Why I believe in the Welfare State

Dot writes: yesterday in the free paper they give out on the train there was a letter headlined “Why should I pay for your children?” It was a reaction to the scare headlines about how the next budget will drastically cut child benefit (this story may of course be a diversionary tactic to make us accept some other, marginally less nasty measure; or it may not). Today several people wrote in to offer the obvious rejoinder that today’s children will be paying tomorrow’s pensions, though there was also a letter from a pensioner saying that he didn’t see why people who raised children with no help on single incomes should be reduced to penury to assist the modern young etc etc, a typically depressing instance of somebody not wanting anybody else to get anything they didn’t get themselves, and ignoring the fact that pensioners have actually faced comparatively few of the cuts inflicted in recent years. (A plan to means-test the medical card for pensioners was shelved under a storm of protest a few years ago. The thing about old people is that they vote.)

I absolutely hate this assumption that whatever YOU get has been taken off ME, and if YOU happen to need it, well then, you’re just feckless. I think it’s based on two things. No, three things. (1) Fear. We’re all feeling the pinch and we’re just hoping someone else is in line for the pincers this time. (2) The difficulty in imagining a diverse body of citizens as all part of a unit with us and all worthy of our concern. Most of us really only care genuinely about people very like ourselves; which is human but wrong. (3) The pernicious myth of the self-sufficient individual.

Martha Nussbaum (whom I like, as regular readers will know) writes in Hiding From Humanity about the link between pathological shame and an inability to accept one’s human weakness and mortality. The truth is that we are all needy and we all depend on each other. This is true even of the most thrusting hero of business, for what would he (it’s usually he) be without the people who make his clothes, clean his toilets or indeed work for him? OK, he pays lots of taxes, but he can only do so because of people who pay fewer taxes. However, what really bugs me is the assumption that on the one hand there are the responsible people who look after themselves and don’t need help, and on the other there are lazy scroungers. Were we lazy scroungers when we were small children? Are we going to be lazy scroungers when we’re old and frail? If Mr Business Hero’s business goes under because of an economic downturn, is that his fault? If he gets pancreatic cancer, is that his fault too? All of us have periods of dependence; all of us get to take at some times and pay back at others. Some people do depend more than others, and yes, some people are pretty morally contemptible about it. But I’d still rather there were a safety net, because I could easily be the one falling. Even if there is an underclass of useless scumbags (there is – sorry, I’m not that liberal), I’d rather they were living on benefits than gaining their sustenance alternately from crime and the prison system.

Attitudes to healthcare especially puzzle me, particularly with respect to the astonishing hostility to ‘socialized medicine’ in the US, because surely public healthcare is something that absolutely everybody, rich or poor, will benefit from. You pay something into the healthcare kitty, and you can more-or-less guarantee to get something out. You are likely, at the very least, to get born at some point and to die at some point, both of them more comfortably if with the help of trained attendants. Some illnesses are down to ‘life-style factors’, but many aren’t, and moralising illness is an enormously dangerous route to go down. Public healthcare schemes have to face difficult questions about what to fund, but it’s surely better for such questions to be tackled in terms of the good of the greatest number rather than returns on insurance premiums.

What we need to reclaim – or discover – is the sense that the state is us. Not just that the state’s money is ours (and that it is spending it on THAT useless lazy fecker), but that we, the people, decide together what we need and how we can support a healthy, happy society. It must be said that the political classes don’t encourage this attitude, but it needs to be fostered, and not in some crappy cop-out Big Society way. The drift to the right in the UK, I think, has become part of a feedback loop: people don’t trust or feel connected to politicians, so they elect right-wing politicians who reflect their sense that the state is an oppressor and should be shrunk, and who shrink it by making it less socially-orientated, increasing people’s sense that politicians are just rich people who take care of their own kind.

Forward, comrades!

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4 thoughts on “Why I believe in the Welfare State

  1. We’ve been in the grip of the neoliberals and the libertarians since Thatcher. Blairites and New Labour continued what she began – turning to the market model to deliver the ‘small State’ and in the process ironically proving that they were ‘Big Statists’ (because only an all-pervasively powerful State could completely reshape our social institutions i.e. the NHS ‘internal market’).

    I cannot understand the approach the neoliberals and libertarians take to the Welfare State. Without the Welfare State their ‘market’ would collapse…Their ideology requires its existence.

    Me? I wish there were no need for the Welfare State… I suffer that it has to exist. Because it is the real sedative ensuring that people have just enough not to revolt. But the economic system will not be changing. So the Welfare State is here to stay.

    The anarcho-syndicalist would say::

    “I don’t want a Welfare State.

    I suffer it.

    Welfare and charity – both exist as the opium of the masses. Aided and abetted by the skunk hit of materialism and consumerism and of craving and coveting.

    Without welfare to bolster it, Capitalism – and the State which exists to support it -would collapse. Without a sufficiently large enough number of unemployed there would be insufficient downward pressure on wage levels – and a problem with inflation. Without the aid of the State supporting them in their payment of minimum wages with the State’s payment of a top up working tax credit (UK), the value of share-holdings in global companies would crash. Without a healthy workforce productivity would plummet. Without the cash of the masses Capitalism’s oxygen would be cut off. Meaning no or fewer jobs. With insufficient employees tax revenue would drop like a stone. Without the State or one of its manifestations spending the tax collected from its subjects/citizens there would be no pavements to walk on, no sewer system, no roads infrastructure or public lighting or toilets or sanitary bin collection or street cleaning. The dead would lie, uncollected – and unburied or unburnt. Unsafe workplaces would go unregulated. Lives would be lost to unguarded machinery and the employer’s pressure to produce and produce more, quicker. There would be few with sufficient money to donate to any charity or buy into any private health insurance scheme – and anyway, without the subsidy from a National Health Service (training staff and providing machinery and buildings infrastructure) the costs of private health care (UK) would soar to impossible highs.

    If we roll it all back – all the laws and interventions into the conduct of erstwhile private life – then we get back to somewhere like the Industrial Revolution – but without the Factories Acts and Reform Acts and heavy industries and Christian religion (UK/Europe).

    There would be no life as we know it.

    In this social meltdown soldiers and the police and the wide variety of law enforcement agents would be busy arresting and charging their fellow subjects/citizens, their brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers. Because all those welfare-junkies would start the revolution. I’m all for the revolution.”

    Or they’d say something like that – I’ve heard it or a version of it often enough.

    Welfare, the State – they exist because our economic and power systems require them to. Because the civilizations we have built for ourselves depend upon them. Because, laissez-faire cannot be sustained beyond a small commune – the economies of scale and the efficiencies, the ability to deliver safety and security and to keep the revolution from our personal private doors require the State. We’ve grown too big to tote our own guns and kill our own dinner. We have sub-contracted this to the State. And welfare is part of the cost we pay for relative social stability and the success of Capitalism. For it depends on division: on having poor and rich. Not everyone can be a media mogul or a university graduate (bad example currently) or a brain surgeon or… someone needs to clean our hospitals and offices and schools; someone needs to be unemployed to make sure capital can afford to pay those cleaners or security guards.

    Currently I’m not even a real ‘lefty’. I’m a complacent apologist for ‘the system’. Power currupts. Doesn’t matter what economic system or mode of production ‘the State’ exists to promote and protect, there will always be an elite and the powerless will always suffer. Get rid of the State? Is that possible? My imagination, any intelligence I have, is just not capable of imagining what we replace it with.

    Co-operatives? Or anarcho-syndicalism?- the forgotten neglected activist base behind the trade unions I work for or am a member of?

    You can tell this is a subject close to my heart!! And if you’ve made it this far through the comment -Thanks for your post!

  2. kenanddot

    I think the comment was, if anything, rather better than the post. I find it hard to imagine a society without the state or without inequality. From an environmental perspective I can’t see how capitalism can continue indefinitely, since it requires ever-increasing consumption, but I also am struck by how absolutely wrenching even comparatively tiny changes are for human societies. At the moment I’m just hoping for some resurgence of common humanity within the flawed system we have.

    1. God yes. Humanity. Compassion. Something sadly lacking in our current ruling elite.
      Of course, they would say that the welfare state (benefit system et al) has been the biggest evil – in that it robs private individuals of their personal moral obligation to help (i.e. ‘I don’t need to help my neighbour because ‘the State’ will do that’ type thinking OR perhaps ‘I can’t help there because that’s the State’s role’) AND it robs recipients of their personal motivation and social obligation to help themselves… But ‘they’ wholeheartedly believe that the State is a monster that eats their personal freedom…
      I have been wrestling with a pal who is a hard-line Libertarian – the discussions have been an eye-opener and have forced me to defend what I’d previously accepted as a ‘given’.

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