Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Social Insecurity

Welfare is a huge issue in the US and the UK and I think genetics can help us understand it a bit better.

In general, welfare policies are informed by two different theories. The first is associated with the political right and had its genesis in economics. The idea is that if you get the incentives right, hearts and minds will follow. According to this theory, people make rational choices about what is best for them. If staying of welfare pays then that is what they do. If having a multitude of babies out of wedlock means a cascade of welfare payments, then they get breeding. The right concern themselves with removing the poverty trap where people find that there is no short term way to improve their condition without also worsening their cash flow as the benefits are withdrawn.

Their solution is to create a welfare environment where work and stable families pay. If you withdraw benefits from the lazy, eliminate the poverty trap and put a time limit on how long welfare is payable for, then you encourage people to get on their bikes and find work. You have to keep benefits sufficiently low so that no one in their right mind would be content to live on them. As I have said, these solutions are generally favoured by the political right. They assume that environment is the key and that you can encourage families to stay together through welfare policies. They also assume that stable families cause better lifetime outcomes for the offspring. Furthermore, they assume that people on welfare are quite capable of doing a job where they are paid more than the state is willing to provide.

Many on the left disagree. They say that people do not choose to be on welfare and that those who claim benefits have little choice in the matter. They are not making rational decisions and are not capable of just getting up and finding a job. Girls are not deliberately getting pregnant for material gain or to obtain social housing. The people whose welfare is withdrawn when they don’t find work are precisely the most vulnerable who need help from the rest of society. Clearly, the left reject the idea that people are moulded by their environment and believe that welfare payments should be made on the basis that the recipients cannot help themselves get out of the situation they are in.

So nature versus nurture matters. What’s more, the battle lines are not always drawn where we expect them. In welfare policy, it is the political right who are the nurturists and the left who are the nativists. Who is correct?

On the most basic level, I think the left have the best understanding of the issue. I take it as axiomatic that we must help the less fortunate and cannot leave people destitute. Furthermore, welfare cannot be set at such a low level that it leaves those on benefits without any of the comforts we take for granted. But if we are as generous with benefits as we should be, that inevitably makes them attractive to freeloaders who could be working. Over the years, the number of people who should not be on benefits but have decided it is an easy option has increased markedly. This means that right wing policies do have an effect of reducing the number of social security recipients, but at enormous cost to the core of claimants who have no choice but to stay at the bottom of the pile. The only solution I can see is to try and finely balance welfare policy to minimise the number of scroungers while maximising the benefits available to the needy. We must also accept that some people will always need our help and that a zero welfare policy is not acceptable in a civilised society.

I would also suggest that a lack of appreciation for the genetic roots of human behaviour has meant both left and right are approaching the problem too simplistically.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

6 comments:

Greenwood said...

That's not a solution, that's a description of what we'd like a solution to achieve. Its reminiscent of those sports broadcasters, who will solemnly announce that Team X needs to adopt a strategy for this game of outscoring the other team.

James said...

"What England need are a couple of quick wickets."

You are right Greenwood, I have not proposed a solution, just rubbished the alternatives. More thought required...

Chris said...

umm..food for thought!!! hahaha! food..see my blog and then you will see the joke re not eating and all that.....
I suppsoe it depends which side of the seriously ill fence you are sitting on and this side is not always that much fun...nor is it for those who are linked on my blog...take a look for eg at the young cancer patient Hayley and myself as somebody with a progressive condition and then pray for us rather than condem maybe? Thanks Chris

James said...

Hi Chris. Sorry, but I don't understand your comment.

upfromtheapes said...

I don't understand the connection Mr. Hannam wishes to make between the "genetic roots of human behaviour" and those who are on welfare, or at least how we, on both the left and right, should take such roots into consideration in our approaches to solving the welfare issue. Would Mr. Hannam, or someone else who reads this blog who has more insight into his theories than I do, please elaborate on this comment? Thanks!

James said...

Hi there,

I am just saying that there are some people who are on welfare who cannot be weened off, only helped to make ends meet. Others can be encouraged to look after themselves. Genetics means that there will always be some left behind.