It’s a rainy night and an inexperienced young driver speeds into a sweeping bend. Well over the speed limit he loses control, wrapping his car around a tree. When the ambulance arrives it’s touch and go. Unless the paramedics cut him out the wreck and get him to hospital, he’ll die on the side of the road.
Some hardline classical liberals insist that people who take risks shouldn’t expect others to pay for the consequences. Uninsured drivers shouldn’t expect emergency workers to cut their mangled bodies from car wrecks and have taxpayers support them through a lifetime of disability. People who build on flood plains shouldn’t expect helicopters to pluck them from their roofs when the rain comes. And kids who drop out of school and then find that they can’t get jobs shouldn’t expect to get welfare.
In a recent piece for the Australian, Noel Pearson challenges the view that "people should have the right and freedom to make their own choices but not wear the consequences." He calls that view ‘libertarian welfarism’. It says to people:
Here is the social support, there are no conditions attached to it, you are free to do with it as you wish, and if you and your children come to grief we will make sure there is another safety net to tackle that fallout as well.
Of course the flip side to this arrangement is that those who make prudent choices don’t get to enjoy the full consequences either. Along with more fortunate risk takers, they give up a large share of their incomes to support people whose choices didn’t work out. Hardline classical liberals argue that unless you’ve caused someone else’s poverty you are not responsible for alleviating it — even if the person is poor through no fault of their own.
But Pearson rejects the hardline position. While he argues that individuals should be free to pursue their own interests: "It is not just a matter of individuals bootstrapping themselves up the road of progress by sheer wisdom of choice". He recognises that individuals are free to make choices, but they are not free to choose the circumstances in which they make them. Some individuals grow up in environments so impoverished that it doesn’t matter what choices they make. They just can’t succeed without help.
Pearson wants a welfare system where choices can have positive as well as negative consequences. Following economist Amartya Sen he writes about the need to invest in human capital and ensure individuals have the ability to take advantage of opportunity. After all, it is only when there is genuine opportunity for success that individuals can be held accountable for failure.
Unlike hardline classical liberals, Pearson always leaves the door open for people seeking help. Nobody will starve to death unless they choose to. But unlike the system of libertarian welfarism, there are consequences for making yourself a burden on others. These consequences are flagged in advance and are not arbitrary. For those who make responsible choices, the system offers help with a light touch. But for those who choose to abuse alcohol, disturb their neighbours or neglect their children, accepting support means losing autonomy. Claimants may lose access to cash assistance and be asked to change their behaviour in return for support.
This position follows from Pearson’s view of freedom. If freedom is having the capability to choose a life you have reason to value, then people who behave in a way that interferes with your ability to pursue you own goals are limiting your freedom. As a result, libertarian welfarism reduces freedom in a community by allowing some people to impose unnecessary costs on others.
By stressing freedom and choice, Pearson is positioning himself as a liberal at war with inner-city left wingers. But there’s an irony here. A century ago ‘new liberals‘ and socialists battled over conditional welfare. And it was the socialists who advocated conditionality.
In the early 20th century the Liberal politician Winston Churchill was planning to set up a system of unemployment insurance and labour exchanges. Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb wanted a system where government employees could supervise the unemployed. They wanted attendance at labour exchanges and training programs to be compulsory. And for those who were uncooperative, they wanted the option of farm colonies and detention settlements. They saw support for the unemployed as an opportunity to intervene in people’s lives. Churchill disagreed. According to historian Bentley Gilbert, he:
… refused to let the state use its power over those in distress for any purpose except to relieve distress. The state could never
be permitted to distinguish the worthy and the unworthy among its citizens; it might never penalize an applicant for aid, no matter how dirty, ignorant, or improvident, by requiring him to reform.
So as an old debate plays out again, Pearson is playing the socialist part while insisting he is a liberal.