Those who believe in free markets and individual responsibility are often chastised for being willing to leave people behind and fostering a society with unacceptable levels of inequality between the “haves and have nots”. But how do we achieve equality between people? The left’s answer to this question has been the guiding principle for the development of most western societies since the end of the Second World War and has been manifested in the emergence of the modern welfare state. The generous state should provide all citizens with essential services from cradle to grave, ensuring that it is not the size of your wallet which determines whether you have a decent quality of life.
As libertarians, we do not subscribe to the accusations that a free society leaves less fortunate people to their own devises. We believe in the function of family, community and charity; voluntary institutions which for centuries preceding the welfare state provided social care and gave individuals a social network – an organic, voluntary network which has today been replaced by the state, on which we are told to rely when we find ourselves in need of assistance of any kind. Libertarians also see the welfare state’s much lauded social “safety net” as a way of parking less fortunate sections of society out of sight in a welfare dependency trap from which there often is no escape.
But specifically, what about the claim that the welfare state ensures a certain level of equality in society which otherwise would be absent? Does it not at the very least guarantee that people are treated equally and “fair”? We would argue that even in this respect the welfare state comes up short.
A recent example can be found in the aftermath of the fire at Grenfell Tower social housing block in London. The tragedy has, understandably, been major news and has proven to be a potent political tool, with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell claiming that the residents were “murdered”. Residents made homeless by the fire became a symbol of the difference between rich and poor; the council block being located next to the affluent Notting Hill area of London where houses can cost £10 million or more. With the political fallout as toxic as the fumes from the flammable cladding on the doomed tower, swift action saw local authorities purchase 65 flats in a luxury development in Kensington to rehouse the survivors. On the surface, an egalitarian move to ensure that people who have had their lives wrecked by fire do not suffer homelessness as a result – but how about real equality? Do all UK citizens who find themselves without a home receive the offer of immediate rehousing in a swanky apartment block? The answer, of course, is no. The reason it was offered to the Grenfell residents is simply that it was a high-profile situation in which the public was emotionally invested and which had huge potential to end public servants’ careers (witness what has happened to the leaders of Kensington and Chelsea Council). But if you become homeless in less spectacular circumstances, the welfare state does not offer the same level of care.
In his brilliant book “The Welfare State We’re In”, James Bartholomew gives another example: the NHS, the UK’s state health care provider, is lauded for its “equitable access”. But in fact, Bartholomew concludes, the NHS routinely denies access to services to “those who are not well educated or articulate enough to find out about their condition, those without the confidence to demand that it be dealt with and – if it is not going to be dealt with – to find some other way.” The poor and less well educated are often left behind by a system traditionally thought of as created specifically to grant these demographics access.
Socialisation of housing, medicine and other services may make the size of your wallet less important in determining the quality of service you can expect to receive. But of course, it is not a recipe for making scarce resources plentiful. Rationing still takes place and not everyone gets the same service. Put simply, in the welfare state, access to the best treatment is decided by how much attention you can garner for your case. The welfare state is a system which, despite its noble intentions, sees huge differences in outcomes across people with similar needs and conditions; it is egalitarian in theory, but not in practice.