Friday, October 17, 2008

In praise of universalism

Paulie has posted in favour of a citizen's basic income and raised some problems in implementing an idea that he finds instinctively attractive. The one that caught my eye was:
That it would be a hard sell to voters - the idea that Our Taxes Are Being Dished Out To The Feckless.
He has a neat response in the light of current events:
No-one but an utter charlatan or a fundamentalist (and, therefore, anti-democratic) libertarian can now deny that much more generous handouts to much less deserving people are necessary to stabilise society. Surely it would be easier to make the moral case now than ever before?
One-nil to Paulie, but we are not talking about morality here. No, the case for a citizen's income is all about self-interest; how a universal benefit is in the interests of each of us as individuals and collectively as a society. I would go further and argue that this type of universalism is profoundly libertarian.

One of the big problems for anti-statists is the welfare state. It is popular and necessary. Either they have to look at ways in which welfare can be delivered in non-statist ways, or they can deny its utility or legitimacy. There are two broad ways in which this has been done. Some on the left have talked about welfare as a form of social control, a ruling class plot to keep the masses in order and/or to buy off revolution, the right have relied on the concept of dependency culture. For me, both are, at best, exaggerations or, at worst, fictions. Remove welfare from people and you get neither surges in revolutionary consciousness, nor an entrepreneurial spirit. Instead, you get despair, distress, self-harm, crime, a culture of exclusion and a struggle for survival. Benefit cuts are not 'tough love', they are an unecessary form of abuse.

Yet, whilst the welfare state itself has not been challenged in the mainstream, the notion of universalism has been increasingly undermined, not least by New Labour who are wedded to the concept of the deserving and undeserving poor. Their defence of the legitimacy of welfarism has been a narrowly cautious one, seeking to reassure the right wing press that they are not wasting money on 'scroungers'. They have done this in two ways. The first is by placing the emphasis on 'targeting those most in need', automatically creating categories of those who are entitled and those who aren't, thereby inviting debates about where the boundary should be drawn. Secondly, and even more damagingly to the universal principle, they have reiterated the mantra of 'no rights without responsibilities', linking welfare rights to individual behaviour.

Some rights and obligations are contingent on each other (my right to life rests on your duty not to kill me), they are unavoidable. However some are not really obligations but conditions (unless you are good you will not get your pocket money) and what New Labour is really advocating is conditionality. This leads to moral judgements of individual worth as a requirement for state aid. And it is slipping into other areas of provision, such as health, with suggestions of restrictions on health care for smokers or the obese.

Ironically, both of these make the mythologies of the left and right appear more credible. Targeting puts people into a servile position as supplicants to the state, trying to prove their worth. Conditionality is pure authoritarian social control; do this or else. From here flows a range of malign dialogues, about the work-shy, foreigners, single parents, and all the other creatures that can be lifted from the demonology of the Daily Mail. Universalism does raise questions over definitions of citizenship, but otherwise lifts us out of these discourses. It offers no judgements, no grovelling, no debate.

And this is really libertarian. It gives complete freedom of choice. You can work hard or sit up all night writing blog posts. You can study for as long as you like at your local college. You can spend it on beer and fags. No one will care. Individual Liberty is the result of the economic security that collective action offers. What is more, it makes you less vulnerable to exploitation.

Some would have it that insecurity is a stimulus to creativity, to culture, and to genius. They see greatness as the product of suffering and struggle.

That sort of Nietzscheian tosh is not for me, just think how much more could have been achieved if the geniuses of the past did not have to waste their lives grovelling to the powerful for a living, but were free to work as they wished. Human progress is best derived from security rather than misery. And, even so, what about ordinary people like us, living humdrum and all too finite lives ? Where would we be without a welfare state? Like this?

That's not my idea of freedom.


M said...

I support the idea of a citizens basic allowance, it would kick the life from underneath certain right and left wing moral arguments, but ultimately it hands responsibility back over to the individual, which is what people (left and right) who seek to protect people from themselves don't want.

But beyond that there is the practical resistance to implementation that is the real barrier. The modern welfare state is not the Beveridge envisioned welfare state, it exists as much for it's own self-interest as for the interest of those it was originally intended to help.

What government is going to be brave enough to effectively kill off that part of the welfare state which exists for its own benefits. There are huge interests that would stop this, left and right, from the leaders of the bureaucracy to those workers who job would no longer need to be donw.

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