A social plimsoll line?


Choice is the mantra for neo-liberals who believe, in fundamentalist ways, that god is actually the market. So they want to give us maximum choices to buy services in the free market. Instead of providing collectively through public providers, they shift the many risks to us, which leaves us vulnerable to all the risks contained in the old Latin tag caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. This means the moral hazards embedded in the market model are now imposed on citizens who have been transmuted into customers. In other words, all the collective risks once managed by governments are now shifted on to individuals.

Classic economics requires individuals to balance risk and desire for spending so markets work as efficient distribution models. It assumes that ‘customers’ are pre-programmed to optimise their own interests so they will make appropriate calculations to assess the correct price to pay. This excessively limited view of the human condition rests on the assumption that society does not exist but we are all self interested individuals, choosing only to co-operate by some need for order and making exchanges. So the assumption is that offering us choices will activate the appropriate mix of greed and desire. This will satisfy those who are expert choosers and adequately resourced. The rest of us have to bear the risks as consequences of presumed bad choices.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

This raises interesting questions for social policy. If governments remove much of the collective pooling of resources that constitute the welfare state for use if needs arise, are there problematic consequences if these need to be replaced by personal purchases and savings? Aha, some will say, this creates self-reliance and choice which are much better for people than hanging off the public tit and taking no responsibility for their own needs.

Superficially that sounds ‘good’ but it ignores the inequalities that affect providing for ourselves and the consequences of such expectations. Some of these may be personal qualities but most will depend on the circumstances of lives out of personal control. So what happens to the many people who are unsure of their ability to manage their lives independently of some communal pooling of risks? What if they can’t find enough money to use the private health system, i.e. to pay the premiums and the gap fees, often upfront? What does it do to people to deal with the uncertainty of whether their child can succeed in the local school and maybe seeing a need to pay for private education, extra coaching or other forms of user pay supports? How do people plan for a long retirement when they are anxious as to whether they will be able to support themselves, as the government has told them they should?

The answer is probably obvious in many polls, which record increasing distrust of financial and governance institutions and high levels of anxiety, not so much about one’s personal circumstances, but fear of the future and changes to society. It’s not too surprising that some of this manifests itself in litigiousness, risk aversion and apparent self interest, as these are the models that the government appears to promote as it constantly undermines its role as universal provider; redefining it as offering a safety net only to those who cannot self provide. This stigmatises the presumably improvident by offering them ‘residual’ public services and denigrating their value. So people may well vote as customers, not citizens, choosing the party that offers the best bargain and paying little attention to collective obligations.

My question is whether this imposed compulsory risk taking is incompatible with more civil societies? Are we moving towards being less civil societies, in part at least, because civility requires some as yet uncalculated levels of basic collective security? We know some apparently civilised societies have disintegrated in the past, e.g. Germany in the 1930s, and levels of disorder and injustice can fuel support for totalitarianism. So the post World War II welfare state was a response to the threats posed after World War I by those who formed the fascist groups.

We don’t have the disastrous levels of need of the Thirties any more but we do have static and maybe increasing inequalities, tied to widespread fear of change and pessimism about the future in general. The consequences of feeling disconnected and fearful may be equally damaging. Do we need to feel connected to something bigger than our families and friends? Some of the passions that are now emerging as passionate commitments to causes and issues, rising interest in more fundamentalist forms of religion and politics, suggest that people want to find meaning, to be connected and believe in something. So this suggests we are not just calculating self interested beings, and is evidence for our interest in the transcendent. So, maybe major shifts to individualising risk taking is not the way to go for good social policy.

Just think about it. Once people felt they could rely on quality public education, health services, utilities, communication services etc. While some chose to buy themselves extras, few felt it was necessary for survival or adequacy. Now almost all these areas have become problematic and retirement income and services are not collective but individual risk. The deregulation of other services like airlines and banks mean we have to make constant choices, and new changes may add increases in needs to negotiate working conditions rather than being covered by awards. Choices multiply exponentially and we don’t know whether overload becomes toxic.

There is increasing evidence in marketing literature that people do not deal well with too many choices. Some have found that it can de-motivate consumers and others have questioned classical economic theories of equilibrium, which do not take into account institutional and social constraints. These criticisms from within the wider disciplines of economics suggest that there should be an examination of the effects on social and political behaviour of too much uncertainty. Is there a measurable consequence of shifting risk from the state collectivity to individuals by offering maybe illusory ‘choices’? These questions should underpin discussions on how we can devise social policies that may encourage more civil societies, or create divides and tensions.

There are many other challenges in these newer areas of social theorising that recognise it’s often the relativities between us, and the perceptions we have of these, that influence the way we interpret the world and act within it. The role of feelings, of non materialist explanations, have been overlooked in the dominant materialist/economistic views of both left and right, despite their different ideological bases. Recent work on people’s sense of agency and control of health outcomes is influencing health policy and practice. Inequalities rather than poverty are starting to be perceived as problematic and require the rethink of how to reframe health policy as well as basic care.

So the ways we see the world, and interpret our roles in it, are increasingly being seen as important. It behoves us therefore to look at the effects of public policies that emphasise seeing the self as individuals who are unconnected to some form of protective, and maybe reciprocal, institution. Does this model reduce our capacity for taking responsibility for others because we are too heavily burdened with demands for self care? Do those models which do not satisfy our desire for connectedness, make people become vulnerable to excessive desires for belonging that demand an unthinking adherence to some forms of beliefs that demands compliance and complicity?

So back to the opening question: is there a social plimsoll line, a point of overload that makes societies sink? Maybe those who set up the modern welfare state to remedy the ills of the Thirties were right in seeing the need to create a benevolent state which can temper too much insecurity and anxiety and allow us to be responsible citizens.

The Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) site here

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.