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Welfare and wellbeingRichard Titmuss's contribution to social policy$

Pete Alcock, Howard Glennerster, and Ann Oakley

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9781861342997

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781861342997.001.0001

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Social welfare and the art of giving

Social welfare and the art of giving

(p.125) Chapter Three Social welfare and the art of giving
Welfare and wellbeing

John Hills

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presages some of the arguments developed much more fully in Titmuss's later book The gift relationship. It notes Titmuss's argument that, ‘altruism by strangers for strangers was and is an attempt to fill a moral void created by applied science’. It further notes that Titmuss's main concern is to attack those, such as Seymour Lipset (1960) or Daniel Bell (1960), who had proclaimed the end of political ideology, as the terms of the ‘post-war consensus’ narrowed debate from major differences in views of the role of the state to minor disputes which made changes of political control of little importance.

Keywords:   altruism, strangers, moral void, applied science, Seymour Lipset, Daniel Bell, political ideology, post-war consensus, political control

It has been said in the United States that, “modern social welfare has really to be thought of as help given to the stranger, not to the person who by reason of personal bond commands it without asking” (Wilensky and Lebeaux, 1958, p 141). It has therefore to be formally organised, to be administered by strangers and to be paid for collectively by strangers.

Social welfare or the social services, operating though agencies, institutions and programmes outside the private market are becoming more difficult to define with precision in any society. As societies become more complex and specialised, so do systems of social welfare. Functionally, they reflect, and respond to, the larger social structure and its division of labour. This process makes it much harder to identify the causal agents of change, the microbes of social disorganisation and the viruses of impoverishment, and to make them responsible for the costs of ‘disservices’. Who should bear the social costs of the thalidomide babies, of urban blight, of smoke pollution, of the obsolescence of skills, of automation, of the impact of synthetic coffee (which will dispense with the need for coffee beans) on the peasants of Brazil? The private benefits are to some extent measurable and attributable, but the private losses are not. Neo-classical economics and the private market cannot make these allocations; they are not organised to estimate social disruption and are unable to provide adequately for the public needs created by social and economic change.

Our growing inability to identify and connect cause and effect in the world of social and technological change is one reason for the historical emergence of social welfare institutions in the West. Altruism by strangers for strangers was and is an attempt to fill a moral void created by applied science. The services and programmes developed in the West to give aid to the stranger have inevitably and necessarily become more specialised and complex.

The ‘social services’ in Britain are largely the product of the 20th century, a delayed response to the industrialism of the 19th century. The term is generally and loosely interpreted to cover such public (or publicly supported) services as medical care, education, housing, income maintenance in old age and during periods of unemployment, sickness, disability and so forth, child allowances, and a variety of specific services for particular groups of people with special needs: (p.126) for example, neglected children, unmarried mothers, the blind, mental defectives, young delinquents, discharged prisoners and others. All these services came apologetically into existence to provide for certain basic needs which the individual, the family and the private market in capitalist societies were unable or unwilling to meet. In the United States and other Western countries, the terms ‘social welfare’ or ‘social policy programmes’ are used as alternative generic labels to embrace a similar variety of collectively organised services which may differ widely in scope and structure, methods of administration and finance, and in the fundamental objectives underlying them.

The concept of the welfare state, which entered the arena of political thought in the 1940s, is generally accepted as a wider definition of the role of the state in the field of social and economic policy, embracing more than the provision of social services. Most writers on the subject, whether on the Right or Left politically, take it to mean a more positive and purposeful commitment by government to concern itself with the general welfare of the whole community and with the social costs of change. [This topic is developed in Part 2, Chapter Four, ‘The welfare state: Images and realities’.]

The renaissance of private enterprise in North America and Europe, the Keynesian Revolution and the adoption of techniques of economic management, rising standards of living and the achievements of political parties and trade unions on behalf of the underprivileged have led all these culturally different societies along the same road to welfare statism, a road unforeseen by Marx. Whether they know it or not, and whether they like it or not, Democrats and Republicans, Socialists and Liberals in North America have become ‘welfare statists’. The Germans and the Swedes may have more ‘advanced’ pension systems, the British a more comprehensive health service, the French more extensive family allowances, and the Americans may spend more on public education but the generalised welfare commitment is nevertheless viewed as the dominant political fact of modern Western societies. Governments may come and go; the commitment to welfare, economic growth and full employment will remain with minor rather than major changes in scope and objectives.

In historical and comparative terms, these are sweeping conclusions and leave many questions of values and facts unexamined. To what extent are they based on the real facts of income and wealth distribution, property, power and class? Has the welfare state abolished poverty, social deprivation and exploitation? Have people a greater sense of social control and participation in the work and life of their community? What will be the human consequences of further social and technological changes? Will the future resemble the immediate (p.127) past or are these views a simple projection of a transient phase in the development of large scale and predominantly competitive societies?

A growing number of political commentators, economists and sociologists on both sides of the Atlantic, in proclaiming the end of political ideology in the West, have either ignored such questions or have tended to imply that they are no longer of primary importance for our societies. Their reasons for doing so are explicit in their general thesis. Seymour Lipset in Political man (1960) spoke for many when he said (in summarising the discussions of a world congress of intellectuals in 1955) that “the ideological issues dividing left and right [have] been reduced to a little more or a little less government ownership and economic planning”; and there was general agreement that it really makes little difference “which political party controls the domestic policies of individual nations”. With minor differences, parties of both the Right and the Left will attempt to alleviate those social injustices that still remain, and will continue to seek improvements in social welfare, education, medical care and other sectors of the economy for the general wellbeing. All will share, rich and poor, in the benefits of growth. By a natural process of market levitation, all classes and groups will stand expectantly on the political Right as the escalator of growth moves them up. Automatism thus substitutes for the social protest.

To quote Lipset again (1960, pp 404–6), although writers in a similar vein such as Bell (1960) or others in England, France and Germany could equally be cited:

… the fundamental political problems of the industrial revolution have been solved: the workers have achieved industrial and political citizenship, the conservatives have accepted the welfare state, and the democratic left has recognised that an increase in overall state power carries with it more dangers to freedom than solutions for economic problems. This very triumph of the democratic social revolution in the West ends domestic politics for those intellectuals who must have ideologies or utopias to motivate them to political action.

As a generalisation, it is conceivable that this statement may serve as a summing-up for the 1950s in the history books of the 21st century. But from the perspective of 1960 it is, to say the least, a dubious proposition. However, I would not wish this chapter to take the form of a critique of any one particular writer; to do so would carry with it the obligation to discuss in detail an individual interpretation of recent trends and the many qualifications attached to them. I shall therefore treat these statements as an expression not of the views of Seymour Lipset but of a collective Weltanschauung and one that seems (p.128) to be growing in influence in the West, to judge by the number of its adherents.

I shall speculate about some of its basic assumptions so far as they relate to the future role of a humanist social policy in Britain and the United States.

First, it is unhistorical. Implicit in the thesis is the assumption that the industrial revolution was a once-and-for-all affair. Thus, it ignores the evidence concerning the trend toward monopolistic concentrations of economic power, the role of the corporation as private government with taxing powers, the problems of social disorganisation and cultural deprivation, and the growing impact of automation and new techniques of production and distribution in economically advanced societies. If the first phase of the so-called revolution was to force all men to work, the phase we are now entering may be to force many men not to work. Without a major shift in values, only an impoverishment in social living can result from this new wave of industrialism.

Second, it states that the workers have achieved ‘industrial citizenship’. The only comment to make on this is to say that it is a misuse of language to imply that membership of a trade union is synonymous with industrial citizenship. Conceptions of what constitutes citizenship for the worker must be related to what we now know about human potential and basic social and psychological needs; they cannot be compared with conditions of industrial slavery in the 19th century.

Third, the thesis implies that the problem of the distribution of income and wealth has either been solved or is now of insignificant proportions in Western society. In any event, such disparities as do exist are justified on grounds of individual differences and the need for economic incentives, and are considered to present no threat to democratic values.

In the 1950s, 1% of the British population owned 42% of all personal net capital and 5% owned 67.5% (Tawney, 1964). Even those proportions are underestimates, for the figures exclude pension funds and trusts and they do not take account of the increasing tendency for large owners of property to distribute their wealth among their families, to spread it over time, to send it abroad and to transform it in other ways.

This degree of concentration in the holding of wealth in 1960 is nearly twice as great as it was in the United States in 1954 and far higher than in the halcyon days of ruthless American capitalism in the early 1920s. Since 1949, wealth inequality has been growing in the United States, the rate of increase being more than twice as fast as the rate of decline between 1922 and 1949. Measured in terms of increase in the percentage of wealth held by the top 1%, the growth of inequality between 1949 and 1956 was more striking than at any (p.129) time since 1920. Not unexpectedly, the distribution of income also appears to be becoming more unequal, affecting in particular the one fifth to one quarter of the United States population living below the currently defined ‘poverty line’ (Keyserling Report, 1961; Harrington, 1962; Lampman, 1962). These are not all blacks; 80% of the American poor are white and only one fifth receive welfare aid. Economic growth in the richest society in the world has not been accompanied by any automatic, built-in equaliser. Crime for the young unemployed acts as a substitute within the prevailing system of values, the modern form of acquisitive social mobility for the lower classes.

There is no evidence to suggest that Britain has not been following in the same path from the end of the 1940s to the 1960s. It is even possible that inequality in the ownership of wealth (particularly in terms of family holdings) has increased more rapidly in Britain than in the United States since 1949. The British system of taxation is almost unique in the Western world in its generous treatment of wealth-holders in respect of settlements, trusts, gifts and other arrangements for redistributing and rearranging income and wealth. This is reflected in the remarkable fact that, in the mid-1950s, it was in the young adult age group that the tendency for wealth to be concentrated in a few hands was most marked.

Such evidence as this is ignored by those who proclaim the end of political ideology. Similar trends are probably in operation in de Gaulle's France and Erhard's Germany. Over a quarter of a century of political upheaval, global war, ‘welfare statism’, managed economies and economic growth made little impression on the holdings of great fortunes in at least two of the largest industrial nations: the United States and Britain. The institution of concentrated wealth appears to be as tenacious of life as Tawney's intelligent tadpoles. Wealth still bestows political and economic power, more power than income, though it is probably exercised differently and with more respect for public opinion than in the 19th century.

Changes in the distribution of incomes appear to be following a similar pattern in Britain as in the United States. At the end of the 1940s, a wartime movement towards more equality (before and after tax) in both Britain and the United States was reversed. The poorest tenth of the British population were relatively worse off compared with the higher standards of the rest of the nation in 1963 than they were in 1948 (Lynes, 1963).

How can these great disparities in the private ownership of wealth and in the exercise of economic power be viewed as consistent with the thesis that we have reached the end of the political dialogue? No political utopia since Plato has ever envisaged such degrees of economic inequality as permanent and desirable states. Socialists protest at such disparities, not because they want to foster envy; they (p.130) do so because, as Tawney argued, these disparities are fundamentally immoral. History suggests that human nature is not strong enough to maintain itself in true community where great disparities of income and wealth preside.

Fourth and finally, there is in this thesis an assumption that the establishment of social welfare necessarily and inevitably contributes to the spread of humanism and the resolution of social injustice. The reverse can be true. Welfare, as an institutional means, can serve different masters. A multitude of sins may be committed in its appealing name. Welfare can be used simply as an instrument of economic growth which, by benefiting a minority, indirectly promotes greater inequality. Education is an example. We may educate the young to compete more efficiently as economic men in the private market with one another, or we may educate them because we desire to make them more capable of freedom and more capable of fulfilling their personal differences irrespective of income, class, religion and race.

Welfare may be used to serve military and racial ends, as in Hitler's Germany. More medical care was provided by state and voluntary agencies not because of a belief in human uniqueness, but because of a hatred of a narrowly defined group of people.

Welfare may be used to narrow allegiances and not to diffuse them, as in employers' fringe benefit systems. Individual gain and political quietism, fostered by the new feudalism of the corporation, may substitute for the sense of common humanity nourished by systems of non-discriminatory mutual aid.

What matters then, what indeed is fundamental to the health of welfare, the objective towards which its face is set? To universalise humanistic ethics and the social rights of citizenship, or to divide, discriminate and compete?

In reality, of course, the issues are never as clear cut as this. The historical evolution of social security measures in Britain since the end of the 19th century shows how complex and various were the forces at work. Fear of social revolution, the need for a law-abiding labour force, the struggle for power between political parties and pressure groups, a demand to remove some of the social costs of change (industrial accidents, for example) from the back of the worker, and the social conscience of the rich, all played a part.

But the major impulse came from below, from the working-man's ethic of solidarity and mutual aid. It found expression and grew spontaneously from working-class traditions and institutions to counter the adversities of industrialism. By means of a great network of friendly societies, medical clubs, chapel societies, brotherhoods, cooperatives, trade unions and savings clubs, schemes of mutual (p.131) insurance were developed as a method of prepayment for services the members could claim when they were in need – in sickness, disablement, unemployment, old age, widowhood and death. The ‘good’ risks and the ‘bad’ risks, the young and the old, shared one another's lot. They constituted microscopic welfare states, each struggling to demonstrate that people could still exercise some control over the forces of technology. By the end of the 19th century, some 24,000 different friendly societies were in existence, with a total membership representing about half the adult male population of the country. Aptly and significantly named, during a century of unbridled competition, they were the humanistic institution for the artisan and his family, far outdistancing in active membership all trade unions, political parties and religious bodies.

We can now see this great movement as the amateur's compassionate answer to the challenge of the economic and psychological insecurities of industrialism and individualism. It expressed also the ordinary person's revulsion from a class-conscious, discriminating charity and a ruthless, discriminating Poor Law. The Poor Law was hated because it spelled humiliation; it was an assault on the individual's sense of self-respect in an age when ‘respectability’, the quality of meriting the respect of others, governed the mores of society.

The values and objectives which underlay in the past the search for security in an increasingly insecure world are still relevant to an understanding of the role of social welfare in Britain. The ways in which they shaped its origins and early development permeate the principles on which the systems of medical care and social security operate today – comprehensive in scope, universal in membership. That they have not yet solved the problems of poverty and neglect, and still provide little place for citizen participation, is another story and one that remains as a formidable challenge for socialism. But we cannot retrace our footsteps to the intimate ‘friendly societies’ of yesterday; we must find imaginative ways and new institutional means of combining humanity in administration with redistributive social justice in the future development of welfare policies.

These are two of the central unresolved issues for humanists: the problem of size and the problem of inequality. They affect every aspect of social policy: education from the primary school to the university and into adult life; social security in unemployment, sickness and old age; the care of the physically and mentally ill; housing and urban planning, leisure and recreation.

The demand for these services will grow in the future as living standards rise among some sections of the population and fall, relatively or absolutely, among others. The consequences of automation and its technological cousins on the one hand, and more dependent needs (p.132) in childhood and old age on the other, will call for a much greater investment in people and social service than in consumption goods. Science and technology are today beginning to accomplish as thorough a revolution in social and economic theory as they are in the theory of war and international relations. The conventional doctrine that machines make work is losing its validity; machines are now replacing workers. It is already clear from American experience that these victims of technological displacement are no longer ‘resting between engagements’ (which is the theory of unemployment insurance); they are permanently out of work, permanently liberated from work. By the end of 1962 nearly one third of all young blacks between the ages of 16 and 21 who were out of school were also out of work. Relatively speaking, they were also more handicapped educationally than unemployed young blacks twenty years earlier. Between 1939 and 1958 the disadvantage of not having a college diploma grew in the United States.

In an age of abundance of things, the production of consumption goods will become a subsidiary question for the West. The primary question will be just distribution; in particular, the distribution of services according to needs in place of the principle of productivity and performance in a market economy which today powerfully influences access to education and other social services.

In the past, we have distributed resources on the basis of success and failure in economic competition; in the future, we must decide whether it is morally right to do so in an economy of abundance. To distribute services on the basis of needs will help us to discover equality in our neighbours. “Awareness of equality”, wrote Daniel Jenkins (1961, p 21), “always arises in personal relationships and nearly always confronts us as a challenge, for it means placing a greater value upon our neighbour than we have previously been disposed to do. We are all ready to love ourselves. The discovery of equality might be defined as the discovery that we have indeed to love our neighbours as ourselves”.

And so we have to ask, ‘What are we to do with our wealth?’ This is a more relevant question to ask today than those that seek to find more effective ways of punishing criminals, enforcing the law against deviants, preventing abuse of public assistance, forcing men to search for work, compelling them to save for old age when they cannot feed their children adequately, shifting them out of subsidised housing, inventing cheap technological substitutes for education and charging them more for access to medical care.

Yet these aims reflect the values which are often applied in the administration of social services. According to Mencher (1963, p 62), “The present United States welfare [public assistance] program is in keeping with the philosophy of 1830”, the philosophy of less eligible citizens enshrined in the 1834 Poor Law Act in England. Social (p.133) workers, teachers, doctors and social administrators find their functions imprisoned by the ‘virtues’ of hard work and profit, virtues that are rooted in the economics of scarcity. Their role is to police these virtues as, in a more ruthless context, medical certification of fitness for work became one of the central directives under the Stalinist regime. They have no relevance to the economics of abundance.

And, as Gerard Piel (1961, p 9) has emphasised, any

… hard work that a machine can do is better done today by a machine; ‘hard’ these days means mostly boring and repetitive work, whether in the factory or the office. But the instinct for workmanship, the need to feel needed, the will to achieve, are deeply felt in every human heart. They are not universally fulfilled by the kind of employment most people find. Full employment in the kind of employment that is commonly available, whether blue-collar or white-collar, has been plainly outmoded by technology. The liberation of people from tasks unworthy of human capacity should free that capacity for a host of activities now neglected in our civilisation: teaching and learning, fundamental scientific investigation, the performing arts and the graphic arts, letters, the crafts, politics, and social service. Characteristically these activities involve the interaction of people with people rather than with things. They are admittedly not productive activities; nor are they profitable in the strict sense.

Science and technology in alliance with other structural and demographical changes under way in our societies will call for a major shift in values; for new incentives and new forms of reward unrelated to the productivity principle; for new criteria applied to the distribution of resources which are not tied to individual ‘success’ as a measure; for new forms of socially approved ‘dependencies’. They will make the conventional criteria of capitalism largely irrelevant.

Keynes (1930) foresaw that the time would come when these changes would be needed:

We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudomoral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues.… All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, … we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

(p.134) We shall need different rules domestically to live by and more examples of altruism to look up to. Indeed, our societies in Britain and the United States are already in need of them. In no other way in the long run will it be possible for us to prevent the deprived and the unable from becoming more deprived and unable; more cast down in a pool of apathy, frustration, crime, rootlessness and tawdry poverty.

In all this, what we call the ‘social services’ will have a central role to play. If this role is defined at all, it will have to be defined by socialists in the language of equality. Here it is that ethics will have to be reunited to politics. The answers will not come and indeed logically cannot come from those who now proclaim ‘the end of political ideology’; those who would elevate the principle of pecuniary gain and extend it to social service by equating education and medical care with refrigerators and mink coats; and those who advocate that more and more people should contract out of universal social services and create for themselves new areas of privilege and discrimination. They are the utilitarian doctrinaires; prisoners of the economics of scarcity; oblivious to the social consequences of the march of science and technology; and blind to the need for a sense of moral purpose in their own societies as the motive power in the art of giving to our international neighbours.