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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The corrosive effect of the welfare state

James Bartholomew, author of the excellent book The Welfare State We're In and the blog of the same name, reports a recent talk by the American intellectual Charles Murray on the corrosive moral and spiritual effect of the welfare state on people's lives.
"[Murray] said he was not primarily concerned that the welfare state costs too much "though it does", nor that it tends to make things worse "though it does" but that it "drains" the life out of people - particularly the spiritual life and sense of meaning.

He believed that people derive a sense of meaning in their lives in one or more of the following four ways: vocation, community, family and faith. For these things to retain their meaning, it was vital that government should leave them alone.

He offered his sense of how Europeans defined the purpose of life these days. He felt they think that the idea is to have a pleasant time until you die. He felt that they no longer believe that life has a special or transcendental meaning. Their priorities seem to be holidays and shorter working hours. The idea that work can have meaning in their lives has faded. Their belief in marriage, too, has dwindled. They even are no longer so ready to put their children's interests above their own. There has been a secularisation of society. People now think they are a combination of chemicals which, after a while, would "de-activate".

Murray's proposal is that government should give cash payouts to all citizens (a portion of which must be spent on health insurance) in lieu of all welfare benefits.  Murray postulates that this would change people's behaviour, by reinstating "feedback loops" - in other words the connection between an action and its consequences - which the welfare state has tended to sever.

"[A] girl would be less inclined to get pregnant out of wedlock if she knew she would get no extra money from the government. She would also be able to get money from the father because his regular money from the government would be paid to a known bank account and money could be taken from it. This would, Murray suggested, affect his behaviour, too. He would be more cautious about making women pregnant.

The idea of 'feedback loops', such as described above, is crucial to understanding how the welfare state has undermined behaviour. The welfare state has, in many ways, taken away the feedbacks which a society without state welfare used to supply."

Bartholomew comments on Murray's scheme as follows:

"I am struck first of all by how he admitted that this was a compromise. He said he was making an offer to the Left. They would be allowed to keep big spending - since his plan would continue big state spending. But it would be in a different form that would curtail many of the bad effects of state welfare.

... The ideal solution - minimal state welfare - would probably not be politically acceptable in a democracy. But reforms that would be politically acceptable would probably not be radical enough to make a 'good society'.

Melanie Phillips addresses the same issue from a different perspective.  Reflecting on comments by David Cameron on what he regards as the progressive de-civilising of our society, Melanie comments:

"It is the welfare state which, more than anything else, has created the culture of incivility, irresponsibility, family breakdown and disorder of which Mr Cameron spoke.

The direct link between welfarism and the ‘me-society’, between welfare rights and the erosion of the ties of duty that should bind us together, is unmistakable.

Yet no politician, even Conservative ones, will go near this subject. For all the windy rhetoric about irresponsibility and state interference, the root cause of these problems — the welfare state — remains a political untouchable.

...Frank Field was the former poverty campaigner who famously was instructed by Tony Blair to think the unthinkable on welfare.

He duly thought the unthinkable, came up with the radical proposal for an insurance-based welfare system — and was promptly sacked from his ministerial post for his pains.

Since then, welfare reform has ground to a halt. The situation has accordingly got far worse. Many more Britons are hooked on the dependency culture as benefits were renamed tax credits and applied ever higher up the income scale.

Yet since Labour came to power, it has spent a staggering £60 billion on ‘welfare reform’.

The vast welfare bureaucracy enables the Government to intrude ever more into people’s lives, particularly in the areas of family life and child-rearing. And through providing financial incentives for lone parenthood while penalising couples, it has positively encouraged family disintegration, the single most important factor behind our culture of selfishness and disorder.

It has also provided a myriad of incentives for dishonesty. Of course, some people are genuinely ill, but through Incapacity Benefit the state is ripped off to the tune of billions of pounds each year by those who are not too disabled to work, but are simply playing the system.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Government is paying tax credits or out-of-work benefits to about 200,000 more lone parents than are living in the UK.

Almost every part of our ‘cradle to grave’ welfare provision is foundering. Through Government incompetence, our once great pensions system is leaving millions facing an impoverished old age. Our health service teeters on the edge of continual crisis.

...Even worse has been the effect of welfarism on people’s behaviour and attitudes. True, the assault on family values has come from the self-indulgent and irresponsible elites at the top of society.

But welfarism put rocket fuel behind this by making it possible for millions of women to have children without sharing the commitment with a man — and telling them that this was their right.

The crucial point was that welfarism detached behaviour from its consequences. It held that material need must be met, regardless of behaviour. It did this to avoid making the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor that was associated with Victorian callousness towards the poverty stricken.

...The Government says welfare must meet the needs of children whatever kind of household they live in. This is the principle behind child benefit, surely the most effective engine for the mass production of fatherlessness — and consequently child misery — that could ever have been devised.

If a young girl has a baby without a father on board, the state says it must be ‘non-judgmental’ about her behaviour and focus instead entirely on provision for the child. So the young lone mother gets a range of welfare benefits and a council flat.

But those benefits, which enable such girls to live what appears to them to be an independent life, provide an incentive to get pregnant — and to do so over and over again.

So our caring welfare state actually produces the truly desperate situation of young girls having babies alone and unprotected, sinking into depression or worse, and producing children who will be disadvantaged in every walk of life — and will probably go on to repeat this catastrophic pattern.

...The Government has made only the most feeble of moves towards expecting claimants to find work — by providing an endless supply of carrots, but never any stick.

Yet while thousands thus cushioned by welfare refuse to work, the Government has encouraged mass immigration to find workers who will do so — in the process driving down wages and deepening poverty.

Madness, or what?

As for public services, people should be paying into compulsory personal and social insurance schemes for pensions, health and long-term care and, in return, paying less tax to the state.

This would restore responsibility for individuals and their families, while looking after those who are truly incapable of looking after themselves, end dependency and remove the ever more intrusive control of individual lives by the state.

Instead of a welfare state which has so infantilised and demoralised us, we need a welfare society. Our culture needs to grow up at last."

Indeed it does.  The damage already wrought by our comprehensive welfare state has been massive, however, and it has accelerated under the last ten years of Labour rule, which has cynically boosted the number of people dependent on the state in order to reinforce its own client constituency.  The Labour vision of government is to act as pusher to a nation of welfare junkies.

Can the situation be retrieved?  James Bartholomew is pessimistic:

"I have come to fear that all advanced societies are becoming more and more welfare state dependent and that people in these countries are gradually being changed more and more by these welfare states. The welfare state gives you money if you have children out of wedlock, it gives you money if you don't work, if gives you money if you are well but you pretend to be ill and it declines money it would have given you if you have saved. I agree with Charles Murray that the worst effect of the welfare state is on the character of the people it affects (mostly the less well off). I would love to see major reform but I fear that over the long term, reform will not last and that the damage done to society will continue.

If this happens around the advanced world, we are really talking about a whole civilisation in decline. Is this too gloomy? I hope so."

James Bartholomew and Melanie Phillips are correct to frame this issue in such stark terms.  Our society is effectively infantilised, sentimental, decadent.  We need as a society to re-learn the skills of self-reliance and personal responsibility if we are to retain our freedom.  The situation is not irretrievable, but it is severe and time is short.  Our political system is not currently geared up to tackle problems of this kind, because our spin-led parties are inherently incapable of taking the difficult decisions and displaying the moral leadership that is required.  And this is a principal reason why we need a New Party.