Under what circumstances can a person expect help from the state?by AC Grayling / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
James Turner Street in Birmingham, whose residents appear in the controversial Channel 4 series Benefits Street © PA Images
Questions and answers have an incestuous relationship: how the former are phrased determines how the latter are formulated. Controversies over the wording of census and referendum questions illustrate the point well. Consider, therefore, alternatives to the question: “Under what circumstance can a person expect help from the state?” We could instead ask, “Under what circumstances should a person not expect help from the state?” or, “Under what circumstances is there no reasonable entitlement for a person to expect help from the state?”
Questions of this sort are prompted by George Osborne’s recent announcement of another major round of welfare spending cuts in the interests of economic recovery. Perhaps the concern behind them all is: “How far is it morally acceptable for welfare spending cuts to go, in the light of their effect on people in vulnerable circumstances?”
There is a consensus, fuzzy at the edges but otherwise firm enough, in most western European polities, that the state exists to provide basic securities and equities—using these terms in their non-financial sense. This, at the very least, means national security in defence and the maintenance of law and order, equities in provision of health and education sufficient to offer the least advantaged a chance to progress, if they will accept the offer—and in general to make a civilised distribution from the common purse, to all who wish to accept it, of the goods of health and education.
But the provision of security does not stop with the army and police. Subsistence and shelter for those who cannot pay their own way because of unemployment, disability, illness or age, are also forms of security. Most of the debate about welfare spending concerns how much security should be provided, not whether it should be provided at all. The consensus is that the state has welfare responsibilities; the arguments almost always about how much should be spent discharging them.
The politics of that debate revolve around what we should devote resources to: solving the underlying problems (say, the causes of unemployment) which generate a need for welfare spending, or palliating the symptoms through the dole and housing benefit? After all, argue proponents of the first view, fixing the problem will obviate the symptoms. But this is not an either-or matter: of course the underlying problem should be fixed, but in the meantime welfare should be maintained at civilised, compassionate levels. Allowing people (and especially children) to fester in poverty causes long-term problems of a kind that could and probably will make greater demands on future welfare budgets.
So the summary answer to the question, “Under what circumstance can a person expect help from the state?” is that people should (are entitled to) expect help from the state when they are unable to attain by their own endeavours the basic securities and equities mentioned. But there are other things people can legitimately expect of the state: protecting civil liberties; ensuring that economic life—work, trading, investment, manufacture, services—is fair, safe and rewarded; being an enabler rather than an interferer in citizens’ legitimate activities, but to interfere when justice requires; protecting minorities; and promoting the common good while respecting individual autonomy and privacy.
This is not an idealist’s list, but a simple statement of the basics we should expect from the state in addition to its organisation of society’s collective resources to provide a welfare net. We do not expect the state to moralise, to nanny, to over-protect, to make our personal decisions for us. But we do expect it to apply the shared resources of society to the interests of its members, and that fundamentally includes helping those who need it.
What about the freeloaders? There are doubtless some. If identified, they can be required to do their share. But their numbers are assuredly small: it takes a large lack of self-respect to be a parasite. Treat their thefts from the common purse as the charge we willingly pay so that those in real need do not lack their entitlement.
AC Grayling is Master of the New College of the Humanities