In a recent opinion piece in the London Daily Telegraph, conservative columnist Mark Steyn warns of the dangers of the welfare state. “Exhibit A” for Steyn, is Susan Moore, from North Yorkshire, whom the Sun has dubbed “Britain’s Laziest Woman”. Ms Moore has been on the Jobseeker’s allowance ever since she dropped out of college in 1988. For the Sun, Susan is just one more example of the moral decline of Britain, a prime example of the undeserving poor. Steyn, however, has a slightly more interesting take on her.
Britain’s hardworking taxpayers oughtn’t to be too outraged by Susan’s behaviour, Steyn points out. In her 16-years on the dole, she has received around £30,000 (about A$72,000) – an average of £2000 ($4800) per annum. Somehow, Susan has managed to live on this tiny amount (with the aid of her mother, who is also a welfare recipient). If Susan is managing to soak the taxpayer, she isn’t doing a very good job of it. If anyone is harmed by her behaviour, Steyn argues, it is not the British taxpayer or the economy: it is Susan herself. “The greatest crime of welfare isn't that it's a waste of money, but that it's a waste of people,” Steyn writes. £40 a week isn’t a great deal of money, certainly not enough for us to envy Susan Moore her life of leisure but it’s just sufficient “to enable her to avoid making anything of her life”.
Steyn is exactly right about the tragedy of unemployment, at least in Western societies with decent welfare systems. The dole is so low that most of those who are forced to live on it (and here I speak from personal experience) are under constant financial stress - worrying about how they will pay the rent, how to meet any unexpected expenses, how to pay for dry cleaning a suit for an interview and so on. But for most people the financial hardships are less significant than the social stigma and the sense of disconnection from the mainstream of the society around them. The relative poverty of being on the dole compounds this problem. It is easier to feel marginalised when you can’t afford to see the movies everyone else sees, buy the clothes and CDs everyone else buys, and so forth.
But more important than lack of money is simply the fact of not having a job. Not to have a job, for most of us, is not to have a purpose in life. It is to have no reason to get up in the morning and few associates outside the circle of immediate family and one or two friends. The unemployed person might, like Susan, try to anaesthetise herself with radio and TV, or perhaps alcohol and cigarettes. But leisure, when that’s all one’s life consists in, is not like leisure when it is a well-earned break from work. If Susan is not profoundly bored by her life, then it can only be that she has succeeded in numbing herself to its tedium. Steyn is right: a life on welfare, with no work or an equivalent (whether it be voluntary charity or study) is a life wasted.
Steyn, of course, wants to abolish what he calls welfarism, to motivate the Susan Moores of this world to work and thereby to make something of their lives. But he’s missing an essential point. The fact is there just isn’t enough work to go around. For every Susan Moore who sponges off the system apparently contentedly, there are at least two other people desperately struggling to find meaningful work. If we forced Susan to work, then maybe – maybe – she would make something of herself. But the cost of such paternalistic measures would be to ensure that more people who really want work would not find it. If Ms. Moore is content to live a life that is poor in more than a merely literal sense, then we should let her. Perhaps we should go further, and actually thank her. By withdrawing from the job market, she raises the probability that others will find work.
We have many reasons to pay those who are out of work a modest income, considerations of justice and concern for our fellow citizens among them. I would like to suggest one more: as a way of subsidising those few who want to, and are prepared to accept the multiply impoverished life that is a consequence, to withdraw from the job market altogether. After all, in liberal societies we shy away from paternalistic measures aimed at forcing people to live decent lives. Instead, we prohibit them from harming others, and others allow them to make what they will of their lives.
The governments of wealthy societies already spend a lot of money on job creation schemes, directly and indirectly (by subsidising employees in various ways, for instance). Direct payments to dole bludgers stack up well against these measures. They are a cost-efficient way of creating work for those who want it. If you have a decent job, perhaps you should thank a dole-bludger.
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