Monday, January 20, 2014

Benefits Street: the "something for nothing" culture, lifestyle choices and the Conservatives' sadistic welfare policy

The Conservatives' attack on welfare focuses on communicating the impression that welfare for many is a "lifestyle choice"; moreover, they imply that much of Britain's welfare spending is spent on "benefit cheats", "skivers", and people simply too lazy to get "a real job".

The Channel Four show "Benefits Street" plays directly to this perception, in spite of the fact that in many ways, the real "Benefits Street" is in Westminster. And it would make for more shock-value entertainment, as well.
Who else but the Tories could castigate poor people for "living off the state", while some of their MPs feel perfectly entitled to have the taxpayer pay for their moats and duck ponds? Such a shameless lack of regard for misuse of public funds beggars belief, let alone their indifference at what society might think of such amoral behaviour.

And yet, this is the essence of George Osborne's political strategy: no more of the "something for nothing" culture, he says with an evil glint in his eye. His aim is to divide the working poor against the unemployed poor.

Because wages are falling behind the increasingly-high cost of living, it means that, for many, work no longer pays. The government seem to have accepted this truth, but their answer is as cynical as it is sadistic. How? Because the government's solution to the falling value to wages in real terms, is to restrict and cut the value of benefits. This is an act of schadenfreude (or psychological sadism, in English) against those on benefits. To make the working poor feel psychologically better, they punish the unemployed poor.

Crucially, the working poor are still no better-off financially by these cuts; they simply gain sadistic pleasure from knowing that the unemployed poor should be worse-off than they are.

The politics of choice

The Conservatives say that being on benefits is a "lifestyle choice". Well, it's worth remembering what the word "choice" actually means, in an economic and political sense.

In an economic sense of the word, "choice" comes from money. The more money you have, the more options it gives you. This is simple economics. So in this logical sense of the word, being rich is a "lifestyle choice", because those with lots of money choose to keep the money for themselves and spend it on their own lifestyle; they could equally choose to give the money to the needier in society (eg. as charity), or spend the money on investment (eg. to create more jobs by expanding their company).
In this way, as I said in a previous article when talking about the psychology of the rich:

"they have an "anti-social" view of society - or, in other words, refuse to act like responsible members of society. This is where the psychology of the "classic psychopath" appears: a lack of empathy and understanding for others, and the amoral pursuit of power for its own end. This explains why they would support the actions of the current Conservative government in The UK regarding "austerity": the state should be smaller because they see it as useless"

By contrast, those with little money have far fewer economic choices. The rich resent paying taxes on who they see as "benefit cheats" and "skivers". The reality is that only a tiny percentile of the benefit-eligible population are guilty of fraud; many of those on benefits are still in work, and so the benefits they receive are a testament to the failure of the jobs market to offer a salary that people can actually live on.

Again, the government does nothing to rectify this, but uses the most cynical of misdirection and scapegoating tactics by demonizing the unemployed poor, not to mention the young.

If anything, those people who are guilty of choosing to stay on benefits rather than get a job (yes, there are some!), are only guilty of making a rational economic choice. For them, if the salary offers less money after tax and NI deductions (not to mention lost housing benefit) than they can get while still unemployed, of course it would be in their economic interests not to work!
It's not their fault that they can't get a job that doesn't offer them a living wage. It is the fault of the labour market, and the government, for doing nothing to rectify the broken labour market and the increasing cost of living.

Being on benefits isn't a "lifestyle choice" for those kinds of people, but the only choice that some of the unemployed poor have: to choose to stay on unemployment benefit rather than take a job that will give them less money. For those people, it is their economic imperative, because the government refuses to make it economically worthwhile for them to work.

The "politics of choice" really boils down to how you choose to live your life, but those choices are also defined by the extent of economic choice.
The Conservatives, as they mostly represent (and consist of) the affluent, have no problem with "economic choice", so their political choices reflect this: this explains their hatred of seeing "their money" being spent on the "feckless" unemployed. But as they are rich, the fact they have more economic choice also means that they have more moral responsibility towards society, because their economic choices can have a much larger effect on society, positive or negative, depending on what they choose to do with their money.

Instead, they choose to feel that society owes them something; that they are entitled to special treatment because they are rich (regardless of where the money came from), not to mention getting far more in "benefits" than the poor, in the way of a plethora of government subsidies and financial guarantees.

This is something many of the rich hate being reminded of. It is more a case of the poor funding the government's "something for nothing" culture for the rich.

Sadism as government policy

As Ayn Rand liked to say, people are bound to operate according to their own self-interest.

Of course, if the government restricts benefits to such an extent (as some in government would like to) that the unemployed have no economic choice but to work for a pittance (and therefore get into debt), then the government will have changed the economic choices of those unemployed. But this doesn't make Britain a better place economically or socially, let alone morally.

The attitude of the government simply makes life a race to the bottom; depressing wages by making cheaper and cheaper (even free) labour possible, while at the same time doing nothing to suppress the rising cost of living (because the government doesn't believe in intervening in the free market, unless you're rich). At the same time, the housing market has reached a completely dysfunctional level, helped by Osborne's cynical and economically-illiterate "Help To Buy" scheme. I could go on.

The Conservatives' approach to running the economy is amoral because it operates according to the psychology (and motivations) of the rich. It assumes that because the rich hate seeing their money being spent on others, those economically lower down the food chain will feel the same way. But from a psychological (and economic) point of view, they don't because their economic realities are very different. Those lower down in society sometimes have to rely on the welfare state when they fall on hard times.

Those hard times are these days permanent for some sections of society, including the "working poor".

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