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. 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)?
Whether or not the chagrin, anger or sometimes outright fury at the idea that some of us are having a good time organising surf carnivals at the Moonee Ponds Creek, while others have to earn a living by the sweat of their brow comes from a sense of fairness grounded in the norm of reciprocity, it does have a name. Chaucer nailed it in the last tale of his Canterbury Tales, the Parson’s Tale (no apologies to economists and social theories for dragging in a literary reference – I’m writing this piece and I’ll do it any way I damn well like):
After Pride wol I speken of the foule synne of Envye, which that is, as by the word of the philosophre, ‘sorwe of oother mans prosperitee’: and after the word of Seint Augustyn, it is ‘sorwe of oother mennes wele, and joye of othere mennes harm. This foule synne is platly agayns the Hooly Ghost.
(Incidentally if you want to run a surfing carnival at your own local creek, you’ll need some two-pack epoxy resin glue, Paddle Pop sticks, plastic figurines – check out your local op-shop for toy soldiers and the like – and lead sinkers. Glue a plastic figurine to each Paddle Pop stick, then a sinker underneath it, to keep it upright when it goes in the water. Voila! You now have a collection of toy surfers.)
Mutual Obligation is the political expression of this unemployment-envy; its justification is to appease a substantial section who have, quite deliberately, been incited to near apoplectic resentment of the “idle unworthy poor”. Of whom there will always be too many, largely by definition. Its effect on the unemployed, and welfare recipients in general, is to deprive them of freedom, both as freedom from coercion or domination (under the Mutual Obligation dogma, Centrelink “customers” live largely at the behest of Centrelink) and freedom of opportunity (the continuing fixation on the job-search as the way out of unemployment constrains Newstart Recipients from exercising personal initiative, beyond a limited range of Centrelink approved forms). But what is going on when we impose “Mutual” Obligation on the unemployed, to satisfy the will to punish of the taxpayers who are being robbed of the wealth to which they have established a Nozickian entitlement? Perhaps John Stuart Mill points the way to an answer:
… such phrases as “self-government” and “the power of the people over themselves” do not express the true state of the case. The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or most active part of the people; the majority or those who succeed in making themselves the majority; the people, consequently may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power.
(J.S. Mill On Liberty)