Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Wellfair State? Not Exactly

In one of his best interviews, Ali G once famously asked Statist dinosaur Tony Benn if the welfare state was named as such because it is 'well fair'. Many miss what this bunny saw as one of the more subtle elements of Sacha Baron Cohen's technique, presenting himself as moron with no grasp of the subject and lulling the person answering his seemingly juvenile questions into a false sense of security. For all his faults, Benn was too sharp to fall for it, and would not be drawn when asked about "the right not to work", but this trap was successful on at least one occasion - when pro-hunting campaigners were presenting its case strictly as a form of pest control, Cohen managed to coax one bloodsports enthusiast into admitting that killing animals "makes you feel big". He was very much of a time that has now gone, but there was more to his routine than he is often given credit for.

Of course, some Libertarians would like to do away with welfare pretty much in its entirety. In principle, this bunny supports a safety net as opposed to the hammock that our current system has become, but understands that while leaving a role for the State as a minimalist backstop (when self-reliance and then private charity both fail) makes a lot of sense, the availability of such help at the expense of the taxpayer will always attract the interest of the idle, much as bees are to honey. Once you've established that certain entitlements are there, what reasonable measures can be taken to limit the uptake? In all honesty, not much.

So is our welfare system 'well fair' as Ali G suggested? The notion of 'fairness' has of course become one of those useless phrases in mainstream politics, in much the same way as the dud Statist parties fight this argument of lexis over who is more 'progressive' than their opponent. Nobody expects to make political capital out of claiming to be 'regressive' or 'unfair', it's just their concept of exactly what words mean and entail in policy terms may be somewhat different than yours or mine.

One of the great problems that anti-Statists have is that much of what we oppose can be backed up by something resembling a rational trail of thought and a doomsday scenario, presented as the inevitable consequence of withdrawing taxpayer-funded provision. I'm sure you've heard all this before - universal healthcare means that being born into a poor household does not equate to a death sentence, just as comprehensive education stops the disadvantaged from going through life unable to read or write. Jobseekers Allowance acts as personal insurance against the cyclical nature of economics. Anyone could get crash their car and become disabled, so let's cover that particular risk with 'collective resources' too. Kids are the future, aren't they? So anyone who has children should be in possession of enough money to keep them, with the state making up any shortfall - all makes (a kind of) logical sense, doesn't it?

I don't doubt for a second that the intentions of at least some who either support the welfare system, or played some role in its expansion, were benign - "a land fit for heroes" and all that. However, while one can always find a social issue to which only the mythical 'they' can provide a solution, the welfare mammoth grows in scope, becoming more complicated, nuanced and expensive as a result. There are two unintended consequences of spawning such a monster - first up, the question becomes not so much one of personal need and more about who can best navigate and negotiate their way around the system, something that surely undermines the principle for which welfare was intended in the first place?

More dangerously, a safety net that has grown into a hammock can very rapidly escalate into a a way of life. High welfare requires high taxes to pay for it, and this money of course has to be taken from those who are creating wealth and jobs in the real economy. Something that Statists are often loathe to acknowledge is the existence of human nature and all the subtleties that it brings with it. Individuals do not go into business out of the goodness of their hearts, but to earn a living for themselves - the jobs that are created, enabling others to do the same, are pleasant side effects in reality. Slash the potential rewards of such activity and the inevitable result is fewer opportunities for the general population. Young people are usually the biggest losers in such a climate as we are discovering at the moment, and with employment prospects notable by their absence, but welfare everywhere you look, the latter becomes a more credible and stable option - not necessarily a well-rewarded one, but a talent for playing and milking the system can go a long way towards altering that equation.

So being out of work and unable to find any (in fairness that is quite possible at the moment) or feigning a disability starts to make a lot of sense, while having kids can, tragically, become a relatively lucrative money-spinner. The scale on which teenage girls deliberately 'get knocked up for a council house' is debatable, but this is perhaps the biggest area in which the presence of a 'safety net' has been seriously counter-productive. Occasionally, you'll read tales regarding those who possess the 'full house' of welfare dependency - namely out-of-work benefits, handouts relating to the multiple products of their intensive breeding and an ongoing claim for some kind of disability. Part of this bunny of course feels a natural and instinctive rage towards anyone who has made a conscious choice to become a taxpayer vampire - bloody scroungers, eh? 

However, there is another way of looking at all this - sometimes, individuals who are not predisposed towards idleness or selfishness merely allow their noses to follow the money and the incentives (see ManNotNumber's excellent piece on that subject - When I hear someone explain that their last great hope is to win the lottery I sigh and can't help but feel sorry for them - welfare dependency operates on much the same level but has probably crept into the individual's consciousness at an early age (perhaps neither mum or dad ever worked, leaving them desensitised to any notion that the rest of society is paying for their upkeep?). For a life with kids that you only had for all the wrong reasons, spent rotting away in a tower block watching daytime TV to sound like an attractive option, or as some sort of way out, then the alternatives must be grim indeed.

Some people simply have no intention of working, of that there is no doubt whatsoever, and how we deal with such cases in the long run is a tricky business while the Uk has a tradition of not allowing its citizens to rot in the street, but Statism and the welfare culture that is an inevitable by-product of it has many victims, including some of the poorest in our society. Two popular phrases come to mind when explaining the nature of welfare and how it alters the dynamics and thought processes of individual behaviour. The first, one that ManNotNumber has referred to previously on these pages, goes, "as long as government promises to rob Peter to pay Paul, it will always have the support of Paul". Tragically, such thinking also cultivates an army of willing Pauls - ie "whenever you increase state intervention in the name of poor people, the end result is - more poor people".

Until the hammock is slashed in such a way so that a life in gainful employment always pays, and the incentives are taken away from the idle, phoney sick and breeding machines, we have no chance of creating the sort of opportunities economy where individuals possess the belief that they can better themselves, with the social mobility that we all want to thrive being able to do so. Statism drains the lake of hope, says 'no you can't', tells the less fortunate to stay in their box and stick to what they know.

Ultimately, the 'friend of the poor' does them nothing but harm, and that does not sound 'well fair' from where this bunny is stood. Take care and I'll catch you soon.

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