Solving the Free-rider Mentality
The original intentions of socialism are towards the fair and equitable distribution of a nation’s wealth. The ideals of socialism rose from the social and economic inequalities that free marker and democratic economies foster. Socialism is an ideal, a utopia if you will, but a concept that is difficult to put into effect in the actual world. While on paper, socialism seems very workable, it can very much fall victim to the realities and circumstances of our complex and all too often contradictory world.
Socialism and the concept of social justice and equality succumbed in the hands of tyrants who used Marx’s ideals to impose their own vested interests. Understanding the context with which socialism developed, it is easy to see that its principles and ideals are inherently founded on social justice and human rights, and are therefore very democratic. The conflict lies in the idea that socialism puts limits in potential abuses, and by extension, limits the growth of an individual and his right to self-determination. However, of what does a society stand to gain if all it develops is rampant consumerism and materialism, where there is a great imbalance between the quality of life of the rich and the poor? What does freedom mean in the face of unrelenting poverty? While democracy may provide greater freedoms, the people are chained by their economic capabilities. The sad truth is that in our search for freedom and self-determination, we have forgotten our collective responsibility to the welfare of one another. Capitalism has become a selfish pursuit of personal interests, a reality that socialism aims to temper with a more collective sense of responsibility for the welfare of one another.
An ideal society where everyone is equal in the eyes of the state and where no one will ever be deprived on food, shelter, clothing, education, and heath care. Who does not want such a society? The sad truth is that while socialism seems like a very good idea, its ideals are ruined in the hands of people only too prone to temptations of power and corruption. Socialism cannot stand against the foibles and frailties of the human condition. Once mankind evolves and achieve a level of benevolence and responsibility to another, socialism will no longer be necessary because the abuses that so define capitalism will no longer exist and we will see the ideals of equality realized in this world.
Among the modern proponents of social justice and equality is John Rawls, whose book, A Theory of Justice is a modern take on how to create a more benevolent society within the realities of a contemporary world. As Marx’s opus was written in reaction to a world on the verge of an industrial revolution, Rawls’ book was written in order to counter the concept of Bentham’s and Mill’s Utilitarianism which measures the value of a person or object based on how useful they are. From this, social justice exists when states are able to provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people. For Rawls, happiness for the maximum number of people should not inform a just society. Rather, justice itself should inform all moral and legal decisions of individual, societies and governments. This justice inhabits all aspects of civilization and should be the priority of states and governments: to provide justice to every individual, and not just pursue “happiness” or practical usefulness. Fairness of social equality is the ultimate test of a just society. (Rawls 4) He has tried to apply socialist philosophies within capitalist realities. The idea is that with proper organization and leadership, it is possible for capitalism to become more socialist in terms of providing social justice to all of its citizens.
Welfare and Social Justice
It was very well be said that Rawls ideas find manifestation in the welfare state. The concept of a welfare society is based on the idea that all citizens have the right to a life of dignity and welfare, and that such right is the state’s duty to uphold and protect (Morrison 94). A welfare society endeavors to create a society where all citizens have access to basic needs such as education and health, and where the government acts as a conduit with which these services are thus provided (Galbraith 176). While the intentions of a welfare state are noble and commendable, such does not find easy application in the complexities of the real world. (Rawls 23)
Social and welfare services are based upon the reality that societies are stratified in terms of wealth, power, and prestige. The role of social work is it to transcend and bridge these inequalities and make social and economic justice available to all. Much of the goals of social services and welfare systems focus on reconciling these social classes and exploring solutions to bridge the gap between the quality of life between the rich and the poor, and other disadvantaged groups such as minorities, women, and children. The steady widening of the wealth gap between upper and lower class creates social inequalities and class struggles. In order to equalize this gap, developed countries provide access to the state’s wealth through social services. Through socialized welfare, citizens are given access to various types of social assistance that they need to secure and maintain a certain quality of life. The imbalance or inequalities created by social classes is mainly a function of who has access to better opportunities. This stratification creates an imbalance and where the powers vacillate between the hands of the very few who have the money and the influence and in the hands of the working class, who exert power by virtue of their great numbers.
The ideals of welfare is based upon the recognition that given proper help and access to opportunities, individuals can empower themselves and become more productive citizens, in spite of enduring social inequalities. Social services work among the most marginalized in society in order to help them function better within their respective communities. Welfare and socialized services are firmly anchored upon economic and political realities and cannot isolate itself from such conditions.
Brief History of Welfare
Social welfare began during the Great Depression under the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The country that elected Franklin Roosevelt was a broken nation, with over ten million people unemployed and starving. Faced with the prospect of a hungry and restless nation, FDR realized that such desperate times called for desperate measures. FDR’s “First 100 Days” as US president were spent convening the Congress to a special session to pass sweeping and radical reforms meant to help the economy recover. His “New Deal” was a series of legislative and executive measures meant to channel the country’s meager funds to the sectors that needed them the most. Military spending was slashed significantly, along with pensions of veterans and their widows. FDR also cut the subsidy for scientific research and education, knowing that some sacrifices must be made in order to address the pressing issues of widespread poverty and hunger.
In 1941 the economist William Beveridge was commissioned to make recommendations as to what reforms can be done to hasten the country’s recovery from the war. A year later, after the Allied victory in Europe, Beveridge released his papers on social services and other welfare programmes. The Report to the Parliament on Social Insurance and Allied Services came to be known as the Beveridge Report and became the basis for the United Kingdom’s adoption of a welfare state system. (Devine 34) Among the most important recommendations of this paper was the establishment of a social security programme where citizens would be giving certain amount of their income to a national insurance system. The regular contributions will then be used to as a revolving and self-perpetuating funding system that will provide sickness, retirement, and death benefits to the members and their beneficiaries. (Devine 48)
Beveridge’s ideas came at an opportune time when the world, suffering from the wounds or war, was looking to find genuine reforms that would promote social justice and equitable distribution of wealth. (Devine 12) His vision of a society where everyone contributed to the welfare of one another is indeed a vision worth realizing. The government of the United Kingdom adopted Beveridge’s recommendations and began laying the ground for its enforcement on a nationwide level. Thus, soon after World War II, the United Kingdom became the world’s first modern welfare state.
Much of the inequalities and the need for welfare are a function of social classes. In the welfare state of the United Kingdom and the United States, such classes still exist, but they are not absolute. This means that while all Americans and Britons are born into a particular social class, they are not necessarily bound to it for the rest of their lives. Through a combination of hard work, determination, and some luck, anyone can ascend the social ladder and leave a legacy of a better life for their descendants. Of course much of this depends on the resolve of the individual to create a better life than the one he has been born into. This hierarchical structure of class creates a cycle that perpetuates itself, creating social justice issues like inequality and poverty. In a modern and sophisticated democracy, the people are not as equal and free as it seems. The irony is that very idea of a democracy where everyone is free to pursue their own aspirations creates a society that is highly stratified and asymmetrical. This is what Rawls acknowledges and aspires to work around instead of against.
Social classes are particularly evident in some areas than in others. In education, people from the elite class are able to send their children to private schools, hardly anyone of them go to the public education system. Thereafter, they then go to prestigious schools to pursue a college degree. For the elite, this path is pretty much the same for everyone. Their good education enables them to land high-ranking jobs. The ability to afford quality education is perhaps one of the most striking differences between the upper class and the rest of society. For the middle class, college must be planned for well in advance. It means that while the children are going to school, their parents may have been saving for college if there is something left after the monthly expenses. Basically the middle class and the lower class live on a per-income basis. They cannot make plans beyond their monthly income and expenses. Because college is very expensive, they may resort to student loans or work their way to a college degree. This access to better education is the reason why the affluent are able to create more wealth for themselves.
Abuses of Welfare
Under its original intentions, Rawls and the welfare system also advocated for providing social insurance to the unemployed. But this has since changed because unemployment benefits have proven to create indolence and dependency among the citizens. The success of any social security system is intimately tied to the availability of jobs available to the people. However, if social security provided subsidies to the unemployed and their families, then people will no longer have the impetus to work because they will be provided for by the state. Marxists view the social security and the welfare state as a logical result of the free market economy and the social injustices that it bred. Welfare, as it exists in developed countries was not designed to treat poverty; rather it aims to redistribute income in ways that benefit the every citizen in the country. The government acts as the medium in which this income is redistributed, making sure that everyone receives their fair share. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that a welfare system creates indolence and dependence among its citizens. If people knew that their government would provide for them whether they work or not, then the motivation to work and improve one’s lot in life is lost. Rawls concept of justice and a fair society is lost when people are not empowered. (Rawls 91)
The main thrust of current reforms is to structure welfare within the framework of a free-market driven economy. By changing funding and entitlement policies, the goal is to motivate citizens to contribute to welfare and not just depend on government to provide it. Instead of a universally available system, welfare must be modified, creating gradations in entitlements that would determine how much a person should receive. Now we are seeing that welfare, while noble in its intentions can perpetuate a culture of reliance and must be changed in order to make the shift from state-reliance to self-reliance. Among the most important changes include a gradual shift that will classify those who are able to work and those who cannot. Support for those who cannot work will come in the form of an incapacity benefit. For those who can work, the governments must seek to provide viable employment, with benefits dependent on results. People who can work are given a grace period of two to three years to secure employment; if they don’t, they stand to lose their benefits. To distinguish those who can work from those who cannot, a system of assessment will be instituted making sure that benefits are given to those who truly deserve it.
All over the world there seems to be a trend towards the restructuring of the welfare state as we know it so as to prevent the free-riders from abusing the system and from taking away services to those who truly deserve it. It is too early to say whether the welfare reforms initiated by the Conservatives have been successful or not. These things take time to tell. There is no instant solution to indigence, and the fact remains that poverty continues to be a big problem all around the world. Rawls’ concept of justice will only work if the welfare designed to distribute justice in society also distributes the ability to work for one’s betterment in life. Providing welfare at the cost of creating an indolent society of free riders is not justice at all.
Devine, Fiona. Social Class in America and Britain, 4th ed. Edinburgh University Press. 1997.
Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Affluent Society. Houghton Mifflin Books. 1998.
Morrison, Kenneth. Marx, Durkheim, Weber: Formations of Modern Social Thought, Pine Forge Press. 2006.
Rawls, John. A theory of justice. Harvard University Press. 2005.