Right Social Justice: Better Ways to Help the Poor

Ideas are important. They shape the public culture. They inform political discussions. They shape the role of government. They define the relationships between individuals, families, and the institutions of civil society. They underpin policies and programs. In short, they inform us about how we should live together.

There are certain ideas that I believe are important: the dignity and the political and economic freedom of the individual; the relationships of love, loyalty friendship and trust that exist outside the political sphere but are essential to the health of society; the shared values that underpin a stable society; and limits to government, whilst recognising that protecting the poor and the weak are pivotal political challenges.

Stated in this context, social justice is one factor in the creation and maintenance of a well-functioning democratic society. But it is not an end in itself. It is here that the welfare state can be self-defeating. By this, I do not mean that social security is unnecessary or inappropriate. However, if the welfare state becomes an object in itself rather than a means to an end, it is unlikely to relieve individuals of their plight, and may create other problems.

Right Social Justice accepts the appropriateness of welfare “on insurance and charitable grounds where there is a very strong presumption towards efforts and obligations, and a wary eye on the cost and efficiency of programs.” It is against this background that the essayists examine various aspects of modern welfare, ranging from programs for indigenous people through to the approach to health, foreign aid and refugees.

The modern welfare state largely involves accepting the consequences of societal dysfunction and often is loath to tackle the causes. This arises from a number of factors.

First, the emphasis on individualism has led to reluctance to interfere with other people’s choices. There is a fear of being accused of moralizing should one seek to address the causes. Even holding out an aspiration is criticised as demeaning the poor or the afflicted, insensitive to their plight, or paternalistic.

This is a modern notion. As recently as a century ago, poverty, for example, was seen as a moral issue. A distinction was drawn between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Taking a sense of responsibility for one’s own situation was a central feature of policy responses.

Disraeli’s famous reference to “two nations” was less about poverty as such and more about the lack of connection he observed between the rich and the poor. His books, such as Sybil, or the Two Nations, describe the breakdown of society and reinforce the significance of the mediating institutions of society.

A sense of community responsibility was reflected in the institutions that developed in the later part of the 19th century. For a century in Australia from the 1860s, friendly societies flourished. Later, credit unions and building societies reflected the self-help and mutual obligation ideas of the era. Not only did they build communities, but they encouraged discipline, responsibility, and thrift among individuals.

Gary Johns touches on this issue when writing in his opening essay in Right Social Justice about the collapse of the social welfare model in many parts of Europe, due in part to the willingness of the populace to accept generous pensions combined with their unwillingness to pay taxes: “It suggests that the egalitarian ethos underpinning social justice is not necessarily built on moral foundations. These countries cannot afford the levels of pensions and benefits they pay. And yet all sorts of claims are made about how the welfare state is of a higher social order.”

While the lack of universal provision can be criticized, the replacement of these mutual institutions by the welfare state also robbed the community of many of its vital organic links. Local concern for local problems and local organization came to be replaced by the central state. Public servants, removed physically and emotionally from the communities they were to serve, turned to regulation and administrative programs. The impersonal program, increasingly delivered by someone paid to do so, replaced the personal encounter motivated by charity and concern to contribute to a healthy community.

Further developments have compounded the alienation of communities. In many places, governments have realized that central bureaucracy is not the solution. As a consequence, other sectors have been employed, usually by contractual arrangements to deliver services.

While this has overcome one set of problems, it has helped create others. Governments, subject to financial and other scrutiny, can impose burdensome administrative arrangements on the service providers. They also seek the best value for public monies, often by competitive tendering for services. This can result in an emphasis on process, red tape, and time-consuming administration. It also fosters powerful vested interests, dependent upon government funding and therefore vocal advocates for more funding.

As Cassandra Wilkinson indicates in her chapter, government programs, once commenced, are very difficult to end. The amelioration of the negative consequences of poverty, family dysfunction and social exclusion has been the object of intervention programs for decades. While much attention and considerable resources have been devoted to such programs, they are rarely a panacea for the manifold problems facing many individuals and families in contemporary society. Often the results have been very modest. Perhaps the best example of the limited effects is the US Head Start initiative. Launched by the Johnson administration in 1965, the pre-school program was designed to reduce juvenile delinquency, poverty and dependence. Yet 45 years after the $7 billion a year program was established, the first comprehensive review found few if any of the intended benefits of access to the program by the time children had reached four years of age.    While it is easy to understand why legislators continued to fund the program, it is remarkable that the impact of a multi-billion dollar program was not assessed for 45 years.

Rigorous evaluation, as proposed in the Allen Report into Early Intervention in the UK, should be a feature of all programs.  The current practice of mostly useless data collection should be replaced with proper long term evaluations of the strengths and benefits of various programs.

Having deployed the civil sector as its agent, government can also seduce it to become the mouthpiece for the latest fad or manifesto. If “social inclusion,” for example, becomes the government’s public relations cliché, service agencies will spend time ensuring that their programs are “socially inclusive” in order to continue to receive funding.

This raises important considerations about the ethos of the welfare state. While Wilkinson raises valid issues about the corporatisation of welfare, the incursion by government into the sphere of civil society also concerns me. The notion that the welfare state enhances civil society is problematic. The greater risk is that the welfare state has the tendency to subvert civil society, rob individuals and communities of their vitality, and undermine the essential foundations of personal and civic virtue which are critical to liberal democracy.

In his work on the welfare state, the Dutch sociologist Anton Zijderveld contrasted what he described as societies founded on the ethos of ‘moralism’ and those founded on the ethos of ‘immoralism’.  In using these descriptions, he was applying sociological terminology – not to be confused with judgements about the morality of particular individuals. I should not need to state this, but I am not suggesting or implying judgements about the morality of any individual in these observations.

According to Zijderveld, the ethos of ‘moralism’ involves clearly distinguishable values, norms and meaning; commitment to and involvement in the community; moral egalitarianism; and personal responsibility. The ethos of ‘immoralism’ includes the questioning of traditional norms and values; a stress on personality, spontaneity, freedom, experience and emotion; style superseding substance; little understanding of community, but a recognition of ‘social structure’ or government as the source of personal alienation; engagement that does not bind people together; the seeking of equality of results rather than chances; and weak development of the idea of the public realm. Zijderveld also wrote about ‘amoralism’ but that is not relevant to my current discussion.

Zijderveld observes that the relationship between the welfare state and the moralistic ethos is mutually negative. He uses an anecdote to contrast the welfare state that rests on a complex economic system that has to be organised by means of a massive bureaucracy and executed by a host of professionals, and the role of civil society:

After a fund-raising event for a charitable goal, members of voluntary organisations are able to present the money personally to the recipients of their benefaction, whereas the recipients of welfare state benefaction remain anonymous numbers in a bureaucratic system, receive their cheques by mail, while the money of the system has been collected through a gigantic tax system. This welfare package does not require any commitment or initiative, nor can any moral energy be invested into it. In fact, nobody bears responsibility, nobody is accountable, nobody needs to show loyalty, nobody has to make a commitment to this abstract system.

Zijderveld contends that the welfare system “can easily control immoralist individuals,” and, conversely, this ethos “sustains the technocratic character of the welfare state and its in-built lack of moral principles.” This, in turn, changes the character of the welfare state:

The immoralist ethos produces clients who are very eager to consume not only material and immaterial goods, such as food, clothes, furniture and ideas, emotions and experiences, but also and above all welfare provisions, such as ever more schooling, ever better housing, ever more and better health care etc. This has gradually changed the original nature of the welfare state: it does no longer guarantee minimal standards of welfare and well-being, but is counted on as the provider of maximum standards of welfare, well-being and even happiness – a maximum which, of course, is never reached. (Original emphases)

In words that could describe modern Europe, Zijdervelk observes: “The welfare state develops into the Land of Cockaigne until it is realised that its costs far exceed its profits, while its bureaucracy has become unmanageable.” He ponders the discomforting question of whether people who have become accustomed to the immoralist ethos are able to effectively change this course of events?

An examination of Europe today suggests that, at the very least, the answer appears to be that change is exceedingly difficult.

Further, the principle of subsidiarity, meaning, in part, that socio-political regulations are needed as long as initiatives by citizens could not be expected, but terminated when citizens become active, is reversed. It is here that the welfare state is a threat to civil society, as touched on by Jeremy Sammut and Ruth Limkin is their essays.

In a recent article, Yuval Levin suggests that this is a major failing: “Because the institutions of the welfare state are intended to be partial substitutes for traditional familial, social, religious, and cultural mediating institutions, their growth weakens the very structures that might balance our society’s restless quest for prosperity and novelty and might replenish our supply of idealism.”

This is not to say that the welfare state has not achieved benefits for individuals through programs of social justice, but to remind us of Aristotle’s insight that it is friendship that states need in order to remedy what is lacking in justice. It is the institutions of civil society that are built on friendship. It is also to refer to one of the themes of this book: How are both the intended and unintended consequences of welfare programs to be measured and evaluated?

Even those who share a different disposition about these issues should be concerned, as a consideration of the consequences of rapidly aging populations, and a cursory glance at the unsustainable policies in parts of Europe, suggests the need for a periodic discussion about the subject. This is a discussion that the authors of this book hope to stimulate.

Remarks at the Canberra launch of  Right Social Justice, Gary Johns (editor), published by Connor Court.


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