion of rights we see today.
This is what the Campaign for a Fair Society is trying to do and why we have published a dynamic Manifesto for a Fair Society setting out key principles - as well as detailed proposals. It is also why we are going to invite anyone who has their own ideas to share those ideas with us. Its early days for this project - but if you think you could help I'd love to hear from you.