25 February 2004
Welfare vs. diversity
Wait a minute. Those things don't conflict or do they?
It was the Conservative politician David Willetts who drew my attention to the "progressive dilemma". Speaking at a roundtable on welfare reform, he said: "The basis on which you can extract large sums of money in tax and pay it out in benefits is that most people think the recipients are people like themselves, facing difficulties that they themselves could face. If values become more diverse, if lifestyles become more differentiated, then it becomes more difficult to sustain the legitimacy of a universal risk-pooling welfare state. People ask: 'Why should I pay for them when they are doing things that I wouldn't do?' This is America versus Sweden. You can have a Swedish welfare state provided that you are a homogeneous society with intensely shared values. In the United States you have a very diverse, individualistic society where people feel fewer obligations to fellow citizens. Progressives want diversity, but they thereby undermine part of the moral consensus on which a large welfare state rests."
And even Sweden is becoming less homogeneous; Stockholm expects to be seeing twice as many immigrants over the next ten years.
Goodhart's essay, published in the Guardian following its appearance in his magazine Prospect, has provoked considerable dismay among British leftists, who tend to believe that they can embrace both multiculturalism and a modified form of socialism with few if any consequences. But, says Goodhart, there are factors working against the combination:
[A] generous welfare state is not compatible with open borders and possibly not even with US-style mass immigration. Europe is not America. One of the reasons for the fragmentation and individualism of American life is that it is a vast country. In Europe, with its much higher population density and planning controls, the rules have to be different. We are condemned to share the rich cannot ignore the poor, the indigenous cannot ignore the immigrant but that does not mean people are always happy to share.
A universal, human rights-based approach to welfare ignores the fact that the rights claimed by one group do not automatically generate the obligation to accept them, or pay for them, on the part of another group. If we want high tax and redistribution, especially with the extra welfare demands of an ageing population, then in a world of stranger citizens taxpayers need reassurance that their money is being spent on people for whose circumstances they would have some sympathy. For that reason, welfare should become more overtly conditional. The rules must be transparent and blind to ethnicity, religion, sexuality and so on, but not blind to behaviour. People who consistently break the rules of civilised behaviour should not receive unconditional benefits.
One could argue, in fact, that staying on the dole indefinitely is an infraction of "the rules of civilised behaviour." I am most assuredly not fond of working for a living, but if I expect to have a roof over my head and a small number of creature comforts, I have no choice; further, if others do seem to have such a choice, I want to know why. And surely I'm not alone in this attitude.
On balance, diversity the genuine article, not the fabricated figures inflicted upon us in its name is a good thing; were I inclined to avoid it, I never would have moved back into the city. Still, the nature of the American melting pot is that sooner or later, preferably sooner, we shed our hyphens and our own personal versions of apartheid and become, well, assimilated. (A pox on the Borg for investing that term with such an unfortunate set of connotations.) The Constitution, after all, begins "We the People"; there are no qualifiers or subdivisions. And by and large, We the People will put up with a heck of a lot, so long as we don't have to pay for it.