‘The assembly which votes the taxes, should be elected exclusively by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed. Those who pay no taxes…have every motive to be lavish and none to economise….Any power of voting possessed by them is a violation of the fundamental principle of free government; the severance of the power of control from the interest in its beneficial exercise.’
John Stuart Mill
Every so often a publication comes along that causes you to stop and think. I have just finished reading such a publication. I encourage everyone to read ‘Declaring Independence – Three Essays on the Future of the Welfare State’, a Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) pamphlet containing essays authored by Peter Saunders, Eugene Dubossarsky and Stephen Samild, and the ALS’s John Humphreys.
It attempts to find common ground between the traditional libertarian approach (as espoused by the likes of Charles Murray) that welfare encourages dependency, and the paternalistic approach (e.g. Noel Pearson) that a certain proportion of the population needs to be looked after and wants to be told what to do. The authors suggest that Murray’s libertarianism is valid for the majority of people, but that Pearson’s paternalism is necessary for a minority.
‘Because a few people can’t be trusted to run their own lives, no one is trusted…It’s like being back at school, when one miscreant who misbehaved caused the whole class to be kept behind for detention’, writes Saunders. Tony Abbott, shadow Minister for Families and Community Affairs, has even suggested that eveybody on welfare should be subject to quarantining of payments (along the Northern Territories model) to ensure money goes on rent and food.
The essays put forward a twofold solution to the twin problems of government paternalism and citizen incompetence.
Part I proposes that those who need constant help and surveillance should be able to declare themselves dependent. But this will not be costless. In particular, you will forfeit your right to vote and to sit on a jury. The logic is sound – if you can’t be trusted to run your own affairs, then why should i trust you to run mine. Like shareholders in a company, if you have paid in nothing, argues Saunders, you can hardly be expected to have a say in how the dividends are distributed. The main advantage of this approach will be to strengthen democracy as it will weaken the ability of politicians to buy votes (currently 4 out of 10 Australians rely on the government for the majority of their income).
Part II is authored by Humphreys and introduces the idea of ‘declaring independence’ from the state. The core of this idea is that autonomy and dignity could be restored to the mass of the population who would no longer have to pass on their income to the government, only to beg for its return at election time in the form of benefits (minus the cost of incompetent government provision).
Such self-declared independent people would still be subject to the laws of the land, but only those that stop them from harming others. For instance, they would not be required to wear seat belts because if they were involved in an accident, they would have to fund the medical costs themselves from their own private insurance policy.
Crucial to these ideas is the underlying premise that some people are more competent than others. We readily accept this concept on the sporting pitch, but come over all queasy when applied elsewhere. Saunders turns to John Stuart Mill again, a passionate believer in human enlightenment and self-improvement, who warned against ‘valuing the views of the ignorant as equivalent of the educated.’
I can’t see Brendan Nelson or Kevin Rudd jumping up and down for joy at these ideas but they are a valuable contribution in addressing the many problems caused by our current welfare system. They deserve to be heard.