The social welfare (1)

Discussing the idea and implementation of social welfare tends to polarise people. Those supportive of social welfare are viewed by the conservatives as left-leaning right-brained lightweights. According to the progressives, by opposing social welfare one becomes a heartless, knuckle-dragging redneck. I for one believe that before we pass any judgement it is useful to recap what social welfare is and how it came about.

The basic idea of social welfare is to provide support at state level to those who are in need. The other side, less emphasised by the progressives but quite essential in the implementation of social welfare, is that the burden of funding it falls on the well-offs. So we have an arrangement in which the needy are supported by the wealthy in a deal facilitated, enforced and policed by the state. It is easy to slip into intellectual laziness by assuming that the money required to fund social welfare somehow materialises in the system but it does not – it must first be extracted from those who are successful at generating wealth. Economy is a zero-sum game; whatever money is spent must first be earned by someone (or borrowed – more on that later).

So, what is the rationale for taking money from one lot of citizens and giving it to others? I have come across two lines of argument justifying this wealth transfer.

The first one refers to a “social contract” we are all deemed to partake in, which obliges us to look after the less fortunate and less able members of the society. This is viewed as a product of the evolution of humanistic principles and so morally superior to the legacy, capitalist system based on selfishness and greed. We are signatories to this contract by virtue of being citizens of countries where social welfare is practiced. One cannot opt out of the contract, other than by moving to another country. The extent of the welfare support available and the way it is managed is decided by the governments which emerge from democratic, multi-party elections.

The other argument justifying social welfare claims that modern societies function better with it than without it. It is in our best interest to ensure the city centres are not full of beggars and that gangs of desperate poor do not roam the suburbs looking for food in your pantry. There is no moral high ground claimed – it is a matter of expediency that the bottom rung of the society has got enough money to get by without causing too much trouble to others. As one of my friends put it in a frank discussion “I would rather pay the poor than the police”.

There is also another school of thought, coming from the right side of the political spectrum. In it social welfare is a ransom extracted by the layabouts from the mainstream society. The leverage in this blackmail comes from the voting power of the underclass. Their votes will go to political parties supporting social welfare so the likes of Labour and Greens will never be short of the supportive electorate. To eliminate social welfare would require a collective political will of the society which cannot be mobilised without the votes of the welfare recipients. But they are not interested in any changes, which closes the loop and explains why social welfare is here to stay.

But what is the impact of the availability of social welfare on the way modern societies function?

The social welfare (2)


One Response to “The social welfare (1)”

  1. Nick Says:

    Very good point, as usual. I support this system in principle. The only thing I am thinking about that I would prefer smart social welfare, when wealthy people teach poor how to fish instead of just giving them fish. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are very good examples of such people. SW must encourage people to develop instead of degrade having enough by doing nothing. Unfortunately we have a very good example of the latter situation here, in NZ.

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