Saturday 21 February 2009

'The welfare state is a tragedy of good intentions'

Too often, think-tanks risk inviting speakers who agree too much with each other and confirm their own and their audience's prejudices. The Fabian/Webb Memorial Trust centenary conference at the LSE is hearing from a panel which has been challenged to think heretically, as the Webbs did in 1909, and come up with a new 'politics of the impossible'.

Among those taking up the challenge is Nick Bosanquet - drawing on his family link to Helen Bosanquet, Beatrice Webb's chief antagonist on the Royal Commission as well as his own shift away from Fabianism (he was a chair of the Society in the 1970s; and co-edited studies on the Labour government's equality record with Peter Townsend, who is sitting next to me on the conference floor) to the low tax politics of the think-tank Reform. Bosanquet has contributed to the new Fabian collection 'From workhouse to welfare', writing in favour of the Majority Report.

He defined his task as to make common cause and get Fabians behind a common agenda for the low tax and small state politics.

And this was his message to us.

We see you as well-meaning and well intentioned people who have been taken for a ride. The welfare state is a tragedy of good intentions.

What has happened is that a number of key interests in society have fallen on the welfare state like famished animals. One is big government. Second, monopoly professions. Thirdly, big contractors. Fourthly, the mass media

The tragedy of the welfare state were dependence effects; inequitable funding (once direct and indirect taxation were taken into account) and intergenerational unfairness.

"The welfare state has created more problems than it solved", he asserted.

Bosanquet argued that an agenda focused on raising personal capability; reducing taxes; and refocusing public services around choices and personal budgets.

But he also argued that "the better off should contribute to the cost of their own services ... the welfare state came across the rails when it became a middle-class entititlement programme, and not a poverty programme".

Many of the other speakers have argued that universalism is essential to build coalitions to tackle poverty and inequality. Bosanquet's argument is that universalism is part of the problem.

1 comment:

Sunder Katwala said...

Several of the audience and panel aren't entirely happy to sign up at once.

Bosanquet has responded by saying "we have to realise that we aren't a small Scandinavian country. The Scandinavian model isn't an option for us".

This got a loud chorus of "why not?" from the floor.

After all, it is worth remembering that Sweden wasn't "Sweden" once.