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The Welfare State must be abolished

James Bartholomew, author of ‘The Welfare State We’re In’, agreed to face a panel of unsympathetic critics in a debate held at the London School of Economics and arranged by BBC Radio 4. Whether the structure of this debate met the guidelines for impartiality laid down by the BBC is a moot point, but James Bartholomew conveyed the major points of his argument, despite interruptions from the panel and the chair that truncated the majority of his argument.

Nicholas Barr is Professor of Public Economics at the European Institute, LSE and author of The Economics of the Welfare State. Edward Davey MP, Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Education, MP for Kingston and Surbiton and a contributor to the recent Orange Book – Reclaiming Liberalism. Niall Dickson, formerly Social Affairs Editor for the BBC, is now Chief Executive of the King’s Fund. Professor Pat Thane is director of the Centre for Contemporary British History, and author of The Foundations of the Welfare State.

None of the panel disagreed strongly with the facts presented by James Bartholomew. It was clear that disagreement stemmed from two fundamentally different worldviews rather than disputing the contemporary effects of the welfare state. Whereas some consider functional illiteracy of 20% to be an indictment of state education and a sufficient reason for its abolition, the panel viewed this failure as room for improvement. Without making the trite comparison of managerialism versus morality, the effect of politics as the art of the possible on individual lives was made very clear.

The poor may have suffered from insecurity concerning health care before the welfare state came into existence. However, if they felt fear over paying for their treatment, this has been replaced by the fear that they may not be treated at all due to healthcare rationing or professional triage. During his talk, James Bartholomew echoed Perry de Havilland and told the audience that the state is not your friend. He showed the blight that the welfare state has wrought on the lives of many individuals and stated that there were no panaceas which could reverse the social and cultural damage.

More thoughts from the speaker can be found here.

17 comments to The Welfare State must be abolished

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Philip, having read JB’s own book and perused his blog, it is pretty clear that the man is more genuinely concerned for the welfare of the poor than most of the army of the “compassionate” out there. His analysis of the NHS and the state pensions regime is particularly devastating. I strongly recommend folk to read it for its wealth of data and colourful pen-portraits. He is even quite nice about people like Bevan.

    The problem is that a high percentage of Britons receive or qualify for means-tested benefits, and there is now a large class of managers who earn a very nice living from the perpetuation of the system. And of course the opinion-forming classes continue to send their children to private schools or the better state schools over which they can exert some control.

    Intellectually, the case for rolling back the Welfare State and adopting a voluntarist model is compelling but as practical politics it is going to be a hard slog.

  • Bemused

    How very odd. How do poor results in some areas constitute an argument for the welfare state’s abolition?

    That rests on a ssumption that a welfare states cannot produce good results, and that notion is easily dispensed with when looking at successful wealthy countries with strong welfare states like Sweden, Denmark, Finland – and that have competitive, highly educated populations.

    So its an argument for improvement and reform – not abolition.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Bemused, Sweden has introduced “workfare” type reforms to its welfare model in the last few years, and has partly privatised its state pension regime. Sweden in fact has moved away somewhat from the model aped by social democrats for so long.

  • Normally the pros and cons of the debate are equally distibuted between panellist representatives. Not 4 stacked against 1!

    Even that was not enough, for by all accounts – not least of which from the beleagured Mr Bartholemhew himself – the 4 interlocutors proceeded to heckle him to such a protracted degree that his presentation was critically compromised.

  • Jacob

    “….easily dispensed with when looking at successful wealthy countries with strong welfare states like Sweden, Denmark, Finland …”

    People can examine, more or less, the welfare system in their own country and see it’s broken. But, they say, “the neighbour’s pasture is greener, look over there, at some foreign country and you’ll see a working system”. The trouble is – it seems to them to be working because they are far away and don’t really know how it works.

  • J

    His point about risk is a good one – the welfare state gives you a chance that you might not be treated, or that you might be denied treatments for reasons that seem unfair to you or are beyond your control.

    But I think many people quite like that risk profile. Most people prefer a certainty of average to small percent chance of bad and large chance of good. Entrepreneurs are different of course, but they are also a minority.

    This seems to be the great strength of the welfare state – it can promise things. Sure, it can only promise mediocre things, but that’s OK.

    We see the same in business. People flock to chain restaurants because they offer certainty – the promise of average or mediocre food. Meanwhile, small, private restaurants struggle because who wants to risk bad food just because it might be wonderful home cooking?

    I’m not fan of the welfare state, but I think it is indeed what the people want. Depressingly.

  • Pavel

    Bemused –

    The Scandinavians started to build their ultra-expensive welfare paradises only after they had achieved very high level of development through traditional capitalism.

    Did you know that Sweden’s rate of tax burden in 1960 was lower that in Ronald Reagan’s USA in the 1980’s?

    Since Sweden introduced high taxes and high welfare in the 1970’s, it’s been losing its competitive edge. They are still living from the cake their fathers and grandfathers had baked decades ago.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    J makes a very good point about security and mediocrity. I am sure that gets to the guts of why the Welfare State is so hard to unravel.

  • APL

    “Whereas some consider functional illiteracy of 20% to be an indictment of state education and a sufficient reason for its abolition, the panel viewed this failure as room for improvement.”

    Falling firmly into the former camp, it may be informative to know the figures for illiteracy at the begining of the 19th century.

    Education up until that time being largly the domain of the parish or charities, one might be able to draw a conclusion as to the benefits or otherwise of state education.

  • John East

    You’ve made an excellent point. At the moment we seem to be condemned to experience socialism and state welfarism over and over again. The cycle is simple:

    capitalism=wealth=state welfare=economic collapse=capitalism.

    I believe this is why it is possible for socialists to point to socialist states briefly flowering along the cycle. I’ll think about joining Nulabour when I begin to see socialist states breaking out of this cycle on the upside. I’ve not seen one yet.

  • The example of states that became prosperous through capitalism and then instituted social welfare policies disastrously encourages impoverished countries to institute such policies in the hope of becoming wealthy. “Cargo cult socialism” has led to disasters like Russia and much of the third world. At least China has learned the lesson that you have to have farmers with healthy cows before you can steal milk from them.

  • Alan G


    I’m currently living and working in Norway. While the general level of education is higher than that in the UK, don’t be fooled into thinking that it is a superior system.

    Bright children are not encouraged to get ahead of others or achieve higher grades. Anybody who does do well is regarded as stepping out of line. The underlying philosophy is that everyone is equal and everyone is capable of “doing well”. Anybody wanting to be better than others is in some way being selfish.

    The end result is a very bland level of educationional achievment. It’s hard to find a badly educated Norwegian, but at the same time, you get the feeling that they could have flourished much better under a system based on competition.

    Some Norwegians spend huge sums of money to send their children to the small number of private schools where there is more encouragement for them to achieve.

  • The avoidance of risk is a very powerful driver of human behavior of all kinds, including politics. The welfare does flourish in large part because it promises to reduce risk compared to a more open system. Most ordinary people are perfectly aware of the negatives of government run systems but they accept the negatives as acceptable tradeoffs for the reduced risk.

    In many cases, people simply do not understand the actual risk involved. It has been shown that the less a person understands a particular area of endeavor, the more likely they are to support state intervention in that area. Virtually no one wants increased regulation of whatever it is that they do for a living but virtually everyone thinks someone else’s livelihood does need regulating.

    People reject the welfare state only when it decays to the point that it clearly presents more risk than freedom. Educating people on the real risk of various options can be a powerful tool in reducing support for the state.

  • Richard Easbey


    The fundamental immorality of the welfare state has apparently escaped you. No one else has a higher claim on my life than I do, so stealing from me to “help” others isn’t nearly as compassionate as you’d like to think. It’s just theft.

  • Pavel

    “People reject the welfare state only when it decays to the point that it clearly presents more risk than freedom” – excellent point, alas, very true.

  • Jerry

    John East is exactly right and businesses do this as well.
    Years ago when they ruled the automobile manufacturing business, General Motors gave generous benifit packages to their employees. Now that they no longer dominate, they are finding that they can no longer afford such programs. ( GM is but one example of this practice ).
    Governments/Welfare States do the very same thing with one slight difference – they have no profit motive, therefore no desire to cut costs and if they run short, the answer is ALWAYS raise taxes. Another trio t the well, so to speak.
    One day the well runs dry ( on in some cases, people start saying ENOUGH !! and voting that way) and you end up with more recipients than contributors in the system.
    In the case of Welfare States, the populace PERCEIVES the benefits as FREE, which they aren’t.
    Therefore the demand goes up ( Hey, it’s FREE,
    right ? – human nature ) until the system is no longer supportable and the only thing that can be supported is mediocrity for everyone.

  • mike

    “Educating people on the real risk of various options can be a powerful tool in reducing support for the state.”

    That’s an interesting thesis – and yet I suspect that, having heard and even concurred with a particular risk-based argument for rejecting one’s reliance on the state, many people will simply fail to follow through. Learned helplessness – or something quite like it. For such people, any kind of self-help will be most likely forced by circumstance.