Blog post based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy

In his book What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel argues compellingly that we should be paying more attention to the moral limits of markets. Markets are not morally neutral. As market-oriented thinking is extended into more and more aspects of life, market values are crowding out public spiritedness and corroding the public sphere. Meanwhile, conservative advocates for welfare reform have raised concerns about the corrosive impact of long-term welfare receipt on community values. The Australian Aboriginal public intellectual and social reformer Noel Pearson has argued that the extension of welfare entitlements in the 1970s to Aboriginal people in his home region, Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, was socially devastating. In this region with unusually high unemployment, welfare has become the mainstay of the economy. This has had a damaging effect, he believes, on community values such as trust, respect, care for the weak and mutual help. He likens welfare to a poison killing his people. Though Sandel’s and Pearson’s arguments find receptive audiences on different ends of the political spectrum, the parallels between their arguments are striking. While Sandel critiques the ever-increasing domination of American life by market logic, Pearson critiques the domination of life in the Aboriginal communities of Cape York by the logic of the passive welfare economy.

Proposals for conservative welfare reform are frequently criticized by defenders of welfare entitlements on the grounds that their most enthusiastic advocates are people with little firsthand knowledge of the lives of welfare recipients. Pearson’s entry into this debate has had a transformative effect in Australia. As a nationally significant land rights campaigner, his empathy with the downtrodden and racially oppressed is more difficult to question than other welfare reform advocates’. While moral arguments supplement the New Right’s economic and philosophical criticisms of the welfare state, in Pearson’s writings about welfare the concern with the corrosion of community norms is foremost. As he sees it, the centrality of welfare in the lives of his people threatens their cultural survival.

Elements of Pearson’s political thought have encouraged some observers to label him ‘neoliberal’ and to dismiss his moral concerns about long-term welfare dependency. But Pearson’s moral critique of welfare deserves greater scholarly engagement. It is a major contribution to our understanding of the difficulties socially excluded indigenous populations pose for the social policies of liberal-democratic welfare states. It shows us the moral inadequacy of a welfare state that merely maintains citizens in the face of a breakdown in their access to a functioning labour market, while doing little to rectify this breakdown. Though moral critiques of welfare are used to justify neopaternalist policies aimed at changing the behavior of welfare recipients, the logic of Pearson’s argument leads in a different direction. Properly understood, Pearson’s moral analysis of welfare as an economic institution suggests that what is needed is not punitive treatment of individual welfare recipients but greater investment in economic opportunities for residents of disadvantaged regions.

You can access Katherine Curchin’s full article ‘From the Moral Limits of Markets to the Moral Limits of Welfare’ free of charge until the end of February 2016 here.

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