Welfare and self-interest
The perspective that is explored in this chapter starts from the assumption that the overwhelming majority of people will act rationally to better the conditions of themselves and their dependants. It follows from this that the objective of welfare should be to channel this desire for self-improvement in ways which promote the common good. At the heart of this perspective is the belief that the rules and regulations which govern entitlement to benefits and services must reward those activities and attributes which should be encouraged and penalize those which need to be discouraged. If they do not do this then they will lead people to behave in ways which damage themselves and the communities in which they live.
The argument that welfare does indeed generate such 'perverse incentives' is associated most closely with the American conservative Charles Murray. Murray's writings on welfare are examined in this chapter, along with those of the British politician Frank Field.
At first sight the differences between Frank Field's position and that of Charles Murray could scarcely be greater. Whereas Field has sought to restructure welfare provision, Murray would end it for large numbers of poor people. Charles Murray describes himself as an 'authentic radical' whose vision of a severely curtailed role for government in welfare places him firmly 'outside the mainstream of polities'. He does not put forward a list of 'incremental, politically practicable reforms' for the simple reason that he cannot think of any that would do any good (Murray 1996: 91). In contrast, Frank Field has been at the forefront of welfare politics in Britain for 30 years, as a writer, lobbyist and MP, and as Minister for Welfare Reform during the first 15 months of the Blair government. Far from eschewing the details of policy, he has produced blueprints for the reform of almost every facet of the social security system.
These differences are real and important but they are not the whole story.