Governments ideas on how the relationship between state and society should be structured relies on what they think motivates us as individuals, this in turn will inform government on how to shape the public sector and welfare system. Many of governments ideas on the role of the state in society are reminiscent of past philosophers ideas.
For example ‘Big Society’ is influenced by the ideas of Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is widely seen as providing the philosophical foundations of ‘Big Society’. Burke was a supporter of localism and believed government should allow local discretion and respect for local customs to ensure social change was not the result of top down policies, suggesting if given space society was able to come together to resolve social problems, thus leading to ‘small government’. This belief is arguably shaping governments perceptions of the role of big society in supporting those in need and the governments drive to reduce the public sector.
Philosophy can also be seen in governments’ reform of welfare provision, especially views on who are ‘deserving’ and ‘underserving’ in society. I wonder if Ian Duncan Smith is a fan of John Locke (1632-1704). Locke’s views on poor relief could be government policy. In a memorandum to the Board of Trade, written in 1697, he talks about the rising number of poor and the unacceptable cost of poor relief, suggesting the rise was not due to adverse structural factors but was the result of the characteristics of the poor and failings in their behavior. It’s worth repeating his quote, it could almost appear as an editorial piece in some of our daily papers today
‘If the causes of this evil be looked into, it will be found to have proceeded neither from the scarcity of provisions, nor from want of employment for the poor. The growth of the poor must therefore have some other cause; and it can be nothing else but the relaxation of discipline, and corruption of manners: virtue and industry being as constant companions on the one side as vice and idleness on the other’ (Locke, 1697).
For Locke, since poverty, and reliance on welfare, stemmed from the personal failings of the individual it is obvious to correct the situation the focus needed to be on ‘correcting’ that individual (this was to be achieved via a harsh system of poor relief). Locke did recognize there were different levels of deserving and undeserving, and introduced a third category ‘the semi-deserving’, which broadly equates to those with disabilities today, but he did not write much about what needed to be done to them!
There are many other philosophers whose ideas underpin various political perspectives on the role of the state and society in the provision of welfare, but only one well-known female philosopher, who offers an alternative approach.
Mary Wollstonecrafts’ (1759-1797) writings on poverty are not huge, but very different in tone from her predecessors. Where others such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) saw poverty as the result of individual failure, Wollstonecraft recognized poverty in structural terms, partly as a result of the economic system and discrimination. Whilst others suggested reduction in poor relief would motivate the poor to help themselves, Wollstonecraft suggested people should ‘not be obliged to weigh the consequences of every farthing they spend, they should have sufficient to prevent their attending to a frigid system of economy which narrows both heart and mind’ (1792). Hmmm….
Whilst Wollstonecraft has not received as much attention as other thinkers, her views appeal to me because they were driven by a moral belief which put an ethical approach to care first.
What underpins your thoughts about the role of big society and the state in supporting those in need?
If you would like to read more on the philosophies underpinning approaches to welfare and the role of the state in society see ‘Major Thinkers in Welfare’ by Vic George, it’s a good read.