Gordon Brown recently signalled a shift in public policy away from performance targets and towards entitlements. He argued we should place access to health, education, housing and welfare on the basis of entitlements, on the premise that this was what citizens should expect from the public services.
But this is a very dangerous idea, in that the the notion of entitlements acts to separate completely the funding of welfare from its consumption. To say we are entitled to something places a clear moral imperative on some agent to provide it for us. It also implies that we need provide no further justification for our access to the service, and that we should have these services regardless of the consequences to others.
Brown’s idea of entitlement simply assumes that the services – and the money to pay for them – is always there, and that if extra funding is needed then it should, and can, be found. But where, and from whom, does the money for these services come from? And why is it acceptable that the people paying have no say in what others may receive?
The problem of basing welfare on entitlements is that it assumes that people who are not party to private decisions – about having children, taking a job, taking drugs, not eating healthily – should eventually be held to account for sorting out the resulting problems. This might be justified by some on the basis of social solidarity and altruism, in that we should feel the need to help others less fortunate than ourselves. However, what is readily apparent is that the sense of solidarity only runs one way – from taxpayer to welfare recipient. There is no conditionality to ensure that welfare recipients’ entitlements are linked to any sort of behaviour. The result of this is the very opposite of solidarity: if we have entitlements we need not think of the needs of others (after all they have entitlements too!). Perversely, therefore, Brown’s attempt to broaden the role of the state as a provider of welfare merely has the effect of making us more selfish.