Social Policy

Ralf Dahrendorf

  • Understanding Social Policy by Michael Hill
    Blackwell, 280 pp, £12.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 631 18170 9
  • Poverty and Inequality in Common Market Countries edited by Vic George and Roger Lawson
    Routledge, 253 pp, £9.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0424 9
  • Planning for Welfare: Social Policy and the Expenditure Process edited by Timothy Booth
    Blackwell, 208 pp, £12.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 631 19560 2
  • The City and Social Theory by Michael Peter Smith
    Blackwell, 315 pp, £12.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 631 12151 X
  • The Good City: A Study of Urban Development and Policy in Britain by David Donnison
    Heinemann, 221 pp, £4.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 435 85217 5
  • The Economics of Prosperity: Social Priorities in the Eighties by David Blake and Paul Ormerod
    Grant Mclntyre, 230 pp, £3.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 86216 013 8

Must social policy be boring? After all, economic policy still keeps people awake while the phoney war between neo-Keynesians and monetarists lasts. Political policy (sit venia verba) continues to excite the adherents and opponents of adversary politics. Educational policy naturally interests the new educational class which dominates the journals and the universities. Defence policy provides a nice dividing line between those who believe that our survival depends on a new generation of Polaris rockets and those who are slightly embarrassed when asked where they propose to get the money from which they want to spend on doing good. But social policy?

It is probably unfair to cite Michael Hill’s Understanding Social Policy as an example of why the subject is so likely to produce a yawn. But he manages throughout to reduce subjects of considerable interest to many individuals to a flat, uninteresting, not to say bureaucratic level. His book has other weaknesses: refusing to give the precise number of MPs, or the level of supplementary benefits because they change every now and again, shows a strange relation to facts. On balance, Hill’s book may well be quite a good introduction for social workers to systems of social security, personal social services, the health service, education, employment services and housing: but oh, is it one-dimensional and uninspiring, even where it quotes the unorthodox (‘for Etzioni the compliance of professionals rests upon “normative” commitments’).

Some reasons for this reaction to the study of social policy are easily explained. The views of those engaged in this study are pathetically predictable. Hill even makes a confession, believing that he must ‘make his own position very clear’. That position is simple. There still is as much poverty and inequality as ever. Social equality is desirable. One most look for non-revolutionary ways of bringing it about. These involve more public expenditure. Such public expenditure must be channelled through giant, but benevolent organisations. It must be channelled more effectively to those really in need. Labour is bad at doing this, but the Tories are much worse. Perhaps one day there will be a truly benevolent (Labour) government which will do what needs to be done.

Social policy is more often than not bureaucracy plus good will. It is a nice combination. Indeed, if one thinks of the people whose supplementary benefits barely get them above the poverty line, or those who could not survive if they were not brought their food by kindly helpers, one can hardly object. It is too easy to dismiss a reasonably competent textbook like Hill’s if one is not directly involved. And yet: is bureaucracy plus benevolence really all there is to the great ideals of social policy?

On the need for social policy, there can be no doubt. The market society with its Darwinian ethic is not by itself humane. There are groups, or at any rate individuals, who need the compassion of the rest to survive, and to live a decent life. Who are they? Vic George and Roger Lawson provide much valuable material on Poverty and Inequality in Common Market Countries, though their book is misleading in some respects and all too predictable in others. However hard they try, they cannot persuade one reader at least that poverty and inequality are one and the same thing. To be sure, there still is inequality in Common Market countries, and perhaps, in purely quantitative terms, little less than there was thirty years ago. The essays on the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy and West Germany permit the conclusion that in all these countries the top 10 per cent earn about 30 per cent of all income earned, whereas the bottom 30 per cent earn a mere 10 per cent. What changes there have been have affected, above all, the middle-income groups which are doing a little better today than before the post-war economic miracle. But is it really right to assume as a matter of course that this is an undesirable – indeed, an unbearable – state of affairs? Are there not important differences between the qualitative inequalities of the lord and his serfs and the quantitative inequalities of a professional and a working class? Has not the generalisation of citizenship made a difference? And has not Fred Hirsch – not mentioned a single time in this book on inequality! – made points about the impossibility of equality which it is impossible to ignore?

Poverty, on the other hand, is – or so one should think – an absolute measure which cannot be dismissed with reference to positional competition à la Hirsch. The absoluteness of the measure is itself the subject of the articles in the book by George and Lawson. While the editors may claim that ‘welfare capitalism’ produces systematically a class of poor people, their authors are much less certain about the definition, and their numbers vary between little more than 1 per cent (West Germany) and almost 24 per cent (Ireland). The most thoughtful discussion of poverty is found in the piece on Italy by David Moss and Ernesta Rogers. In the end, all one can conclude with any degree of assurance from this book is that there are still many poor people in Europe – a ‘Fourth World’, as they are called in France, which requires attention.

But this is simply not good enough. It is, in fact, no more than a predictable and traditional conclusion. While it may provide the basis of most, if not all studies of social policy at least in Britain, it is banal and outdated, and hardly suited to make social policy a matter of wider public interest. Indeed, it is unfortunate that Moss and Rogers pour their irony over this statement by the Conference of Italian Bishops: ‘In affluent societies poverty is not only measured by income level or standard of living ... Poverty is not only economic but also ill-health, loneliness, professional failure, the lack of social relations, physical and mental handicaps, family misfortunes and all the frustrations which derive from the inability to integrate oneself into the nearest human group.’

This definition does not preclude the battle against poverty. There is a book by the German socialist Johano Strasser – more remarkable than any of the studies under review here – called Limits to the Social State? which quite rightly points out that, apart from the traditional forms of poverty, there are new ones which are actually produced by the welfare state. Again, Roger Lawson’s irony is misplaced: despite what he says on the subject there is a ‘new social question’. Old people provide the most striking example: after all, old age was not a social problem in a pre-industrial society. Foreign workers, young victims of drugs and alcohol, the psychosomatically sick, those injured in work or traffic accidents, indeed victims of forms of cancer and other ‘civilisation’ diseases, are clearly of concern to anyone who designs a modern social policy. At the same time, they are very different groups from the traditional poor, let alone the ‘working poor’ whose deprivation can barely be called ‘structural’ or ‘systematic’ in an advanced industrial society. Perhaps it is necessary to stress that Strasser is regarded as a left-wing socialist when one quotes his statement: ‘The increasing destruction of the natural and social environment, new vicious diseases, anxiety and stress, loneliness and inability to communicate in a satisfactory manner, loss of reality, alienation and growing aggressiveness, belong to the negative balance of our progress.’

Such statements are relevant for more reasons than one, of which the most important is what might be called the financial crisis of the welfare state. It is not its only crisis. British books on the subject fail singularly to discuss the ‘iron cage of bondage’ which the social state has created: that is to say, the process of bureaucratisation which has de-personalised the most personal service of the modern state. Few functions of the modern state are more miserably associated with forms, officials, with queuing, with complicated systems, with experts, with a distant and threatening authority, than those of welfare. Few, therefore, give as much reason to rethink organisation, to consider decentralisation, participation and the like. But the subject of social policy as taught in Britain hardly touches on such issues, to say nothing about the self-satisfaction of inefficient bureaucracies.

But to return to finance, there is obviously some awareness in these books of the difficulties with which the welfare state is faced. It is uneven. The book edited by Timothy Booth, Planning for Welfare, contains a great deal of naive discussion of expenditure planning by social-work teams and departments. It also contains some telling comments, from Maurice Wright especially, on the virtual impossibility of effective central planning and control. But the most interesting contribution is Howard Glennerster’s about the constraints under which central government are operating when they determine social expenditure. Glennerster takes the new anti-tax mood seriously, and analyses the political influences on public expenditure – notably on social policy spending – without either undue optimism or simple prejudice.

The prevailing view of social policy authors seems to be that Conservatives are bad and dislike social policy, whereas Labour is basically good, though at times unduly influenced by the IMF. What is rarely seen and apparently never said is that there is a whole series of systematic reasons for the social state to reach its limits, or at any rate for there not to be sufficient funds to finance social expenditure. Here are six such systematic reasons: 1. There is clearly a relationship between economic growth and social expenditure: if there is not enough growth, the Exchequer has simply not got the money (a subject to which we shall return). 2. Demographic and social developments combine to increase the number of recipients of social benefits while the number of potential contributors shrinks: old age pensioners provide the most dramatic example. 3. There is a great deal of waste in the system of social services. 4. Whatever the weaknesses of Ivan Illich’s theses, he is clearly right in arguing that the demand for social services is open-ended: at any rate it is hard to tell where it ends, and this cannot be extrapolated from current demand. 5. With the cost of services generally, the cost of social services has spiralled, and it is not easy to see where the process will end. 6. If the work society runs out of work – that is, if there are fewer jobs to go around – there are also fewer contributors to most social services in a society whose institutions are essentially based on work.

This is shorthand. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that studies of social policy which do not deal with these questions are hopelessly outdated, if not irrelevant. They merely confirm the prevailing ideology of social policy experts, and have no relation to real issues today. Unfortunately, most if not all British studies on the subject fall into this category.

One of the symptoms, and symbols, of the social question is the city. For some, it has been almost synonymous with modern, indeed with capitalist society. Michael Peter Smith reminds us, in his book on The City and Social Theory, of the urban concerns of Louis Wirth, Georg Simmel, Theodor Roszak and Richard Sennet. (For some strange reason, Smith adds Sigmund Freud to the list, but this merely shows that his book is in the nature of a dissertation, rather than a treatise.) Smith would like to harmonise all these theories in some imprecise dialectic (‘the dialectician may be disappointed but is never surprised ...’) of conflict and consensus. In fact, he is not talking about real people in real cities, but about alienation and ‘what is to be done’. His book is as full of good intentions as it is empty of precise ideas. But it does leave one with the sense that the old subject of status and contract, of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, is not dead.

David Donnison’s book (written with Paul Soto), The Good City, is in almost every respect the opposite of Smith’s: it is precise, readable, full of information and thought. Donnison begins with the story of the coalition of dreams of the good city which was formed after the war, and which led to the creation of the New Towns. And his study shows that the coalition was not all that wrong: among his ‘clusters’, the New Towns are not doing so badly. He then describes the way in which, first economic growth, and then above all structural change, have led to extraordinary differentiation among British cities. Even apart from the ‘resorts’, on the one hand, and the ‘central Scottish’ cities, on the other, there are vast differences in what he calls vulnerability. But, so Donnison argues, these are differences which have national rather than local reasons. The primary target should therefore be a more effective national policy to increase economic opportunities, rather than just a specific regional policy.

Donnison’s book is full of insights on which one is tempted to write a separate review: ‘The more prosperous city generally tends to be the more equal city.’ There is a lot to be said for playing positive-sum games in social policy. ‘A town’s educational attainment and its social composition may be more the effects than the causes of economic growth and urban development.’ The educational class may not like this, but it makes a great deal of sense.

Thus one could go on praising Donnison’s intelligent and well-researched book. And yet ... Donnison too is largely concerned with the social problems of a world of economic growth, and the need to resolve them by more growth, better distributed. Quality of life is not a concept which plays any part in his study. (Peterborough does well among his ‘clusters’, but not for the reasons about which we are told by its public-relations people.) There is a strange sense of yesterday about all these social democratic books.

This sense is most pronounced as one reads the remarkable book edited by David Blake and Paul Ormerod, The Economics of Prosperity. This ambitious little book is really rather touching. It is not altogether clear whether its economic growth part came first and its social policy part was added on, or whether the patent solution for Britain’s problem of economic growth was invented to make the financing of vast new governmental programmes of social policy possible. As it is, the book has two very different parts: one about the economy, one about social policy. But its central thesis is simple: we need enormous economic growth, indeed an economic miracle, in order to finance social justice – and we can have the miracle.

How? The answers are unfortunately all too familiar. The public sector must lead growth. (Oh dear! Where and when has a public sector ever done this?) Import controls must help. (Help whom? The export industries?) The pound must be devalued. (To raise confidence?) Inflation will of course go up a bit, and taxes too, but people will not mind. (Really?) It would be easy to mock a book which is of moving naïveté, especially when it deals with the world at large. The sentence in the chapter on the military budget, by John Blackaby, is surely a candidate for the saying of the year: ‘The Soviet Union is a long way away.’ To recommend, on the one hand, a systematic violation of the Treaty of Rome by an import surcharge, and, on the other, the permanent vetoing of agricultural price increases in the councils of the European Community, shows the kind of little Englandism to which the world is at present growing accustomed, though hardly an understanding of Europe, or of any reality for that matter. Indeed, the entire theory of the public-sector-led economic miracle is either naive or dangerous. At times, in reading this book, the picture of Cubans queuing up at embassies or fleeing their country in dinghies came to my mind: Caroline Atkinson, David Blake, Toby Harris, Oonagh McDonald, Paul Ormerod and Donald Roy are trying to counter the absurd radicalism of the economic policies of the Tories by its mirror image, without realising that the result will in both cases be the same – which means that it will be very depressing. The one feature which the British economy really lacks, the confidence of consumers and investors, at home and abroad, would be finally destroyed by the siege economy that is suggested here.

Thus this book hardly contains a prescription for the kind of growth which its authors dearly want. But leaving this minor point on one side, it does provide many a prescription for how to spend the money which is not there. The articles on ‘individual spending programmes’ vary in quality. Some are instructive and useful (such as Tessa Blackstone’s and Alan Crispin’s on education), some are original, if marred by unnecessary ideological frills (such as Mick Namer’s on transport), others are brief, superficial. But all have the same general theme. This theme is as conventional as the analysis of social policy textbooks. It is that more money is needed for social policy. There are, it is argued, plenty of unmet needs. Any additional money has to be public money. Public agencies – the state – must distribute it fairly. For that purpose, they need a better organisation, and a new sense of objectives. This must be the product of planning. Etcetera.

It is not amusing to criticise books, especially if their authors have made a serious effort to deal with important issues of the time. Every one of the books mentioned in this review – well, almost every one – contributes to our understanding of poverty, deprivation, and the methods for dealing with it. Indeed, I agree with their objectives and with many of their proposals. But they are about yesterday; and so far as Britain is concerned, they are about trying to have a better yesterday. There is not a single new idea in these worthy products of social democratic minds, and one suspects that they will therefore produce more alienated intellectuals rather than a happier society.

The best way to substantiate this claim is to report Strasser’s argument in his Limits to the Social State? because it is indicative of radical thinking in another country, Germany. Strasser begins by rejecting the attacks on the social state both by the New Right and the anti-reformist Left. He insists that the welfare state à la Beveridge (to translate his argument into another culture) must be not only preserved but extended and completed. His own study is certainly not complete, however, and to that extent the books discussed in this review have their value.

Strasser points out that the very welfare state which is the crowning glory of social democracy has produced contradictions. The financial difficulties of the social state are in fact a result of its construction, as is the bureaucratisation of social services. But among the contradictions there is also the ‘new social question’ of the underprivileged and those in need today. The new ‘underclass’ is the product of a middle-class society, whether it consists of indigenous poor or of minorities. Drug addiction and other corollaries of anomie are a product of the affluent society even in those countries to which it has brought only a modest level of affluence. The major issue of old people, their homelessness, their loneliness, is entirely the result of a certain kind of society, rather than just another problem of social policy.

What then is to be done? Of course, the level of services which the welfare state offers must be maintained. However, Strasser – unlike most British social democrats – insists that there are ways of making savings without reducing services. Beyond that, social services have to explore new directions. Decentralisation is one of them. Strasser makes much of the ‘small networks’ which are likely to be more effective than even the best social workers. The other theme of his proposals is participation. And beyond all his detailed proposals there is ‘the question of alternative forms of social life, of the possibility of a social existence beyond capitalism and growth fetishism’.

Why are British authors so silent on these themes? Why do they remain growth fetishists at a time when everyone knows that we are facing at least another Kondratieff downturn? Why are there so few discussions of decentralisation and participation in small networks? Why is there an unbroken belief in the great failures of the past – social planning and benevolent government? Why is social thinking as antiquated as the machinery of industry? Why on earth must social policy in Britain continue to be so boring? It is not enough to reply that there are still many in need. This is accepted. The question is what comes after all these splendid people who are Understanding Social Policy, Planning for Welfare, defining Social Priorities in the Eighties, and creating The Good City. Or is Britain for ever doomed to continue the useless debate between yesterday and the day before?