In the Name of Liberalism: Illiberal Social Policy in the USA and Britain

By Desmond King | Go to book overview

Introduction

IN August 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a welfare reform act mandating workfare for welfare recipients and imposing a lifetime limit of five years for the receipt of benefits. Workfare (under which programmes recipients of income support must undertake a work activity) was introduced in Britain in April 1998 by Tony Blair's New Labour government. In the 1920s and 1930s, eugenic arguments, which defined some individuals as inferior to others and therefore objects for special policies, were widely propagated amongst policy-makers in both the USA and Britain, and in the former country they were legitimated by the Supreme Court. In this study, I investigate examples of such social policies which conflict with liberal democratic precepts by treating some individuals differently from others. My central thesis is that existing accounts of American and British political development neglect how and why illiberal elements are intertwined in the creation of modern liberal democratic institutions and the significance of their being so. Such elements are explicable in terms of the liberal democratic framework itself and thus illustrate paradoxical features of these polities: measures promoted 'in the name of liberalism' permit a surprising variety of social policies. It is an important topic because of the recurrence of such policies throughout the twentieth century.

Government use of social policy to alter society perhaps marks out the twentieth century more distinctively than previous centuries. From the horrific metamorphoses of totalitarian regimes to the terrors of fascism and diluted forms of socialism, the landscape of state intervention is extensive and, in some countries, baneful; as James Scott remarks, 'the idea of a root-and-branch, rational engineering of entire social orders in creating realizable utopias is a largely twentieth-century phenomenon.' 1 The implementation of ambitious social policies which succeed in respecting basic rights of political democracy is not to be taken for granted, especially since even liberal democracies such as the USA and Britain 'became, in the context of war mobilization, directly administered societies'. 2 This rarity makes the experience of successful market democracies especially compelling since they have not been immune to initiatives designed to modify

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1
Scott (1998: 97).
2
Ibid.

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