Libertarians do not consider the welfare state to be a desirable end goal for society. The common feature in pretty much all their arguments is that an authoritarian model for welfare based on forcibly removing money from the people via taxation and offering some of it back to them as if it's a privilege is unacceptable.
Right wing libertarians add their own flavour to this critique; not only is there something fundamentally wrong with the system but it also encourages poor people to remain poor by enticing them into dependency.
Contrary to the ridiculous assumption of people like Ayn Rand, the state is not a not simply a way for poor people to gang up on the rich and demand that they give them money! Libertarians armed with some context for their beliefs and an, at least vaguely, realistic social analysis know that the state is a predator, the armed wing of the 1% who hoard the earth's resources at the expense of everyone else. The truth of points 1 and 2 as to why left-libertarians are unhappy with the welfare state as an end goal for society I don't wish to question, I affirm them completely but in this article I will be focusing on point 3. I will demonstrate how in the UK welfare provision has historically, and still today, been used as a stick to beat the working class or more accurately to drive the working class around like cattle. I'm calling this weaponised welfare.
The recipe for weaponised welfare goes like this (note: this should only be attempted by people who have a monopoly on the use of force, if you don't have this or don't know what it is ask your government for help).
- First you intervene in society and in the market to restrict people's ability to provide for themselves and force most people into wage labour contracts as a means to survive.
- Add in high rates of unemployment. Once step one has been completed you then mix in a high minimum wage, this will ensure that people whose labour is worth less than it, will not be hired. For best results also create spurious mandatory entry barriers into a wide range of professions making it very difficult to retrain if workers are made redundant.
- You will now have a bowl full of anxious wage slaves who know that renting themselves out to capitalists is the only realistic option they have to gain access to the resources they need to survive but who live in fear of becoming obsolete to the capitalist, getting sick and not being able to work or even just growing old and having no one around to help them.
- You are now in a position to make them jump through hoops to be eligible for a basic welfare system that you have forced them to pay for. For a final touch add in some hate filled propaganda accusing those who have to rely on the welfare system of being feckless idiots and some cruel austerity measures and you have weaponised welfare!
Nothing falls out of the sky so the first thing to do is try to get some context. This will mean taking a very brief look at some of the history of 'poor laws' and other welfare provision in English history.
Early poor laws
It was a little easier to see the real motives behind the earliest poor laws: The Statute of Cambridge enacted in 1388, for example was one of the first. The Black Death had struck in force 40 years earlier killing off around 50% of the population and the poor were hit disproportionately badly. This put the survivors in a position of unusual power. There were not enough people to work the land of the feudal lords meaning the peasants were starting to be able to demand higher wages, demand for their work outweighed the supply. People were moving around the countryside looking for the best deals. In the decades prior to the act attempts had been made to fix wages at pre-plague levels, but they were failing, undermined by the facts of the situation and by competition driving wages up. The peasants revolt just a few years before in 1381 was, in part, a display of resistance to these attempts. The solution; the Statute simply put restrictions on the movements of the peasants. Without freedom of movement they had to accept the wages of whatever their local landowner was offering, punishment for breaching the new law was initially to be put in the stocks, a few centuries later it was execution for a third offence. The elite have always found it difficult to enact laws that are transparent about their true intentions so, familiarly, they tried to set the people against each other. The focus of the law was beggars and vagrants, since the rudimentary welfare that was on offer at the time was offered on a completely ad-hoc localised basis the people were told that the law was a good thing; this way they wouldn't have beggars from other towns coming in trying to take advantage of their generosity! Familiar?
The Elizabethan poor law and it's subsequent refinements
In 1601 the infamous Elizabethan poor laws brought in a more formal uniform system but local parishes were still responsible for meeting the costs. It also introduced the workhouse. Poor people who could not find work were given it in the form of the workhouse, those who were considered to be in refusal of work were whipped instead.
In 1662 the act of settlement amending this was enacted formalising the way in which it could be decided which parish was required to support you if you were in need. Later this again was tightened to make it possible to prevent people even entering a parish they weren't originally from. Needless to say those people paying their wages were still very happy with these laws.
During the industrial revolution these laws became unsuitable, the elite now needed the people out of the countryside, the countryside was needed for sheep and the people were now needed to labour in their factories in the cities. These acts were amended and changed and by the early 20th century they were scrapped altogether. The entire poor law system was finally replaced with the National Assistance Act of 1948.
The situation today
The National Assistance act brought in a much more comprehensive system of welfare. Local area connection criteria and attempts to differentiate between the deserving and undeserving poor have remained though and these, just like in the past are still used to the advantage of the elite.
Housing and homelessness
Housing is a basic need, shelter, especially in a climate like that of the UK, is essential. Many people die without it. The average age of death for homeless people in the UK is 47 years old (a similar level to some of the poorest sub-Saharan African countries), other factors inevitably contribute to many homeless people's early demise but lack of housing is clearly the common factor in all cases. Those who can control access to housing therefore have a significant amount of power over the people.
In the past feudal lords who owned the land had control of the housing. Now access to housing for the poor is controlled by the local authority. House prices in the UK are artificially extremely high. There are two main reasons for this; the first are planning laws severely restricting where new homes can be built and which also bumps up the cost of land which is eligible for house building. The second is that in recent decades banks have created hundred of billions of pounds worth of new money and pumped a large proportion of it directly into property (when banks make a loan the money is created out of thin air and most big loans are for mortgages) this inevitably has led to spiralling prices. Rising house prices is a good thing for property developers, estate agents and wealthier older people who own their own homes, not so good for everyone else. Housing costs now eat up about 50% of people's take home salaries, in London it can go to over 60%. This isn't just mortgage repayments for those who can afford to buy, when prices rise rent rises with them.
Without some kind of alternative provision millions of people would be priced out of the market for shelter completely. Whether they personally give a crap about that or not is unknown but what is known is that capitalists and the political elite don't like to risk revolution. A system causing millions of people to become homeless would invite it. The solution has been social housing (although the amount available has dropped as market prices have rocketed in the last three decades). Social housing is priced at below market rate (not to be confused with freed market rate!) for those on lower incomes and the unemployed. It is access to this that local authorities have control over and in 2011 the localism act gave them a lot more control over it. Prior to this there was a national standard that people had to have remained in an area for 6 months to establish a "local connection" to that area (which itself would have seemed a little harsh to those only having to stay for 40 days in Elizabethan times). There are now councils, such as Hillingdon in west London, who expect people to have lived in an area for 10 years before they are eligible for any help. The justifications for these rules is the same as it has always been, to prevent outsiders from coming to a local area and benefiting from the help available. The actual impact it has? Well if you are one of the millions who now have to either take social housing or live on the streets moving to another area to look for work or better wages is a lot less of an option.
|This housing option may be available to you|
The above is how you control people with the carrot, but the current system is no less afraid to use the stick than previous ones were. A new programme of 'assertive outreach' has local councils, the police and third party agencies who win contracts from the government out looking for homeless people who are outside of their 'local area' and attempting to drive them out. Tactics include waking them up at night as they try to sleep, confiscating their meagre possessions (including tents and sleeping bags in some famous cases) and trying to manipulate them into moving on. On paper this is a system to try to make sure that the local authority responsible for helping the homeless person is the one doing the helping. In practice this is social cleansing, the transitory nature of homeless people often means that they aren't anywhere long enough to establish a local connection or even if they are they can't prove it. Groups responsible for town centre management simply want them out, squatting in empty residential properties is now a criminal offence and police are being encouraged to use harsher tactics to get rid of them.
The 'able bodied poor' in medieval times were expected to work, and were put to work in a workhouse if there was no alternative. Here they worked simply for their right to shelter and sustenance. Today's equivalents to the workhouse aren't hard to spot. Long term unemployed people, often trapped in economically depressed areas, (prevented from moving on to look for work by the impossibility of finding accommodation they can afford and their ineligibility for social housing outside their local area), are usually in receipt of 'Job seekers allowance' benefits. Since April this year many will be expected to work for 30 hours a week for 26 weeks in order to keep their benefits. A group opposing workfare 'boycott workfare' have listed 8 of these schemes nationally:
They have also identified a number of large corporations who are taking people on these schemes as free labour. These include high street shops like Argos, Primark, WH Smith and Tesco who "accidentally" advertised permanent positions for people to work for free and live on state benefits. For many working people, who are constantly berated with headlines about lazy people claiming thousands of pounds of benefits and hearing language about 'scroungers and strivers' from politicians, it can be confusing as to why sensible people would be so opposed to workfare. There are good reasons to be opposed:
1. The current system creates and maintains artificially high unemployment.
2. Companies are making a profit from free labour.
3. Companies are filling roles which otherwise would have required a paid employees to fill them but which can now be filed with someone who works for free.
We are also seeing a resurgence in penal labour in the UK, the government want to increase the number of people who work from behind bars from 10,000 to 20,000 by 2020. Why? Again, a captive population who can be paid a tiny fraction of what they would get in a freer market making big profits for capitalists and doing work that could be done by paid employees instead.
The conclusion is simple and brief. We aren't fully there yet but the direction of travel is towards a society where the poor are generally confined to the area where they have a "local connection", where the social cleansing of homeless people is completed, where more and more positions in the lower ranks of government and mundane work for large corporations is done by people who are being forced to either work for free or face total destitution. Significant gains have been made towards such a society and more will come. Contrary to rhetoric free markets have not caused this, in fact free markets would destroy all of this.
Remember the only tangible limit to government is what people are willing to put up with.
- http://c4ss.org/content/25553 - The Progressive Welfare State Fantasy (article) - Kevin Carson
- http://www.boycottworkfare.org/ - The website for the group Boycott welfare
- http://www.crisis.org.uk/data/files/publications/Homelessness%20kills%20-%20Executive%20Summary.pdf - report into homelessness in the UK