Shifting the debate on welfare: towards a state of caring for each other

The site of desperation

In the wake of a man setting himself on fire outside a jobcentre I have been thinking why the welfare state feels so difficult to defend. It is true that it is subject to relentless attack from the right, but I also think the welfare state is a stranger hybrid than we usually give it credit for. Rather than having behind it a coherent logic and narrative the welfare state has emerged as the result of compromises between the needs of a naked capitalism that needs a reserve of unemployed people and prefers to move the ‘problems’ of disability and mental health out of its way, and socialist ideals that declare that, as a result of the way wealth is collectively produced, we all have a right to the common wealth of the nation.

So the welfare state can be attacked for being ideologically incorrect (those people don’t ‘deserve’ their benefits because wealth belongs to the individuals who earn it) or it can be attacked for being technically incorrect, because it is a strange mix of ideological construct and technical fix. It can – and probably should – be defended on ideological grounds of course, but that has become more difficult in a world where the whole mainstream debate has shifted rightwards. It can also be defended on technical capitalism-saving grounds but today’s capitalists seem to be too dumb to do that.

However, while I might lean strongly towards the social point of view I still find the ‘right to the collectively produced wealth’ argument to be something of a technical, abstract argument. I think the notion of shared wealth is important but I’m not sure it is the only basis for defending the welfare state. I also think it is important to develop arguments for the welfare state that do not depend on a particular ideological view of the world.

For me the case for the welfare state can be made on a very personal level. Why do I choose to support the welfare state? Why do I hate this government’s attacks upon it? Put simply: my sympathy for people leads me to defend the welfare state. I feel strongly that people should be cared for, and the weaker they are the more they need help. In a society with poor community links the state sometimes has to step in to do that. I know that we live in an economic system largely uninterested in caring for people and so I am happy that some small part of the system can make minor amends for that.

That’s it. I realise it’s not a sophisticated argument, but it carries a lot more weight with me than any ideology does, however ‘right’ it may be. It might sound like something of a ‘liberal’ position to some people but actually liberals also tend to defend welfare on functional grounds. Never have I heard a liberal on a news debate saying what I want to say: I think our world is not caring enough. Not only do I hate attacks on welfare, I think we should go much further. I think we should ask how to embed love and care in all our institutions, or ask what institutions would have to look like to embed love and care within them.

The argument over whether welfare ‘works’ or whether people are getting their ‘fair share’ seems irrelevant to me compared to my desire to see people cared for. I suspect that many other people feel the same. Why is it so hard to just say that we want a kinder world? Does kindness seem ‘unrealistic’? If so, we should think hard about why, and think about how we can change people’s ideas of what is realistic.

There are reasons to still make the shared wealth arguments: to explain why we tax, and to avoid the idea of welfare as charity. But I think if we moved towards being prepared to defend the welfare state on simple empathic grounds, rather than constantly having to refer to some big theoretical framework to ‘justify’ our position, we might find the welfare state easier to defend.