The problem with entitlements


As regular readers may know, I have recently been exploring a concept I call ‘the paradox of entitlement’: in essence, state-backed social entitlements are a sign of progress but they are problematic and financially unsustainable if people treat them as mere entitlements.

A couple of days ago I offered a defence of entitlements from the critique of the right. Today I want to sketch out the second half of the paradox; the problems with entitlements.

To generalise and simplify, the left’s instincts about social entitlements (by which I mean public services, various forms of legal protection and welfare payments) tend to be as follows. The biggest problem with defending and expanding entitlements is a lack of political will. We live in a rich country and there is no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy levels of entitlement on a par with the best in the world (those in Scandinavia, for example). Quite apart from their material value to individuals, we should seek to expand social entitlements as a means to key progressive goals, principally greater social justice. Also, the ethic of social entitlement rooted in notions of solidarity is a vital bulwark against (or alternative to) the possessive individualism fostered by capitalism. It can also be argued that the planned and just distribution of social entitlements stands in contrast to the random, inequitable and wasteful distribution of goods through the market.

Just as there is validity to aspects of the right’s critique of entitlements so I have sympathy with aspects of the case for social rights. But, this case faces some tough reality checks.

In the context of austerity, rising needs and global economic competition the issue is less whether we will have to curtail some entitlements but when and how. Indeed, social care, particularly for the frail elderly, may already be the first major area of public service provision since the creation of the modern welfare state in which the core universal offer has substantially deteriorated, and this is well before the full impact of population ageing.

A more controversial critique of social entitlements is that they have singularly failed to embed a set of progressive values as alternatives to market individualism. Although some public services are very popular – particularly the NHS – the public’s general disposition towards social entitlements is as much characterised by passivity and resentment (towards inadequate services and ‘undeserving’ recipients) as a celebration of collective endeavour. Indeed, when there is activism around public services it is as likely to be associated with individual or local self-interest than solidaristic fellow feeling.

One reason for this ambivalence – which is generally no less marked among net beneficiaries of social entitlements – may lie in a deep seated sense that goods and services which are ‘earned’ individually through merit, effort or good fortune are of more value than those which are allocated collectively as social rights. Defenders of generous social entitlements reasonably argue that such entitlements are necessary to provide people with the means to live in dignity and with some control over their lives, but most of us tend to feel that dignity and freedom lie in self respect and independence, virtues not always associated with the bureaucratic benevolence of the state.

The efficacy of state provision is a subject in itself and even focussing on a specific programme the evidence is disputed. What can be said is that public service productivity has more of less flat-lined for several decades, that much of what the state provides is of dubious value (from teach-to-the-test education to the mass prescription of anti-depressants), and that working age welfare benefits - originally seen as ways of managing risk, tiding people over before a return to employment or tackling acute and exceptional cases of need - have for many people and many places become the primary source of income, with dependency sometimes stretching across a lifetime.

It is a lack of jobs rather than the existence of welfare benefits that is the primary cause of unemployment. However, there is no denying that welfare benefits are playing a different role in society than the architects of the welfare state – like Beveridge himself - envisaged. One particularly egregious example was the rise of Incapacity Benefit in the 80s and 90s, which not only encouraged people to abandon any aspiration to work, but was also associated in most cases with further deterioration in the health of those in receipt of the benefit.

This, then, is the paradox. For the reasons I outlined a couple of days ago the good society should seek to raise the threshold of universal citizenship entitlements, but for the reasons I have outlined today the past and current impact and future viability of entitlements is highly problematic.

My next post will suggest that it might be possible to solve the paradox but to do so will involve radically reframing and reforming our idea of social entitlements and the expectations which surround them.

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