Some time back I posted this long and rather dense blogpost entitled Why Post-Liberal Failed by Nigel Carlsbad which pushed back against the growing “Post-Liberalism” within the right which has begun to reject “classic liberalism” and free markets. While long it is well worth a read, but for this post I want to pick out one thread within that long post to do with the administration of welfare under “Classic Liberalism” and contrast it with the modern position.
Against the libertarian claim that welfare was purely a voluntary thing in the past vs the modern welfare state advocates, the post argues that the state did provide welfare, in some sense, but it was administered as part of the state *police power*, as an executive power, rather than as an entitlement or right. The argument goes that the provision of welfare and work was simply part of the general duty and power of the executive to ensure an orderly public sphere. As vagrants and beggars and the unemployed would disrupt the “order” and public peace of the streets, the executive government, local or otherwise, was empowered to ensure that they were adequately provided for either with housing, food, or jobs.
That welfare was an executive power, as opposed to a legislated right, would have momentous consequence to the phenomenology and internal logic of welfare. As it is a police power rather than a legal right and enlightenment, the executive could exercise discretion and judgement on how it dispensed such welfare, carefully crafted and tailored for the particular circumstances of the destitute. Remember, the vagrants themselves cannot claim it as a right but merely request for it, subject to the judgement of the executive. A modern day example here would be the difference between how Singapore administers welfare and how the rest of the West does it.
Besides basic social security in the form of compulsory savings and subsidised medical bills or housing, Singapore does not have welfare entitlements. However, if one were in dire need, one can still apply or request for financial assistance from the government. The government’s army of social workers will scrutinise the applicant’s financial and job situation, and will dispense the appropriate financial or employment supports as necessary, but subject to periodic appeals. This is a very “Confucian” model whereby social workers are like Confucian judges who will evaluate your whole life situation to decide what sort of aid or assistance you require, tailor suit the solution to you, and act accordingly. This is very much an exercise in discretion and judgement and certainly not subject to judicial review or any claim of right. Aid recipients have been known to have been cut off because they have received a modest inheritance, etc, social workers are not inclined to provide rent for housing if you could move in with relatives, our Confucian judges will do a very thorough search through your life history and relations before deciding on a solution, they will not simply dispense government’s money carelessly.
While certainly a very “top down” approach, but “classic liberalism” used to believe that one had to “qualify” for the rights of citizenship, destitution means that one were, in some sense, on the fringe of society, subject to the mercy of the powers that be and would require aid or assistance as a matter of grace/mercy, not as a matter of right, for the executive’s own objectives and purposes to ensure public order, the local government can feed you or shove you into work houses. You will get fed or clothed or have shelter to be sure, but their provisions are not entitlements, they are gifts which are provided for them to ensure public order and to make sure that you’re not just scrounging from the state.
Welfare recipients today in the West however are largely not means tested, nor are their “fitness” for receiving aid subject to scrutiny or judgement, they cannot compel you to work for the aid. Under the European Convention of Human Rights, the courts have even judged that welfare entitlements can be classified as the “property” of the recipients which the government owes them, rather than a gift dispensed by the government’s good graces. I do not think it needs much belabouring that the internal logic and phenomenology of welfare will be very different if it were experienced as a right rather than a gift which they need to pay back.
However, the sort of approach of classic liberalism and Singapore requires a very paternalistic government, as well as a society with a consciousness of the legitimacy of social inequalities, there is a distinction between the “undeserving poor” and the others, although a better way of phrasing it would be some of the poor are not suited for certain kinds of aid, they would be better to be shoved into work camps or public works rather than just be given free money.
With the entrenchment of social egalitarianism however, the sort of paternalistic exercise of welfare as an executive police power is becoming increasingly impossible. The point of this post however is simply that there is an alternative to the free wheeling libertarianism just let the poor starve on the streets and social welfare just give them welfare entitlements, the state can still dispense social welfare and aid, but as an exercise of executive discretion as of the government’s good graces, for the government’s own public policy objectives, not because you “deserve” it nor are entitled to it.