Left and Reciprocity

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* Article: The left and reciprocity. By Stuart White. From: Labour's Future. Soundings Journal & Open Left. Lawrence Wishart, 2010

URL = http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/ebooks/Labour%27s%20Future%20(Final).pdf

= Shifting from ‘what they owe us’ to ‘what we owe each other’.


Stuart White:

"One of the emerging themes of Labour’s post-election discussion is the need to ground social policy in the value of reciprocity. Labour politicians have voiced worries that, in government, the party adopted an approach to welfare that was too focused on meeting needs without regard to the duty of citizens to make a productive contribution back to society. Labour, the argument goes, must reconnect with common sense values of fairness – centrally, the norm of reciprocity – if it is to win back support and return to office. There is a truth in this argument. But it oversimplifies Labour’s record and underestimates the challenge Labour, and the wider left, faces. This is not merely to reflect back public attitudes about reciprocity, but to radicalise these attitudes in the process. The limited notion of ‘rights and responsibilities’ in the welfare system must give way to a much wider ideal of what we may term fair reciprocity in the economy as a whole."

Reciprocity as a value

"Reciprocity is indeed a popular value, and one which informs people’s perceptions of fairness in the welfare state.

In The Solidarity Society, Tim Horton and James Gregory looked at how public attitudes to benefit spending relate to expectations about whether benefit recipients will work in the future. They found that those who opposed higher payments to the poor also tended to have a weaker expectation of their future contribution to society, suggesting that a perceived lack of reciprocity may be driving opposition to higher benefits for the out of work.1 They also cite an important study by Tom Sefton using the British Social Attitudes survey.2 Sefton identified three groups: 29 per cent of the population are ‘Samaritans’ who support welfare spending altruistically; 26 per cent are ‘Robinson Crusoes’ who oppose it quite strongly; but 45 per cent are ‘Club Members’, who are willing to support welfare spending on condition that those who benefit do what they can to contribute in return. Horton and Gregory found in their survey that proposals to raise the national minimum wage and to give more financial support to carers both commanded strong public support (81 per cent and 85 per cent respectively). They suggest this is because, in these cases, the higher payments are seen as a legitimate reward for a valuable social contribution (pp126-7).

Moreover, reciprocity isn’t only a popular value in a statistical sense. It is also a core value in social-democratic philosophy. Through the first half of the twentieth century, social-democratic thinkers in Britain advanced a reciprocity-based theory of economic justice: citizens are entitled to the income necessary to carry out efficient productive functions but, in general, entitled to income only if they are willing to perform such a function. This functionalist perspective can be traced through the work of New Liberals like Leonard Hobhouse to later ethical socialists such as R.H. Tawney .3 Recall that Tawney contrasted the ‘acquisitive society’ with the ‘functional society’. The problem of the ‘acquisitive society’, for Tawney, is not only its inequality but the presence of ‘functionless property’: property which enables its holder to enjoy an income independent of performing any productive function. Within this framework, social democrats argued on the one hand for taxes to remove ‘functionless’ income payments, e.g. taxes on very high labour incomes, on inherited wealth, and on unearned increments to land value. On the other, they argued for a range of welfare state programmes to ensure citizens appropriate opportunity and capability to perform a productive function. And they supported a range of measures – strong trade unionism, wage councils, income transfers – to ensure that all those making a productive contribution got a ‘civic minimum’. Feminists such as Eleanor Rathbone adapted this framework, arguing for ‘family endowment’ policies, in part as a way of acknowledging the otherwise unpaid productive contribution of wives and mothers.4 And, as indicated in the quote at the head of this contribution, one can see a clear echo of this perspective in the work of more recent political philosophers such as John Rawls.

So if reciprocity is a popular value and a core social-democratic value, we appear to have a promising basis for grounding socialdemocratic policy in common sense notions of fairness." (http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/ebooks/Labour%27s%20Future%20(Final).pdf)

Towards fair reciprocity

However, all is not necessarily as straightforward as this might suggest.

First, we should bear in mind that New Labour was generally rather keen on linking welfare to contribution. New Labour did not speak directly of ‘reciprocity’, but it had for many years a strong rhetoric of ‘rights and responsibilities’ which conveyed a similar idea.6 And this wasn’t pure rhetoric. The early flagship policy, the New Deal for Young People, had a strong element of conditionality. A lot of Labour’s redistributive effort was channelled through employment-related tax credits, preserving the link between assistance and work. New Labour certainly did not generously increase welfare benefits for all types of welfare recipient. If you were of working age, childless and out of work, you saw very little increase in your benefits under New Labour. This may be one reason why the poverty rate actually went up amongst this group under New Labour, while it fell for the elderly and for children.

Yet, despite the efforts of New Labour to link welfare spending to a norm of reciprocity, public attitudes towards welfare became more conservative during New Labour’s period in office. Analysis of the British Social Attitudes Survey shows downward trends in public support for redistribution to the ‘less well off ’ and for spending more on welfare benefits ‘for the poor’ from 1985 to 2007, with no apparent slowing in the rate of decline from 1997 (Solidarity Society, pp39-41). The lesson would seem to be that even if government builds respect for reciprocity into the design of welfare, this does not necessarily change a popular perception that there is a widespread failure of reciprocity in the system. Some suggest that New Labour’s rhetoric may have helped to reinforce this perception, thereby contributing to the conservative trend in public opinion we have seen.

Part of the problem with New Labour’s rhetoric was that it tended in political practice to frame the issue of ‘rights and responsibilities’ as being mainly, if not wholly, about the behaviour of welfare recipients (despite warnings at the theoretical level against this). The issue of responsibility in welfare became a discrete issue, bracketed off from wider questions about the fairness of the economic system. ‘Responsibility’ was about ‘them’ – the welfare poor – and not about ‘us’, as citizens. The challenge is precisely to shift from discussion of ‘what they owe us’ to one about ‘what we owe each other’." (http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/ebooks/Labour%27s%20Future%20(Final).pdf)

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