Universality – The Giant Killer

I read today of proposed changes to the legal aid system.  A significant component of the proposed changes lies in getting the wealthy to pay their own legal bills.  Doubtless, a number of people would agree with the Minister, Simon Power in his assertion that the wealthy should not get free legal aid.  Why should they not pay for it? 

The nature of Power’s comment is similar to a question posed by David Lange once in the mid 1980s, when his Government started means testing benefits and services, as to why the wives of Doctors should receive a family benefit like those people on lower incomes.  Surely, he asked, wealthy people should be able to pay their own way and pay for their own services?

I would respond that the answer to Lange’s question and to Simon Power’s allegation about the rich receiving the same ability to access legal aid as the poor lies in the fact that it is fair.  The reason as to why legal aid should remain available to all or why Doctor’s wives should receive family benefit lies in the important principle of universality.  This is the belief that regardless of gender, race, social position or background that everyone is entitled to have equal access to and receipt of benefits and services in healthcare, education and the like to improve their life chances.

A commitment to building a better and fairer world, particularly after 1945, drove many people who were involved in progressive politics at the time.  In New Zealand and the United Kingdom, progressive (Labour) Governments produced programmes as a means of achieving that goal.  No one they argued should be subjected to the poverty and illness that had previously existed.  Everyone they alleged would have the ability to have equal access to services and benefits and the right to further themselves freed from monetary or social constraints.  This became the foundation of the notion of social security.

In the United Kingdom, the wartime coalition Government (Conservative/Labour) established a commission under the Liberal Economist, Sir William Beveridge to investigate the issue of social security and to produce a blueprint for a more inclusive society for the UK after the war.  The report of that committee became known as the ‘Beveridge Report,’ and it opted for universality as a means of delivering social services and benefits.  These would be available to all people. The costs would be recouped through the maintenance of full employment and progressive taxation.  

Beveridge saw the ultimate goal of social security as killing the five ‘Giants’ – these were the Giants of want, disease, squalor, idleness and ignorance.  As a consequence, Beveridge was opposed to the idea of means testing (which was a common strategy at that point) because it established and maintained poverty traps.  Means testing sustained the Giants.

However, since the 1980s, successive Governments have used means testing as a way of achieving social and economic goals.  The universal system that Beveridge and others envisaged has been removed and replaced with programmes that last saw the light of day in the 1930s.

I am of the opinion that the emphasis on using means testing as a means of ending poverty is a bit like using an incurable disease to cure illness.  It is, simply, quite stupid.  Indeed, there is actually something morally Victorian in the approach taken by those who advocate means testing that reeks of the ethos of the deserving poor. 

Writing in 1920 on similar matters, future UK Labour Party Prime Minister Clement Attlee commented that;

“’In a civilised community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways – they may be neglected, they may be cared for by the organised community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community. The first way is intolerable, and as for the third: Charity is only possible without loss of dignity between equals. A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient’s character, and terminable at his caprice”.

In the social democratic state that New Zealand used to be, everyone, regardless of whether they were rich or poor had equal access to benefits and services offered by the state.  The means by which this would be equalised financially was through a progressive tax system.  Simply, if you earned a good income then you would be taxed at a higher rate than if you were on a low-income.  Benefits were not taxed at all.  

The loss of Universality, I would argue, has made New Zealand a less equal state.  This lack of equality is amply demonstrated in those statistics on crime, poverty, health care, education as well as a multitude of other statistics that have been produced since 1984. 

The ‘reforms’ of the 1980s and 1990s have once more meant that targeting and means testing have become a common feature of government policy and assistance.  Given those events, Attlee’s statement about the ‘loss of dignity’ for the poorer sections of the community once more becomes a real issue.  The loss of universality in terms of services has led people in the middle to upper income brackets to question not only the notion of state provision in key areas of the economy and society but the notion of why they should actually pay taxes, especially since they are now paying for private providers out of their own pockets as opposed to having state providers being paid for out of the common purse.  The loss of universality has therefore meant financial cuts and poorer services.  The people who rely on those services are increasingly economically and socially trapped and impoverished.

Beveridge commented once that, “the object of government in peace and in war is not the glory of rulers or of races, but the happiness of common man.”  

The loss of universality ensures that the Giants once again stride the landscape.  People need to ask how their return benefits the happiness of the common man.

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