Does the Welfare State corrupt?

One of the favourite arguments against social provision is that it corrupts the receiver by making them dependent and ultimately damages society by significantly reducing initiative and making people selfish. The facts do not bear this out as a general proposition although naturally  there will always be some free riders in a welfare state. Today we have a society in which the self-help gospel is constantly preached, people work longer and longer hours and most mothers work at least part time. This has produced a society in which the birthrate has dropped well below replacement rate. During the period when state provision was most heartily endorsed as part of the national furniture (1945-1979) the birthrate was above replacement rate. The ability and willingness to breed is surely the ultimate indicator of the health of a society.

But that is not to say all social provision is benign. It is one thing for a society to provide those things which most cannot be reasonably be expected to provide for themselves, but quite another to build dependency into the system. That is what has happened in Britain where more than half the population now draw some sort of public monetary support. Some of those benefits are part of the legitimate armoury of social provision, for example, child benefit, unemployment benefit, sickness benefit and old age pensions. Others are not.

The most pernicious of the current benefits is Working Families Tax Credit, which can be drawn by families with a household income of over £50,000. This is a scheme in a long line of similar ones dating back to the old Poor Law of 1601. It is the granting of state money to those in work. The best known Poor Law example was the Speenhamland System  of the 18th century which allowed outdoor relief to those (primarily agricultural labourers) whose wages fell below a certain level. The result was predictable. Where the scheme operated employers dropped the wages they paid to the level where the Parish (which administered the  Poor Law) made up the wages through outdoor relief to those whose wages were lowered.

The Speenhamland System was a subsidy to employers. So is the Working Families Tax Credit. All it results in is employers paying lower wages. That is not because they are all evil grasping men or women.

Lower wages are forced on all employers because there will always be a substantial number of employers who will take advantage of opportunity offered by any government subsidy to lower their wages. That means all employers must do so to compete.

Apart from the fact that it siphons off  large amounts of taxpayers money, Working Families Tax Credit is a pernicious form of subsidy because it makes employers who employ many low wage workers dependent on its continuance, which obviously cannot be guaranteed. Either a future British Government may decide to abolish it of their own free will or tax harmonisation within the EU may force them to do so.

If it is abolished, such companies will be left stranded because they will have to pay higher wages. Moreover, the subsidy they are receiving now will cause them to be less efficient than they would have been without it. On the other side of the employment coin, families receiving the benefit will also be left high and dry if it ends, for they will have altered their lives according to the income they have received. 

This type of structural dependency has evil effects beyond the economic because it can distort the democratic process. If sufficient people become dependent on a benefit such as tax credits they may make it next to impossible for any party wishing to be elected to propose its abolition because to have such a policy will drive anyone in receipt of the benefit to another party which supports its continuance.

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Comments

  • efgd  On March 9, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    I thought the Working Families Tax Credit was introduced because of low pay. So the employers were paying low pay in the first place. The Working Families Tax Credit might have made this more acceptable for those employers and new employers obviously jumped on the band wagon, who would not? Question is, without making people worse off again what can be done?

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