Desert dialectic

Rowan Williams:

[we have seen a] quiet resurgence of the seductive language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor”.

Iain Duncan Smith:

With respect to the Archbishop of Canterbury I have never ever spoken about the deserving or undeserving poor. I don’t believe in that concept. All I say is that the system itself has created an undeserving group, that’s what it has created.”

I’m struggling to understand what IDS is saying here. One way we might read him is this: nothing intrinsic to a population group makes that group undeserving; welfare allocation on its own – and nothing else – determines desert. But this takes away desert as a justification for policy: people are going to be getting pie – or not – just because IDS says so. Imagine if this were the stance with respect to taxes: George Osborne says the top rate is going to go up to 60%, well … because, that’s why. And when it does, you’ll deserve it. Or how about this: low Conservative tax rates have created a deserving group: the low taxed. You wonderful people, you.

In response, IDS might say: yes, of course our policies need to be justified, but that justification needn’t have anything to do with who gets what. When I say that welfare recipients are ‘undeserving’, I’m only saying that people oughtn’t to receive welfare because welfare has bad consequences. It has bad consequences if fifty people receive it or if fifty million people receive it. But what are the bad consequences of welfare? Here, IDS might say that when people choose welfare instead of work, they become apathetic and unhappy: welfare erodes self-esteem just as cigarettes erode your lungs. But someone making this sort of argument has to face the possibility that all kinds of unearned wealth have similar bad effects. Inherited wealth, for instance, or windfall profit. And that’s not a place any respectable Tory wants to go. But perhaps IDS can steer the discussion away from such difficult topics by arguing that welfare is bad because it, uniquely, has bad consequences for everyone. Our over-generous handouts are making the public debt unmanageable, and we won’t be caring about who gets what if the entire country goes under. However, if welfare is rejected for a reason like that, then it’s open for people to argue that welfare should be increased as and when things change for the better. Who knows what the future will bring. Take Alaska’s Permanent Fund, for instance. The Alaskans never saw that coming. Yet somehow I seriously doubt that IDS envisages a future of share and share alike, should the nation be so lucky as to run into big patch of oil, or something.

So what else could IDS say when it comes to explaining his position on welfare? All that’s left – it seems – is an argument that appeals to justice. That is, it’s simply unjust that some people get benefit when they’ve never had any intention of working: the responsible people lose out; they’ve lived carefully, they’ve never been slackers, they’ve carried the load. But then Rowan Williams’s accusation sticks.

3 thoughts on “Desert dialectic

  1. It all depends on what your conception of what welfare is for. To me, it seems the case that welfare is meant to ameliorate living standards to a level that modern Western society deems minimally consistent with dignified human life. Thus as this is entirely material, one could not be “deserving” or “undeserving” of such provision; the whole point of welfare is that we as society finds living standards of below a certain level, for anyone in that society, to be inconsistent with our broadly shared way of life. In that case the welfare isn’t up to the actions, inclinations, or whatever of the individuals in question, but rather the premises of our society.

    To give an analogy, when local governments set frontage requirements on construction, it’s not necessarily for the benefit of the homeowner in question, but rather to comply with our local society’s implicit sense of minimum spatial decency. What IDS is probably trying to say that is that he doesn’t really believe that welfare is meant as an affirmative action of our society’s beliefs and standards, but rather that it is meant primarily to help individuals as individuals, whatever the globular relationship welfare has with the premises of society. Thus desert comes into play.

  2. Why wouldn’t a Tory, respectable or not, not want to say that unearned wealth of all sorts can have bad effects?

    The difference it strikes me between social welfare payments and inherited wealth is that if a rich parent doesn’t want to harm their children by leaving them money, they’re perfectly free to avoid doing so, be that by tying the money up in trusts, or leaving it to charity or what not. Taxes are compulsory, so the case for obliging people to pay them should be higher than the case for permitting people to leave money to heirs. There’s a big difference between obliging someone to participate in something they think is bad, and banning everything that the government of the day thinks is bad.

    Ditto lottery wins, if you think winning lotto would be harmful, you’re free not to participate.

    As for windfall profits, tolerating them makes sense because there’s no clear dividing line between windfall profits and good, but earned, profits. We can’t tell with certainty the difference between someone who makes a large profit because of some well-educated but not-risk-free predictions about the future of demand and supply and someone who makes a large profit by pure luck. With inheritances, government benefits, and lottery wins, we can look at who sent the money and where they got it from.

    Yet somehow I seriously doubt that IDS envisages a future of share and share alike, should the nation be so lucky as to run into big patch of oil, or something.

    Didn’t the conservative government just put out aims to increase the tax on oil and gas production? And isn’t that causing a lot of fuss, rightly or wrongly? If they don’t envisage a future of share and share alike, on oil, why are they raising the existing taxes on oil production, instead of eliminating them?

  3. If they don’t envisage a future of share and share alike, on oil, why are they raising the existing taxes on oil production, instead of eliminating them?

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