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The Welfare State We’re In

(title by James Bartholomew)

by Chauncey Tinker – 7 Apr 2017

I have long been of the view that the welfare state has had very corrosive effects on our societies in the West. Unfortunately those corrosive effects have taken so long to become noticeable that it is actually hard for most people to even notice them at all. Even when people do notice them, they more often than not fight shy of speaking out about those effects, for fear of being branded as unkind or worse. Its easy to be kind and generous in the moment however, but its very hard to point out long term effects of unbridled kindness and generosity. If you do have the courage to express such concerns, other people will often jump hysterically to conclusions about the solutions you would propose, before you have even proposed them.

For our politicians this problem is compounded by the need to win over the largest proportion of the electorate. Promises of kindness and generosity in the short term will always be a vote winner, whereas asking difficult questions about problems that only develop over a longer period of time (far beyond the next election), will always be at best a very challenging position for a politician to take.

However I believe the problems are growing too large to ignore, and we must start speaking out and voicing our concerns. It is not right to just ignore these problems, and allow the politicians to “kick the can down the road” for another generation to sort out. The longer we do that, the worse the problems will become by the time they finally are faced up to, and the worse the consequences will be for the future generation that finally has no choice but to tackle those problems.


One brave man who has been speaking out and voicing his many concerns about the welfare state, which he has researched in great depth, is James Bartholomew. Here are some key points from a talk he gave in 2012, titled “The Welfare State We’re In”, after a book he wrote of the same name.

At the beginning he criticizes the National Health Service. He compares the difference in waiting times for scans with the US.

@11:20 He talks about education. He talks about literacy rates of school leavers, and grade deflation. He argues that promises of govt. to increase the quality of education have had the exactly opposite effect in literacy rates

@15:20 He talks about the damage to society and to the character of the nation that the welfare system has inflicted.

He talks about an inherent problem with democracy – when the voters don’t understand what they are voting for their votes can end up buying bad policies.

He points out that in 1950, even after the Attlee govt., benefits were pretty tightly controlled. Welfare dependency only affected 3.4 percent. Despite a huge increase in the overall national income, he says the number of people on benefits has increased hugely so that now (2012) it has risen to 29%. After 1967 the unemployment rate rose and never fell below 2% again.

@18:20 The Heath govt. introduced higher benefits for the disabled, and subsequent govt.s introduced further rises. The numbers on this benefit went from 600,000 to 1.5 m in a short space of time that could not be explained by the numbers actually disabled.

He says the welfare state predates 1945 – he traces the origins back to 1911 with Lloyd George’s govt. He claims there was never prolonged mass unemployment before 1920.

@20:40 He talks about the fact that mass unemployment has become a permanent state of affairs that we notice less and less. Its no longer controversial.

@22:00 He talks about the rise in unmarried parenting, he says that 47% of children are now born out of wedlock in the UK.

Then he describes his experience after writing this book, when he was asked “so what should we do about all this?”. One of the people who asked him the question was Margaret Thatcher. He thought about it for years but struggled to come up with an answer. He travelled around other countries and concludes that all countries will end up having a welfare state eventually, and that the problems of the welfare state can be seen in every country in the world that has a welfare state.

He tells some interesting tales about his findings about welfare states around the world, and gives us a small glimmer of hope that some reform can be affected from within the democratic process.


Another powerful voice on the subject is Thomas Sowell. Here he argues about the effects of US welfare programs on the black population there:


I have my own theory about the decline in educational standards, that there is a large additional factor beyond simple state mismanagement of education. This factor that we ignore at our long-term peril, is that birth rates among the least intelligent in society are some of the highest. These high birth rates are fueled considerably by welfare policy that places no restrictions on the numbers of children that those on welfare can have and still expect to be supported. In some cases the welfare systems actively incentivize those on welfare to have more children. The tax burden that these dependent families add to those people who do work makes it more difficult for the working people to have children.

A particular concern that I have is with geographical areas that have high levels of long term unemployment. Although benefit sanctions have been introduced in the UK for those who make insufficient effort to find work, these appear to have little effect in areas of high unemployment. People in these areas can be making every effort to find work, and still not find a job. There is no incentive to move to other areas to find work, as people used to do before the welfare state was created.

According to the Daily Telegraph, nearly half of all people claiming disability benefit have a mental illness rather than a physical disability (from 2015):

Nearly half disability benefit claimants have a mental illness

According to the Daily Express, 100,000 people are on benefits due to either obesity, alcohol or drug misuse. Being out of work is a situation that is likely to lead to low self-esteem, which is likely to contribute and exacerbate these problems.

UK welfare fiasco: The 100,000 addicts and obese who get benefit bonanza

From UK govt. statistics we have this:

The total number of Disability Living Allowance claims in May 2012 was 3,258,440, an increase of 15,000 on the previous quarter

(i.e. the numbers have increased more than 5 fold from the first figure James Bartholomew quotes. Of course we should be cautious about these figures because the number of older people have increased with increasing life expectancy, and older people are more likely to suffer from a physical disability).

Advances in technology may have been masking the corrosive effects – the standard of living has continued to improve for most people, even those on benefits. However we have ignored these growing problems for so long that now we have a very big problem. The majority of voters are no longer tax payers – the dependents very much outnumber the tax payers in fact.

Something around 1/3 (very roughly) of the population are supporting everyone else. The dependents include old age pensioners, those claiming out of work benefits including unemployment and disablement benefits, students and children. Convincing the dependents to vote for any sort of reductions in their benefits is going to be very difficult politically. In Germany and Sweden in particular the short term generosity now even extends to helping out opportunistic migrants from poorer countries as well.


I don’t think it is beyond the realms of possibility that our current model of democracy will eventually cease to function altogether in some European countries before very long, if we don’t address these problems. If the current system is to be reformed from within there will have to be many more brave voices speaking out and voicing their concerns, and participating in the political process.




What do you think? Can we continue to ignore the growing problems? Please leave a comment below.

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