Reinventing WelfarePosted: October 22, 2013
There are many theories of government and many viewpoints on the role that government should fill. Except for the basest conceptions these theories agree that the provision of food, shelter and healthcare to the people of the state is a basic part of the government role and every ‘western’ government addresses these needs in some way (even the US government now provides something, although it lags behind the rest of the world).
It is an ongoing debate within most ‘western’ countries as to how much resource should be put into the provision of these basics, especially in this neo-liberal age in which the government is envisaged as corporation and many individuals receiving these basics are portrayed as non-producers. Non-producers such as some of the disabled, the unemployed, the elderly and those who have a wish to personally guide the upbringing of their children have minimal value in the neo-liberal conciousness.
Many modern governments, being run along the lines of corporations, seek to reduce the expenditure on these provisions and thus maximize governmental profits (or more precisely the profits of the corporations that largely control them). The maxim being that if an individual chooses to live off ‘benefits’ then their standard of living should be kept low or productive members of the workforce will become jealous and may well cease to produce and choose to live off ‘benefits’ as well. Of course this rationale does not apply to the disabled (do many able bodied people choose to become disabled?), the elderly or to parents raising children (who are conducting work that benefits the long-term economy by creating functional and well rounded workers) but that is glossed over and the benefits afforded each group are typically similar and low. What matters is short term productivity for short term gains.
The payment of these ‘benefits’ (although they would be better termed basic rights or, perhaps, brights) is typically handled by multifarious agencies each separately charged with assessing a mass of individuals that have been carefully divided and subdivided into different groups. Therefore, one group handles housing, another unemployment yet another disability and so on. Each group is charged with the provision of the minimum amount of resource necessary to provide food, shelter and healthcare to their target group and are, at least in theory, equipped with sufficient expertise to make those decisions. In the case of disability in the UK this is openly farcical as the system refuses to accept diagnoses or input from specialists that have been treating the individual for some time and instead follow the recommendation of a privately employed and less qualified practitioner who has seen the individual for as little as one hour. Individuals with intersectional issues (for example, disabled parents who are unemployed) face a near impossible struggle in receiving their basic rights. We must constantly bear In mind that these are rights all civilised governments are mandated to provide.
The system is dysfunctional, it is inefficient and it relies on the demonisation of those who are forced to access their basic rights as citizens that we have all voted into existence and which 95% of us will need to access in our lifetimes.
Here is a proposal to repair the system.
On housing. Because every government is mandated to ensure food, shelter and healthcare to its citizens it should cease to devolve these responsibilities to multiple agencies and instead create a single centrally administered provision that is capable of offering a house or similar abode to every citizen regardless of ability, wealth, age, status or any other factor. The houses shall be provided free of rent and shall be of sufficient size and construction to hold that individual and their family (including extended family if that is their choice). The houses shall have basic amenities such as hot and cold running water, heating, cooking facilities and a communal area. Maintenance shall be included free of charge and be provided by government employed maintenance teams that do not pass on their costs to the home dweller.
On Sustenance: Every member of the population shall have made available to them the resources to buy sufficient food to fully provide for their needs. This provision shall be in the form of food vouchers, issued to every citizen regardless of their situation (as housing, above) and will have a cash value redeemable at any food outlet and not restricted to any particular foodstuff. It will be illegal for a shop to refuse to accept vouchers or to discriminate against any individual redeeming them. The shop will be able to treat these vouchers as cash with regarding to banking so that no additional overhead is placed upon the business.
On Healthcare: The evidence is absolutely clear that the state provided healthcare provisions provided by many European countries massively outperform fully privatised systems wherever they exist (you only need to compare outcomes and cost per head in the US and the UK to have this illustrated). Therefore the state should look to the creation of a public or public/private healthcare system, free at the point of need for all its citizens.
Agencies will continue to exist for the administration of aid to specific target groups but the bureaucratic and emotional overheads, and governmental pressures currently suffered by these agencies will be reduced as they are ‘wasting’ less profit and as their actions can more directly be tied to specific individual needs. No longer forced to worry about basic subsistence and administration of payments the agencies will be required to solely look at support such as assistance in getting employment or for reasonable adaptations required by disabled individuals.
What of those who do not wish to live in a government provided house or who wish to buy expensive foodstuffs on a regular basis? These individuals can continue as they always have. The state provided houses do not have to be taken and such a house will always be present in the future when the individual chooses to retire or needs to cut back on expenditure. The food shops will still sell food to those with money, they do not only have to take food vouchers. Indeed if an individual is so socially affected that they do not wish to use a food voucher then they can dispose of them and spend cash instead. They can even pay for healthcare if they so choose, the free alternative shall be no worse, although perhaps the room wont have cable TV, it is their choice.
We must, of course, address the costs of such a scheme. In the first instance the large scale social housing projects that will be required to create homes for those who want them will require the undertaking of additional debt on the part of the government. This will be somewhat balanced by the massive boom that will occur in the construction industry and the concomitant lowering of unemployment as additional labourers are employed and trained. Additionally some savings will be made through the reduction in the inefficiencies of the current provisions (as the new provision will be universal no assessment will be needed for individuals). However, a debt increase will be required.
The government will recoup the expenditure through increased taxation on industry and through the long term advantages that it will bring to the economy. The nature of this tax can be discussed separately (I favour a simplification of the taxation system by reverting to a sales tax levied on all transactions in which the buyer is in the country, combined with an import tax on foreign goods, and a Pigovian addition for industries that have identified long term issues – this simplification in itself would save huge amounts in overheads and make prosecution of avoiders easier). Industry itself will adjust by lowering the wages of some – after all individuals have shelter, food and healthcare for free and we may have done away with income tax (see previous sentence) – but they wont be able to lower them too far or it wont be worth someone working at all (therefore real terms pay for minimum wage jobs may well have to increase).
What of criminals who take advantage of this system? Well firstly, every system has it’s criminals and their existence should not be sufficient to discount it out of hand. Criminals within this system would be treated as in any other with the advantage that this system is simpler and therefore detection will also be simpler. Except in the worst of cases individuals should be punished financially (clearly their drive to financial gain is important to them, so significant financial loss should be a good initial punishment). Only repeat offenders would face incarceration (we want our citizens to be able to work, unlike the near 1% of the US population currently incarcerated).
There is one final concern that I feel needs to be met. What of those individuals who are happy to live their life in a government provided house eating government provided food? Surely this system will engender a race of humans that are content to be provided for until such a time as the system collapses under its own weight?
The first question I would ask is would you, personally, do no work if offered basic housing, food and healthcare? If you would work then why do you have such a negative conception of your fellow humans that you assume they would have no drive or interest in bettering themselves? Is your assumption based on evidence or prejudice? I would still work, although I would be pickier about where I worked and what I was prepared to put up with from an employer. At the moment if I have a boss who singles me out and makes my life hell I have to put up with it, at least in the short term, if I knew I would survive I could leave. If a company noticed that the turnover for a certain manager or division was high then they sure as hell better find out why and fix the problem. Lose the bad manager or lose the staff and the productivity. A basic provision of food, shelter and healthcare provides the freedom that allows the workforce to move and with that freedom comes an impetus for employers to provide good working conditions and for staff to no longer be satisfied with mediocre treatment.
Secondly, if modern society has taught us anything it is the power of advertising and consumer demand. If you want the latest phone, games console or car then you will need an income, not just home, sustenance and healthcare. The drive to get a job is still their if you want to possess nice things and the evidence suggests that most people do.
Finally, there will always be some who choose not to work. Perhaps an artist who chooses to live so simply to focus on their art, or an individual who really doesn’t want anything but the basics (a monk, perhaps?), maybe even someone who just doesn’t care. These individuals will be the extreme minority and as a society we should be prepared to carry them.