Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

A quick ramble around the topics of unemployment, welfare, surf carnivals and liberty

By Gummo Trotsky - posted Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Back in my married days, we had a next door neighbour who really was a Trotskyite - well an SWP member, which is pretty much the same thing. We once had a discussion over the front fence about work - she believed that society had an obligation to provide a job for everyone - and if it couldn’t be provided by the private sector, it ought to be provided by the government.

After we extricated ourselves from the discussion, the ex and I wandered down the hall to the lounge, talking the subject over between ourselves. We concluded that she’d got it all wrong - that what society (if it exists, of course - naively I tend to assume it does, because I see so much of it around me and a lot of people who profess to speak on its behalf are extremely fond of telling me that I have certain obligations to it) owed its citizens or subjects at all, was at least some basic income that met their subsistence needs so that they could get on with life.

Our attitudes, obviously (so much so that you can see the arterial spray), were influenced by our personal histories and circumstances. I was doing alright as a contracted programmer - to the point where I wouldn’t bother to register for the dole between gigs, because they had this dumb rule that you had to be looking for permanent full-time employment to qualify. I’d played that game of soldiers, gone over the hill and be damned if I was going back.


Things were much the same with the ex. Neither of us wanted to live in some socialist paradise where we would find ourselves, perforce, constrained to be wage slaves of either private enterprise or the state. The whole idea had a slightly Stalinist ring to it.

Over at Club Troppo, Don Arthur finds it odd that Mark Bahnisch supports Jason Soon’s call, at Catallaxy, for a less paternalistic welfare system. I find it a bit odd to be on Jason’s “side” in this discussion - so far at least - but blogging does make strange bedfellows.

Here’s another odd thing - it seems that the conservatives or whatever they are who support so-called Mutual Obligation for dole recipients - sorry, dole bludgers - and other welfare cases have one thing in common with my long-lost SWP neighbour; they’re fixated on the idea that the only way to be a productive, useful member of society is to have a job. And that conspicuous failure to look for one is, in some way, a breach of the social contract (although if society doesn’t exist, there’s no such thing as a social contract either). The difference, if any, between my neighbour’s position and theirs is that she saw the breach as being on society’s side of the contract; Mutual Obligation buffs place it on the individual’s side.

At Club Troppo, after chiding Jason Soon and Don Arthur for misreading his position, Saunders invokes (or re-invokes) the norm of reciprocity to justify Mutual Obligation, pointing to:

… the central importance in all human societies of the principle that if you are given something, you are expected to give something in return. One example of this is pocket money for tasks. Another is exchange of presents at Christmas time. A third is mutual obligation in welfare …

Now that’s as fine an “it weren’t me guv, nah never” as I’ve seen in some time. Saunders argument continues (taking it up to Mark Bahnisch):


But mutual obligation is no more an application of a family norm than it is of a Christmas norm. So let us please knock this family metaphor discussion on the head.

It is only by appreciating the importance of the norm of reciprocity in all human societies that we can see why Mark is so wrong when he writes: “If people choose to write novels or surf all day on a guaranteed minimum income, I for one, don’t care. I strongly suspect most wouldn’t.” But I assure you, most would, because it offends our fundamental sense of fairness, grounded in the norm of reciprocity [my emphasis].

Libertarians of all people should be alert to this, given their (justifiable) concerns about governments abusing their monopoly coercive powers. How could libertarians possibly therefore be happy with a proposal that the power of the state should be used to forcibly extract money from those who have established an entitlement to it (in Nozick’s sense) in order to hand it to people who not only have no entitlement to it, but have no pressing need for it either (in that they could be working to support themselves rather than surfing)?

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

First published in Larvatus Prodeo on September 10, 2006. It is republished as part of "Best Blogs of 2006" a feature in collaboration with Club Troppo, and edited by Ken Parish, Nicholas Gruen et al.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

2 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Gummo Trotsky, owner of Australia’s greatest wasted intellect, first dipped his toe into the waters of the blogosphere - as a commenter and using his real name - in October 2002. He very quickly decided that it would be prudent to adopt a pseudonym for further online discussion.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Gummo Trotsky

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 2 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy