There has been much discussion over the last week about the coalition government’s first 100 days. Some of this analysis has been useful (like that on this blog), whilst much of it has been rather odd. There has been a rush to judgement as if we can state with some certainty what the government is and isn’t going to do after only 14 weeks.
However, the task that the government has set itself – to reduce the size and role of the state – is a long-term task, and what makes it more difficult is that the key change is not merely a matter of economics and politics, but involves a significant cultural shift.
The biggest cultural change that the government needs to make is to eradicate the sense that people are due certain entitlements. Instead of assuming that they are entitled to benefits and services as of right, people need to come to terms with the fact that what they receive comes at the expense of others: welfare benefits can only be granted to some because others pay tax. Calling a benefit an entitlement ignores the fact that the money has to be earned by someone and then taken by government.
Matching the idea of entitlement is the problem of resentment. This is the sense that government does not work for us, does not care and might actually be operating against us. Some who feel this resentment do so because they feel they are paying taxes that are being squandered on others. But the highest level of resentment actually comes from those who benefit most from the entitlement-based system of welfare. It is those who benefit the most from welfare and the professionals who depend on these structures that feel most strongly that the state is against them.
I would argue that this latter form of resentment arises precisely because of the belief that welfare recipients, backed by welfare professionals, are entitled to certain goods and services as of right and without having to make any contribution themselves. What matters now is not what one does but the mere fact that one is. The job of the new government is to change this attitude and make it clear that benefits come with strings attached. This is a task that will take much longer than 100 days.