We tend to assume that what we call the Left is broadly for the welfare state while what we call the Right is broadly against it. However the reality is more complex, in fact only a few extremist are exactly against the welfare state. Almost everyone is for the welfare state, but what they disagree about is what kind of welfare state is best.
But do our political traditions seek a welfare state fit for citizens?
For example, within the conservative tradition, which tends to treat the continuity of state and society as the primary goal, while the welfare state may have been unwelcome to begin with it can also be treated as an inevitable accommodation with the forces of modernity. It turns out that the forces of terror, revolution and totalitarianism that were unleashed by the economic insecurities of the modern world are somewhat tamed by creating welfare provision. For example, Bismarck introduced many social reforms in Germany that were clearly motivated by this kind of conservative thinking.
Conservatives value established social institutions and they stress the reliance of the individual on the relationships and communities within which they develop. Conservative critics of the welfare state tend to focus on the need to maintain respect for non-state institutions or the structures of civil society. They often seek a welfare state that promotes family, faith or community. They often worry that notions of equality or citizenship are dangerous to the social order and if they use the term citizen at all it is largely as just another word for ‘subject.’
It is possible to defend the welfare state from within the conservative tradition, but it is likely that any such defence will focus on a welfare state that serves to underpin, without replacing, older social traditions, or which in some way renews those traditions. Such an approach has something to recommend it, but it will seem inadequate to those individuals or groups who are currently excluded from community and active citizenship.
Interestingly the socialist tradition shares some of the same assumptions as the conservative tradition. It deprecates individualism and it values the collective. However it starts with the assumption that social justice has been failed by the status quo. It proposes radical change in society, in order to promote equality. Typically it assumes that this change must be overseen and controlled by the state.
For socialists the welfare state is their own great achievement. The commitment to solve social problems by the means of state-directed activity is socialism in action. However socialists are currently in a slightly difficult position with regard to the justification and criticism of the welfare state. They become torn between seeking to defend or grow the current system or criticising the system in the light of their ultimate vision for social justice. Socialism is not a logically inconsistent, but it is interesting to note that socialist critiques of the welfare system (while they exist) have not yet led to significant social change.
There is a similar ambiguity about the socialist view of citizenship. While conservatives tend to reject citizenship, as a radical idea that subverts respect for proper authority, socialists tend to appropriate citizenship without valuing it. Citizenship becomes just a way of dignifying our shared status as cogs in the state-run machine.
We’re not an arm of the state (or the private sector) – we have our own arms.
This seems to me true, but unfortunately it is a theme which barely registers within modern public policy and the media dominated debates of modern life.
Liberals do sometimes use the term citizen, but primarily this is just code for an individual as bearer of rights and duties and as someone who is formally equal within the system of rules, safeguards and securities. We are citizens because we can call on the state to support our rights, although we are also expected to fulfil whatever duties are necessary to the fulfilment of those rights. For a liberal freedom come first, then rights and lastly duties.
[Liberals do often value equal opportunities and they sometimes propose that society be organised so that all citizens can make the best of their abilities within the system – we should all be equally free to climb as high as possible and to achieve as much as possible. This alerts us also to the meritocratic assumptions of liberals: all should be free, but all are not (really) equal.]
Another tradition, one that is closely linked to liberalism and is very influential in social sciences, social policy and contemporary political rhetoric is utilitarianism – the idea that social systems should be organised to maximise the overall level of welfare. Utilitarians don’t need to appeal to citizenship to justify the existence of the welfare state and, at least in principle, utilitarianism may be quite happy to sacrifice individual freedoms, rights and the notion of equality if there are more beneficial social outcomes available without them. Huxley’s Brave New World was a utilitarian dystopia where different ‘grades’ of human being are integrated into one harmonious whole.
Liberalism and utilitarianism can seem like opposing philosophies. Liberalism promotes freedom not the consequences of freedom; utilitarianism is interested in consequences and may sacrifice anything to the desired end. However these traditions of political thought are also twinned.
Liberalism and utilitarianism are both aristocratic forms of thinking. Each is offering a pattern by which rulers can manipulate the complex reality of society. Right-liberals often appeal to the interests of the elites that manage commerce; Left-liberals appeal to the interests of the elites that manage the public-sector. Everyone tries to exploit the kind of utilitarian arguments that can usefully appeal to the electorate.
Arguably what unties these traditions is a shared commitment to meritocracy – that the best of us, should rule rest of us, and for our own good. And aristocracy is just the ancient name for meritocracy – the “aristos” being the best.
Within this meritocratic framework the welfare state plays two roles. First it is an instrument by which power and influence can be exercised over society to the goals of political elites. Second it is an object of dispute in the on-going conflict between powerful political elites. In fact it would not be hard to argue that for the modern political elites the welfare state is more important as an object of political discourse than as an actual instrument of social change.
Such is the unreliability of the instrument and the rapid change in political fortunes that it is a rare politician who really expects to achieve meaningful social change through their temporary control of the instruments of welfare. It is more important to have a good story about the welfare state:
“We are for it – it needs to be made bigger – trust us to make the necessary changes.”
“We are for it – but its too big or inefficient – trust us to manage it correctly.”
There is no assumption that perhaps people themselves could make their own decisions, at the level of the citizen or community. Where would be the political advantage in that?
Citizenship, real citizenship, is absent from contemporary debates and our analysis of the welfare state – because it doesn’t serve the interests of any of the political elites (Left or Right).
The idea of citizenship does not belong to any one political theory. If taken seriously it would temper the extreme and anti-democratic nature of all the main political theories. But unfortunately it is not in the interests of the powerful to imagine a world where their own power was limited by our citizenship.