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

By Desmond King | Go to book overview

Introduction

THE two chapters in this section examine one of the oldest issues in social policy: programmes to alleviate the plight of the unemployed or, in an older period, of paupers. Alarm about poverty, unemployment, and malingerers paralleled the diffusion of industrial capitalism. Such problems exposed weaknesses in market forces and prompted a variety of government responses, mostly centred upon ways to improve the participation of these unemployed individuals by modifying the incentives stimulating or preventing their entering the labour market. Policies for the unemployed have consistently taken a social engineering form: that is, they have attempted to modify the behaviour of individuals or to direct their activities and they have frequently been advanced on a strong evidential basis. Thus the New Poor Law, the ideas of scientific charity and twentieth‐ century workfare measures all aim to change the behaviour of the unemployed and welfare recipients (as do companion schemes such as penalizing single mothers who have children while receiving public benefits). The most common mechanism, historically, is to make life on benefits unattractive. These schemes have been advanced for a variety of reasons. A constant theme is how obligations fall upon welfare recipients as a consequence of the contractualism at the core of liberal democracy. The state's commitment to the poor or unemployed (most recently articulated as the social rights of citizenship) carries with it duties and obligations, falling upon the supplicant. Historically, obligations were the more dominant aspect: social rights are a twentieth-century invention (though one consistent with a basic definition of liberalism) and recent policies are marked by a return to the obligations side of the contract.

As Chapters 7 and 8 demonstrate, modern workfare schemes have their historical origins in nineteenth-century debates and policies. This historical embeddedness is conveyed by two examples, the first drawn from the Poor Law Commission preceding the 1834 reform which pronounced that 'in proportion as the condition of any pauper class is elevated above the condition of independent labourers, the condition of the independent class is depressed ... The converse is the effect when the pauper class is placed in its proper position below the condition of the independent labourer. Every penny bestowed, that tends to render the condition of the pauper

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