The British sociologist TH Marshall famously argued that the three centuries since the enlightenment had seen the respective advance of three levels of rights: civil, political and social. These levels roughly equate to the spread of the rule of law, the widening of suffrage and the creation of the welfare state. Until very recently it was the general assumption that growing entitlements were a good thing and that national progress is measured by a combination of rising disposable incomes, growing social entitlements and enhanced public goods (infrastructure, public spaces, environment).
From the beginning, and particularly since the 1970s, the free market right has opposed this view on grounds of affordability, economic efficiency and moral hazard. The cost of growing state entitlements is seen to be a drag on enterprise, to penalise wealth creation and to foster dependency among welfare recipients. The current crisis gives this critique an extra twist. As the cuts get deeper, the economy languishes and we look with envy at the growth rates and apparent entrepreneurial drive of many developing countries (with much more limited social entitlements), the sense grows that the problem is not that there are too few entitlements but that there are too many.
One difficulty here is distinguishing arguments of expediency and principle. For example, is the reduction in public sector pension entitlements simply an unfortunate necessity to balance the books, or is it also objectionable that workers funded by tax payers should enjoy retirement benefits not available to most of those tax payers? Are cuts in benefits justified merely by austerity or also by the need to tackle dependency? Does pulling the state out of the provision of services like libraries represent a sad loss or a great opportunity for community self–help? The lazy answer in each case is 'both', but as I have argued before, different arguments for the same course of action must be independently valid or else the whole case gets damaged.
It is easy to avoid all hard questions if one simply reverts to attacking the privileges of the rich and implying that if only we taxed them more we could pay for everything. But even as someone who personally supports the fifty pence tax rate and abhors the way some bankers and business leaders have exploited their position to create obscene wealth, I don’t think it is realistic or honest to argue that squeezing the rich will, any time soon, enable us to return to a path of rising entitlements.
I have no easy answers or startling new perspectives (which is a bit of a problem given that I am discussing these issues on Moral Maze in a couple of hours), but two half formed lines of thought have occurred to me.
The first might be called ‘the entitlement paradox’. Rising entitlements are a sign of social progress but their maintenance and growth depends on us not treating them merely as entitlements. In other words the sustainability and social value of welfare benefits depends on the existence of a strong work ethic and the sustainability and social value of public services depends on them being seen as collaborations which involve responsibilities for citizens and communities as well as the state.
The second is the need for public debate to acknowledge the contested framing of notions of fairness. Take today’s strike: many critics on the right argue that it is both unfair and corrosive to national solidarity that many public sector workers get a better deal than most private sector workers. Fine; but once the issue of fairness is opened such critics have to answer the question: isn’t it equally unfair and socially corrosive for useless bankers to get paid a hundred times more than hard working care assistants? To which an economic liberal may reply that we should distinguish between things that happen because the state interferes (public sector pensions) and things which are the result of free choices in a free market (income differentials).
However, at the same time as the case for state entitlement has been eroded by changes in the world around us, so has the credibility of this kind of free market fundamentalism. To take one line of criticism: it might very reasonably be argued that every child - born free of sin and error - should have broadly the same life chances (indeed some measures of public opinion suggest this view is widely endorsed), yet the state uses the power of law to defend the right of the privileged to pass on their advantages to their offspring and thereby – in the context of limited absolute social mobility – generate a reduction in the comparative life chances of the offspring of the less privileged. Those who talk about fairness to try to win a specific argument are likely to find themselves embroiled in a much bigger debate.
Crises can easily become times of fear, anger and resentment but they can also act as an imperative for reflection and new ways of thinking. Yesterday’s Autumn Statement did point to a few rather random principles behind the Government's management of these difficult times, but missing from the Coalition narrative (not to mention that of the Opposition) are deeper reflections on what austerity means for our idea of ourselves of a nation and our collective norms and aspirations. However hard, it is a debate we should choose to enter rather than avoid.