There was a fine post on this fair blog about compassion, pity and the welfare state. I though I would add my 2 grams of silver and share a few thoughts.
Outside a narrow circle of non-bleeding heart libertarians or, as I like to call them, actual libertarians, there is about zero support of completely removing welfare. The people on the left generally want more of it, and the people on the right just want somewhat less of it and “more efficiency”. Neither of these options will work in the long term, in the opinion of this heartless libertarian who just hates the damn children.
The Universal Basic Income is, for example, one of the more prominent recent attempts to fix welfare, one that even some libertarians support. The idea is no welfare is not an option, so let’s have the best system. Sadly, I do not believe a best system, even if it existed in theory, can exist in practice. Why? This is what I will try to cover.
The essence of the question is found in the essence of government. Government is at its core a concentration of power. This, naturally, now and always, attracts people who want power. So in the end, the ultimate goal for many at the top of government will be to get and retain power. Sure, they may have other ideas about society and maybe even be honest about wanting to improve it (at the point of a gun if necessary) and thinking they have the capability to do so (ignoring a few broken eggs here and there). But this is always secondary, at least for the ones who get to the top.
In my view, in a struggle between those who want power to use it for, let’s say for lack of a better word, “good” and those who want power for the sake of power, the latter will come on top. What has this got to do with welfare? Well, any government activity will be inevitably used as a tool to get power, and will not be shaped to maximize results but to keep people in power. Welfare is no different. You will never get the welfare that is most efficient and helps the poor; you will get the one that helps politicians.
Now, there are moments when feelings get the best of reason, and I think it would be acceptable to have a limited welfare system for the truly needy. This is a view of many right wing people I know. This will not work because there is not choice between limited welfare just for truly needy and a massive and much abused inefficient system. The choice is between no welfare and a massive and abused inefficient system. A limited system will never stay limited because, in essence, any program that allows politicians to transfer money from one person to another will be used to buy votes. More and more needy will be found. More and more people will receive something. And the limited help will be declared insufficient.
It was always strange to me how people who support a social democracy scream about the evils of campaign money as “buying votes” while their political platform is literally buying votes. If someone gets money from the government, when a politician says, “I will increase these payment,” that someone will, quite literally, hear vote for me and I give you money. A welfare state is practically a license for a politician to buy power with other people’s money. And if I am wrong, I would love to hear a reasonable, logical argument as to how I am wrong.
But there is a second layer. The large amounts of people not on welfare but who emotionally support the programs, either out of a misguided view on compassion or basic signaling of their moral high ground. So this is another group who will be convinced to give their votes because welfare is insufficient. I have seen multiple articles in the press where such people tried to live on welfare money to prove it can’t be done, and the conclusion was it can but it is not easy. So even when there is a level of welfare that many view as quite enough, others want more of it.
One should keep in mind that the cost of welfare is not just the money that ends up at welfare recipients. Welfare also keep politicians in power, which means lots of money spent on various graft, not directly related to the welfare, but related to the politicians. Another point is that there will be an ever-growing bureaucracy dedicated to administering welfare, which may end up costing more than the welfare itself. There is also the cost associated with people who may be able to do something productive and do not, both due to incentives of welfare and to the economy in general, which is affected by the taxes needed to fund all the above costs.
On the other side of the spectrum, other politicians will use it as a tool for their base, talking about scroungers and welfare frauds. But this will basically lead to another layer of division between people which is exactly what the politicians want. Divide et Impera is what keeps the big parties in power. There always need to be another side which is bad, and my side which is less so.
The art of politics is basically to keep the people split on as many issues, so that they do not notice that no issue is handled properly. Must spread attention as thinly as possible to keep scrutiny off what the government actually does.
Universal Basic Income will be no different. It will not stay for long as the only program, as different programs for different groups will be invented. It will constantly be under pressure to increase. And it will create an ultimate feeling of entitlement. You get money for breathing, basically.
So to me the alternative is no welfare or a system which will inevitably become first and foremost a tool for power, with all other functions secondary. If no welfare is not an option, I will accept a constant struggle will be on this and just stay out of it and leave it to others. I assume the system will oscillate, going too far then followed by a snap-back and then too far again. But to those who think welfare will be mostly about helping people as well as possible, I have a bridge to sell.