Thursday, 31 March 2011

Moral Kombat

This is a post I made on Comment is Free in response to a CiF Belief article asking:

What are the ethics of welfare reform?
Comment is Free published two responses, one by Amelia Shellan and the other by Nick Spencer. Considering the importance of this subject right now, even though the question is general rather than specific to current welfare reforms going through Parliament, I thought I should make a response in the comment section. I re-post it here because I'm a view-seeking whore. 

It should first be said there is no 'holy grail' of welfare reform, there can be no welfare system on which an overwhelming majority of people can agree is fine. This is because there are two competing worldviews about it and I am going to be blatantly unfair to one of them because I think this perspective deserves it, it has earned it. There are those that believe in social security and those that plain and simply do not. In much of the west, those who are in favour have long won the argument and it's impossible to disagree; so most opponents sugar-coat their ideals by saying they want a welfare system but with exceptions, nuances and often dishonest, inaccurate and unbalanced conditions. If what they wanted were to be implemented, it would be as good as there being no social security at all. Hence when the usual justifications for reforms or opposition to greater social security coverage are trotted out: expense, fraud etc, numbers should always be demanded. In the case of fraud, if they are unable to say what level of fraud is tolerable(not to be confused with 'acceptable') or they say 'zero', then they are either not taking the subject seriously or do not actually believe in any social security system.


Compassion is a reason for charity, not for social security. I do not think contrary voices on CiF on welfare topics should be called callous or bile-spewers because they disagree with social security or with the current system of social security(and therefore they lack compassion); they should be called these things because of their immediate personal manner, which never fails in targeting, abusing or probing another person without regard to personal boundaries(and therefore they really do lack compassion). Compassion is not the primary motivation for social security and social security is not charity. No one thanks me for not punching them, no one should have to be thankful to a tax-payer for obeying the law either. 

The first case for social security is that those that pay in should be entitled(emphasis: entitled) to rely on it when things turn sour for them. They give money, they get money back. This is just the plain obvious: most of us are born strong and healthy, but we will not be forever. We will deteriorate and then we will die. We will probably be disabled for a substantial and growing length of time as this nears. The young have no reason to pay towards the care of the old except that they themselves will grow old and their hope is that by setting an example and fostering goodwill between generations, the next set of young will pay for them to inconvenience people by taking up queue space in Greggs during the lunch hour. 

The second case for those too young or unable to contribute to social security might seem like it needs an argument for compassion but again there is a more practical purpose. So many mechanisms of society and civilisation depend on goodwill and fail without it. Some net receivers of social security may one day become net contributors although whether it has ever been studied how many net receivers must be supported in order for a net contributor to emerge and how much of the costs of the net receivers those individuals will cover, I do not know. But without goodwill any such evidence is irrelevant anyway; those without goodwill will ignore a positive finding and those with goodwill overlook a negative one. There are very few real utilitarians; none would risk advocating such cold clinical evidence-based decision-making if there was the slightest chance they ever became a net receiver. They'd be insane or not at all concerned about their rational self-interest.

This leaves us asking what to do with the permanently and significantly disabled; should the state pay for them through state-funded care homes and benefits or should it be left to family and charity? Is a combination acceptable as is the case now? It depends on what you think responsibility is and who it lies with; but many who opt to be carers rather than sticking their loved ones in homes save a lot of money, as do those disabled people who try to be as independent as possible even if they can't work. They rely on benefits.

Withdraw them and someone still pays.

Case File #3 finds that it's starting to feel like we're arguing against the politics of Skeletor. 


 

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