30 May 2009

The Welfare State We're In

The Welfare State We're In

I've been aware of this book since it was launched, and have followed the accompanying blog, but only now have I actually got around to buying a copy and reading it.

It's a book that very much needed to be written. I have been critical of the approach of the IEA and the like, but they have a valuable role to play in supporting work like this.

The book is slightly mistitled. It does indeed describe the welfare state we're in, but hell-in-a-handbasket tracts are ten a penny, and this is much more. What the book describes is the welfare nation we're not in - the combination of insurance-based and charitable welfare institutions which, until they were supplanted by state welfare, were not only better than almost anyone today would imagine, but improving very rapidly.

That is what I was looking for, but there was another, unexpected historical perspective - the ebb and flow of welfare provision over the centuries, as suffering of the poor led to more generous provision, which led to abuse and social disruption, producing a backlash against dependency culture and root-and-branch cuts. There are debates from two hundred years ago that could be taken from today's newspapers.

The first chapter makes the case that our current society is one where violence and what could loosely be called "social decay" is more prevalent than before. This is a difficult subject to handle, and the author recognises the difficulties. On the one hand, statistics are not comparable for a number of reasons, and on the other, anecdotal reminiscences are not only unreliable, but impossible to set into context - how typical are one person's experiences of a society that was structured quite differently to our own?

In spite of the difficulties, the chapter left me more persuaded than previously that there has been a marked drop in the amount of peace and trust that most people experience in their community. Here the point is not so much that the past few decades are exceptionally bad, but that the century before was exceptionally good.

Other chapters cover education, health, unemployment, housing. There is a very powerful chapter on the family; the sheer magnitude of secondary harm done by broken families is covered shockingly. I personally believe, on principle, that people should be free to adopt whatever domestic arrangements they choose, but I believe on the same principle that they should be free to take whatever food, medicines or jobs they choose. That a government which makes such effort to shape our behaviour in socially insignificant fields at the same time is not able to avoid subsidising family disintegration, with social costs at least an order of magnitude greater, is quite indefensible.

The writer is very cautious about explaining the failure of the welfare state, which is wise. One common theme in the narrative which struck me without having been explicitly drawn out was the destruction of tacit knowledge when existing institutions were replaced or taken over by the state. That is probably worth a chapter of some other book.

This book is readable and informative, and I recommend it strongly. However, it is only a start, the beginning of the debate, not the last word. It is written as polemic, for the interested layman, and while it provides references for its claims it makes occasional jumps that would be seized on in a debate. It needs first to be challenged by defenders of the welfare state, and then to be supported with more academic, more precise work that activists can rely on when facing opponents.

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