Opinion | One big welfare family

Three quarters of Danes would rather be taken care of by the state than their family, according to a recent CEPOS/Norstat poll. What that means, is that where once Danes took care of themselves and each other, they are now satisfied to let the state fill that role. The state is the extended family we turn to in our time of need. We have forgotten our obligation to ourselves and our relatives, in the process reducing family bonds to something purely emotional and removing all forms of financial commitment to each other. There’s nothing wrong with the family being an emotional collective, but it is a problem that we no longer rely on each other in times of need.

If you read the constitution, it’s fairly clear that the state was envisioned as stepping in to help only as a last resort. It was not conceived of as a universal care provider. For example, section 75 states: “He, who cannot provide for himself or his family, and who is not the responsibility of anyone else, shall be cared for by the state.”

The thinking was that people should first and foremost be taking care of themselves. We all have a duty to take care of ourselves and not be a burden on others. By way of extension, individuals were to take care of the others in their family. If you were unable to care for yourself, it wasn’t, according to the constitution, the state that would come to your aid. It was an individual’s social network that was to kick in as part of a web of relationships in which everyone supported everyone else. Marriages and families were the two most typical examples of institutions built up around this network of mutual help.

It is only as a last resort, and only to the most desperate and isolated group, that the state or the local government should extend a hand. And not until it has been clearly established that the individual is not “the responsibility of someone else”.

Instead of retaining the family as a pillar of society, we have developed a form of state-financed individualism. This individualism in disguise forces people to become dependent on the state. By freeing people from their familial ties, we’ve bound them up in the snares of public assistance. But is that for their best? And is it the most efficient way of doing things?

When you say ‘welfare’ today, people immediately think of publicly funded welfare – an individual’s rightful assistance from the state. But, seen historically, this is a very new understanding of the term. Welfare is a vital element of every society, since humans are born totally dependent on others. All societies have mechanisms for taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves. What varies, though, is how such people are dealt with.

Today, spouses are required to support each other, and parents are required to support children under the age of 18. Even so, you often hear people complain when their spouse loses a job: because welfare benefits are based on family income, they wind up having to support their spouse. Similarly, when our children turn 18, we let the state pick up the tab for caring for them. And, unlike in other countries, we don’t care for our elderly when they become too old to care for themselves.

But, if we lowered our taxes, would things change? Would we start placing a value on families and familial obligation? Not if you ask Danes. Some 65 percent of those polled said they were ‘very much’ against extending the circle of people they are required to care for to include children up to the age of 25 and parents. A slight majority (54 percent) believe, however, that people should still be required to support their spouse and their nuclear family.

But maybe it’s worth viewing family obligations not as ensnaring bonds that only engender an intolerable dependence on one’s parents, but rather as a way to prevent social isolation. It is possible today for a 20-year-old to move into a single-room flat, start receiving public benefits and wind up isolated, in jeopardy of slipping completely out of society. Why shouldn’t parents be required to help out? Why shouldn’t welfare officials be required to contact a young person’s parents and ask whether they can help first, before deciding whether the person should be given taxpayer-financed help.

One thing we must constantly keep in mind is that we all have the freedom to do as we please. Those who can care for themselves have unlimited opportunities. Only those who are beholden to others are subject to limitations.

The Scandinavian welfare states are rather unique, since they could not have been built without homogenous nation states as their foundation. A well-defined national sentiment identified with by all, and a solid work ethic, made it possible to create generous social welfare programmes. But, this homogenous foundation is beginning to disappear. Globalisation has made the nation porous, allowing people from the outside to receive social welfare benefits without having paid into them for their entire lives. Meanwhile, our work ethic and sense of responsibility has changed over time.

We need to begin asking whether we can still afford – or even want – a social welfare state that guarantees universal benefits for all, even to those that could turn to someone in their immediate circle for help in times of need. With it looking increasingly unlikely that we’ll be able to continue to afford generous universal benefits, we need to find ways to reduce benefit levels while at the same time establishing a social security net that doesn’t make us dependent on the state.

The author is a senior fellow at the Centre for Political Studies (CEPOS), an independent think-tank promoting a society based on freedom, responsibility, private initiative and limited government.