by Sam Fowles
Iain Duncan Smith has said he won’t apologise for trying to make our welfare state “fairer”. But “fairness” is both an impossible and irresponsible goal in public policy.
The “silly season” is upon us and, unlike Labour (who appear to have collectively gone on holiday to another dimension, so deafening has been their media silence) Ian Duncan Smith has decided to use it to sell (or resell) his welfare cap. Unfortunately, while – in keeping with the season – the policy itself is silly in the extreme, its effects will be terrifyingly serious.
But the welfare cap is merely symptomatic of a wider misconception, one which is endemic in both public policy and public discourse: that public policy can or should ever be “fair”. “Fairness” is an unachievable goal and aiming at it only leads to bad policy making. It encourages a skewed view of the role of government and the function of the individual in society. A government which aspires to make “fair” policy will always be reduced to distributing different shades of unfairness. A better conceptual framework for public policy is based, not on fairness but responsibility. Government should be a facilitator, allowing citizens to discharge their intrinsic responsibility to society.
The welfare cap offers an excellent illustration of the contradiction inherent in the idea of public policy “fairness”. Duncan Smith claims that he is eliminating the unfairness that some people on benefits have a higher income than the average working family. The power of this argument lies in its truth. If one is in the position of a lower middle class working man (Mr A) then it is not fair that you must pay taxes so that some people can live, without working themselves, on a larger income than your own family.
However if one takes a different perspective, for example, a child (Child B) in a large family whose father (the sole earner) has just become a victim of the civil service or army job cuts then it is unfair that your quality of life should plummet dramatically (perhaps just as you are taking A-levels, thus jeopardising your university place) because of this government’s attempts to impose the one ideology they can remember from their Oxford politics lectures. The total income of a family (regardless of the number of children or any special needs they may have) will be limited to £500 per week which will include, among others, carers allowance, child benefit and severe disablement allowance. The cap is patently unfair on those, such as the severely disabled, who require a larger income to maintain a basic quality of life.
When considered on this micro level, public policy will always be unfair on someone. The public debate is often distorted by a focus on the outlying data; the super rich or willfully unemployed. But this often distracts from the real impacts of policy on the majority of people which means we rarely get to see the big picture. When the public debate about welfare focuses on Mick Philpott it presents the misleading idea that the welfare cap is simply a matter of preventing abuse of the system. Actually it’s a matter of the government distributing unfairness.
But this, in itself, is an incredibly anti social view. It starts from the Hobbesian premise that humans are naturally savagely individualistic and, if we are to contribute to society, that contribution must be imposed upon us. The government’s role becomes about distributing a punitive burden and politics is simply the debate about where that burden should be most heavily felt.
This is both intellectually regressive and a-historical. It implies that society is not a natural state for humans because contributing to it is something we must be forced to do. But society is not merely a function of humanity, it is the basis of it. The innate need to live in society, to work co operatively for the greater collective good, enabled homo sapiens to become the dominant species on the planet. Government does not force us to live in a society, it is merely the most effective way of regulating it. This isn’t a new realisation, it’s been a staple of political thought since Aristotle’s maxim: “Man is by nature a social animal”. The individualist approach to social science, from Hayek onward, (to which successive Western governments remain inexplicably attached despite it’s repeated and overwhelming practical failure) ignores one of the most basic aspects of the human condition.
As such, the idea of public policy based on social responsibility, rather than misleading conceptions of fairness, is both natural and rational. We are responsible because we are human. Society advances because each generation has a responsibility to give those who follow a better chance than we have had ourselves. When put in the context of the family unit this is taken as read, it’s completely natural. But to limit responsibility to our direct descendants is a logical fallacy because it is based on an artificial distinction.
The fact that someone is a blood relative of mine will do nothing to protect them from the effects of actions taken by countless millions of others or from winds of fortune of which I can neither conceive nor control. Rationally, the most effective way of ensuring a better future for our own descendants in the long term is to work towards a better society. Thus our natural responsibility to our own children and natural responsibility to society become one and the same.
Now the flaw in this argument is that humans are not always perfectly rational actors, we have irrational emotions and imperfect knowledge which often means we don’t make the rational choice (this is also the problem with the “invisible hand” theory). This is where government comes in. Government acts as a facilitator, enabling citizens to discharge their duty. National politics and democratic debate, although an imperfect means, at least give citizens a chance to pause and look at the societal picture.
To illustrate this, let’s go back to the my welfare spending example. Government can never make welfare policy that is fair on both Mr A and Child B simultaneously on a micro level. But it can help both to fulfill their innate responsibility to society. Child B has a responsibility to contribute to society by getting an education and then a job. Government can facilitate this by, for example, investing in education (so that Child B can gain the skills necessary to contribute to the greatest extent of her ability) and creating an environment where business, charities and the public sector can grow (so that the opportunities will exist for her to put her education to good use. At the same time government can facilitate Mr A’s responsibility through taxation. In time it will facilitate Child B’s responsibility to future generations in the same way.
The political left have lost sight of this bigger picture. When we argue that the cuts are “unfair” we buy into the modern right’s fundamental failure to understand the nature of society. We’re scared to talk about responsibility, after being sold the fiction that appeals to social responsibility are political suicide. In fact, if sold right, social responsibility is political gold. Ideas like patriotism, community and national purpose should be the spiritual home of the left, yet Labour seems afraid to claim them. Not for nothing did JFK urge Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”.
We support welfare, human rights, free healthcare, free education because – fundamentally – we believe that society advances when it co operates. We believe that, as citizens and as humans, we have a responsibility to advance society. And, while appeals to Aristotelian ethics may not play so well on the doorstep, perhaps a good start might be to suggest voters (and politicians) remember their humanity.
Sam Fowles is a researcher in International Law and Politics at Queen Mary, University of London