Friday 17 September 2010

Nick Clegg on welfare: is this liberalism?

Following Sunder's post, I've been mulling over the recent article by Nick Clegg on welfare reform in The Times. Invoking the spirit of the great Liberal leader, Jo Grimond, Clegg says:

'...liberals believe that people should be in charge of their own lives. Independence is a central liberal value. Dependency of any kind offends against this unwavering liberal commitment to self-reliance: and welfare dependency is no exception.'

Is this a liberal (or Liberal) view of welfare?

What's striking here is the way Clegg tries rhetorically to integrate 'independence' and 'self-reliance'. For while Liberals certainly have stood historically for 'independence', this is not the same thing as 'self-reliance'; and support for 'independence' suggests a more complex attitude to welfare (and 'self-reliance') than the one Nick Clegg intimates.

When past Liberals like Jo Grimond spoke about the value of independence, one thing they centrally had in mind was that people should not have to live dependent on the will of another. Think of the worker who has to submit to the demands of an overbearing employer because the alternative is losing his job. Think of the wife who feels compelled to go along with the unreasonable demands of her partner because he is the breadwinner and he controls the purse-strings.

In the language of philosopher Philip Pettit, these cases of dependency involve 'domination': one person has power to interfere at will in the life of another. Independence is the absence of domination.

Now, as the examples of the oppressed worker and the oppressed wife suggest, the welfare state can be an important force for combatting dependency in this sense. In both cases, what locks the individual into oppressive dependency is the cost of exit from the relationship: the prospect of suffering a big fall in income. In principle, benefits can provide crucial help, the financial lifeline that enables people to exit an oppressive relationship...and reassert their independence.

The flip-side of this is that an insistence on 'self-reliance' - understood as not relying on state payments - can worsen or create dependency.

Reforming the benefits system so as to increase the pressure on disadvantaged workers to scramble into low-paid jobs may make them more 'self-reliant' in a financial sense, but it risks doing so at the expense of reducing their ability to refuse terms and conditions of work that are oppressive.

Or such reforms might make an individual less reliant on the state but more reliant on family support - which they only get if they agree to whatever conditions other family members lay down, once again making them more dependent.

But can't state payments make one dependent in this sense too? Can't the state use its power over one arbitrarily as a benefit recipient?

Of course. (Just look at the ongoing furore over the operation of the 'work capability assessment' introduced as part of Labour's reforms of incapacity benefit.) But this is a reason for making sure that benefits are paid out according to clear eligibility criteria and that benefit claimants have strong rights of appeal against bureaucrats who don't apply the rules. More radically, it may even be a reason for making benefits unconditional. Make it a right that every citizen gets an income off the state, no strings attached.

This idea of citizen's income is, in a sense, the ultimate repudiation of 'self-reliance'. It makes everyone a 'benefit recipient'.

But precisely because of the support it gives to independence, it is a policy that many l/Liberals have supported. If memory serves, it was only at the 1994 autumn conference that the Lib Dems dropped the Liberals' long-standing commitment to citizen's income - in the face of strong opposition from firebrand Grimondite liberals like Nancy Seear.

As yet, we know very little about the content of the welfare reforms the Coalition will introduce. They might surprise us.

But to evaluate their eventual proposals from a liberal angle, I suggest we drop the ambiguous language of 'independence' and 'self-reliance' and ask a straightforward question: Will this reform reduce or increase the risk of domination?

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