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Liberty, Equality, Fraternity ... and welfare

How do the political camps map their favourite welfare policies onto political values? A report from the Ax:son Johnson Foundation seminar on the future of the welfare state

Are we all Rawlsians now? Not quite.

When I sat down to chair an afternoon seminar on the welfare state organised by Bella Thomas for the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, I equipped myself with a bingo card. Against each of the speakers, I had six columns: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Left, Right and Rawlsian" and I made a few predictions about what the grille would like by the end of the day (no one likes to be boxed in, so I've rubbed out my ticks in the screenshot below). 

welfare bingo

My first hypothesis is that we're all Rawlsians now. My prediction was that almost everyone, left or right, centrist or hard, would accept that inequalities may be OK, but they need to be justified in terms of being good for the least well-off (... with the Rawlsian proviso, emphasised during the seminar by Nick Pierce from the IPPR, that liberty is a special political good protected from the horse-trading of any welfare calculation). There are a huge number of highly contentious and divisive questions lurking under the broad Rawlsian tent, but I reckoned that to be outside it is a pretty lonely business.

My second hypothesis was that left/right positions on the welfare state map onto the founding political virtues of the Enlightenment republic - Liberty, Equality and Fraternity - mostly as one would expect, but that the most interesting and contested area would be the interplay of welfare and Fraternity: how does our sense of commonality today affect redistribution and vice versa? The Mainstream Right wants less welfare and appeals to Liberty (the negative liberty of the "haves" and the supposed threatened agency of the "have nots"); the Mainstream Left wants more welfare and appeals to equality. There are "off-mainstream" views in both political camps. And there is some thinking about fraternity both in those wanting more and those wanting less welfare.

Most European states spend between 20% and 30% of GDP on welfare, with the UK somewhere at the lower end of that. Welfare spending covers a very broad range of activities, from insurance-style expenditures (unemployment, health, disability) to various types of income support measures including the increasingly important top-ups to low wages (like housing benefit and tax credits in the UK). The definition is contested - some people would add most of education in welfare and there's some argument about what sorts of pensions are in or out.

One of the most striking of many charts presented was this one from Alison Garnham, from the Child Policy Action Group.

The higher point shows what child poverty levels would be in the absence of corrective redistributive policy; the lower point shows how much child poverty has been reduced by policy. (The Greek point is particularly puzzling - welfare spending has made the society less equal. Disfunctional state? A perverse effect of austerity? I don't know. The source publication appears to be this one.).

The distance between the two points is therefore the amount of work that the welfare state is being called on to do. In a society that was ex ante equal, the welfare state would have withered away. the UK and Ireland, the two most marketised of the countries shown, are also the countries in which the welfare state has to do most work.

There is a potential unsustainability here: the more we believe in the rightness of the logic of the market, the less we are prepared to redistribute because market logic crowds out solidarity logic; and yet the more we may have to in order to produce acceptable (and socially stable) outcomes.

The Rawlsian consensus

I was almost right about the Rawlsian consensus on this big chunk of government spending. There were really only two speakers who, in my view, did not conform to it: Sheila Lawlor and James Bartholomew. And even Lawlor was border-line. I took Lawlor's position to be that the state has a duty to provide for those in need but that beyond that inequalities were of no political consequence; and Bartholomew enthusiastically rejected any charge of Rawlsianism even though his diatribe was against the effectiveness of welfare spending rather than its principles.

Another partial exception was Richard Wilkinson, co-author of "The Spirit Level", whose views are certainly egalitarian but who was non-Rawlsian to the extent that the thrust of his argument is that everyone is made better off by more equality, and not simply the obvious beneficiaries of redistribution. We suffer less status anxiety and related mental and physical ailments where equality is cherished. His arguemnts, in other words, might satisfy a straight-forward utilitarian who put no particular store on equality. I find the argument attractive. But by making equality such a strong good, it downplays its interdependence on liberty and fraternity.   

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

My French Revolution bingo grille fared pretty well, too. The mainstream right tends to want less welfare state and appeals to "taking human agency seriously" and "empowerment" (Liberty) in justifying it; the mainstream left tends to want more and appeals to "fairness" (Equality) in its justification. Since both liberty and equality are so clearly political goods, there are minority currents in each political camp that appeal to a different value. So, for example, Stuart Waiton from what one might shorthand as the "Spiked left" wants individuals and communities to seize control of their fates against a state that he does not consider to be very legitimate. His appeal is to autonomy (Liberty) more than Equality.

You might think that attachment to values could trump left/right divisions, but that would be to underestimate the passions in political families. Danny Kruger, thinker of the Big Society and founder of OnlyConect, from what one might call the "Nice Right" extended an invitation to the left to accept his localist, preventative, empowering vision for better welfare. Stuart Waiton's rejection came rapidly in the form of deep skepticism at the word "empowerment". You might have thought that autonomy and empowerment were all in the sphere of Liberty ... but no ... "empowerment" is necessarily, in Waiton's view, especially in the context of government policy, something that is done to people, or for their own good. It is not done by them, and hence the paradox of power: it can only be seized, not given. These are well-rehearsed positions and difficulties.

The refreshing part of the disucssion came from considerations of Fraternity (or, in less Eighteenth Century & genderist garb, "Solidarity"). Nick Pierce argued (as he did here, on oD) that maintaining visceral support for the welfare state makes a difference to how you design welfare policy. So the sustainability of welfare affects the shape it should take. And in this observation we may have an answer to the apparent mystery that my two non-Rawlsians did not argue against welfare itself, but rather for aparently technocratic reorganisations of its delivery mechanisms.

Of course, the other possible explanation is that however un-Rawlsian you are, you probably don't want to admit to it, especially not in election periods. The sheer scale of the un-Rawlsiness of the Tory/LibDem government's welfare changes was made in another striking chart from Alison Garnham.

The changes to benefits and tax in the last 5 years have benefited the top half of the income distribution (except for the very top 5% - PR scapegoats, perhaps). You need a lot of talk of the disempowering impacts of welfare to make that look like nice policy.

Lars Tragardh argued (as he has previously here, on oD) that even in Scandinavian welfare heaven, both the left and the right face a new challenge in maintaining the basis of solidarity: for the right, the siren-calls of jet-setting globalised individualism will have to be resisted, while the left will have to find a place for a visceral attachment to the nation within a vision of universal (or at least European) Human Rights. As Per Mouritsen pointed out, immigration (and even the so-called clash of civilisations) has entered the welfare state policy debate through the question of Fraternity. He sought, but found no evidence in Scandinavia, for David Goodhart's claim that more migration undermines support for the welfare state. But still, Tragardh's point holds: the left's natural universalism needs to understand not only the agency of nations, but the importance of the visceral in sustaining that agency; the right's ideological (and relatively recent) hyper-individualism must contend with its inadequacy to explain, and therefore ultimately to sustain, collective political agency. And without collective agency to defend the state that defends the liberties that it holds dear - especially the liberty to dispose of property - it has no long term future. Hence the need even for the foot-loose jet-setting internationalists to think about solidarity and the nation.

Policy has tussled with Liberty and Equality for many years. But what is encouraging in the modern debate about welfare is that the dependence of both on Fraternity is now recognised. This can be thought of as a triumph of politics over policy: how we do is more foundational than what we do. 

About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at

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