Wednesday, 29 May 2013

You've Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two, Boys - Part 3 - The Welfare State

One of the most interesting phenomena I have experienced through discourse on the internet, with people all around the world, is how expectations vary with regard to what they can expect from their social contract. It's not about what they want, or what they don't want, but the way they see entitlement, based on how things have been during their lifetime.

When I was born in England in 1962 the welfare state was firmly established. It had been around long enough for even the generation before me to have been born into an early version of it, although the system I knew was finalized in 1948. I knew nothing else. To me, it was all "how things were done". And for those born into similar systems in other countries, it was simply the norm.

By the time I reached adulthood, I was therefore accustomed to this safety net, and I understood it, I knew how valuable it was, and I was grateful for it. Then, as I explained in the earlier post, I worked within a government department where I saw the machinations first-hand, and some of the downsides to it.

No system is perfect. There are pros and cons to any of them, and this applies here. But I do believe, strongly, in a system where the population is assured of help from the state when things go awry. We can argue the details of that endlessly, but the basic principle of it is something I hold dear. And yes, obviously that is partly because I am accustomed to it, even now, with the version that Canada offers being somewhat different. There is still a feeling of security there.

So imagine my surprise to meet Americans who oppose the whole idea. Even though they themselves are not wealthy people, and could potentially benefit from it. These are people who believe, deeply, in a level of personal responsibility that extends far beyond what a sensible person can be expected to prepare for. In their view it's every man for himself.

I could admire that if it was a personal choice. Who wouldn't. The problem is, he insists it be like that for everyone.

In some instances, it's an "I got mine", attitude. Born into some level of privilege, he simply doesn't care how others manage, he's alright. Sometimes his reason for this attitude is from dyspiety:

But in other cases, it's something else, which I never managed to put my finger on, when relatively poor struggling people, think that being poor and struggling are OK, and everyone should suffer right along with them. So when anyone mentions the government using taxpayers money to help out the poor and struggling, they oppose it. You know the rest.

Obviously some of it is fear. They've seen governments bungle so many other things, and when you see the stupidity displayed by politicians, it's quite easy to see how they could mess up any attempt at creating a better social safety net. Here in Canada corruption and bad management has effectively bankrupted the national old age pension system, and around the world there are plenty of examples of countries where the best intentions of providing for the people have been thwarted by economic failure.

But flawed use of funds isn't restricted to elected officials and civil servants. Corruption, waste, and general bad financial management can happen in the alternatives - insurance companies and charities. And let's not forget that even banks and other investment facilities can fail, taking careful personal savings with them. If it's efficiency you want from an arrangement to secure your future, there are no guarantees anywhere.

And even if the money is safe, there's no guarantee of being able to get it. Raise your hand if you've never heard of anyone having a fight with an insurance company. I see no hands. That was your money, paid in all those years, agreements signed, and then, when you needed it, the bastards tried to keep it. This is common to the point of normal, and you think this is better than governments being in control? What cloud do you live on?

So, no matter how you make your "independent" plans, they're not independent. Not unless you bury gold coins in the ground and guard it with your own private army. That sort of security, popular among South American drug barons, is simply not possible for every man and you know it. The whole "every man for himself" ideal isn't practical, and it's why we have society in the first place, see Part 1.

What is the point of having a state at all, if the people who live in it do not benefit from it, not even in hard times? What are taxes for if not to fund services for the benefit of all citizens?

I know about the problems with governments and other institutions. Everyone does. It's no secret. To get a better society, you don't do away with them, you improve them. How? Well that's the question, isn't it.

There are people with ideas:


  1. It was a bit of an eye-opener for me to learn that long before the UK Welfare State individual parishes had their own arrangements to take care of the "less-fortunate" among them.

    I haven't been into the subject deeply enough to make a definitive pronouncement but it seems to me that there was a long-standing view inculcated in generations that "we take care of our own" simply because nobody could guarantee that they wouldn't find themselves in need at some point.

    1. There's a pay-it-forward element. For me that is a huge part of it, I support a system I may one day need support from!

  2. As a Dutch citizen from birth to age 26 I was obviously used to the welfare state, and was pleasantly surprised to find a version of it in Canada. My image of the country had been formed by articles from the fifties. Emigrants would send letters to the lady's magazine my mother subscribed to. Australia and Canada were identical in my head, differing mainly in climate. They were places that people disappeared to: wide open, full of opportunity, but harsh. This was pre-safety net. The typical narrative would have a period of homesickness, followed by adjustment, and acquisition of some basics of North American life that were NOT the norm in early fifties Holland. More or less in that order: stove, fridge, car, house. The attitude of Americans utterly baffles me. Canada has a mild version of it but nowhere near as virulent. At least not yet. Let's hope to Goddess they turf out Harper. After the disastrous victory of propaganda over fact we have just had here in BC I am deeply worried. Most people are too stupid, or busy, or disinterested to look beyond manipulated headlines.