Jim Sillars: What a state we serfs are in

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Some will find the assertion herein of “serfdom” uncomfortable.

In choosing that term, I am not attacking the character or worth of any person in receipt of any benefit in the welfare system. The accidents of life impact upon people in different ways, and those who divide us into strivers and shirkers should remember the admonition against foolish judgment, that there but for the grace of God go I. Despite the time given to political debate on it, and the demonstrations against the bedroom tax, we have missed in this iniquitous measure its revelation of a disturbing feature of society – that many have become serfs, whose lives are under the complete control of their master, the state.

In 1944, Professor Friedrich Hayek, published in England a seminal anti-socialist work, The Road to Serfdom, based on his analysis of the interdependence of economics, social policies and institutions.

He was of the Austrian school of economics, which derides the John Maynard Keynes school’s view that governments should borrow and pump money into an economy to boost demand and create jobs.

Austrians believe such a policy, ultimately, brings disaster. Gordon Brown was a Keynesian.

Hayek wrote when war socialism was the system Winston Churchill’s coalition was using to give government control of how much food people could buy, who they would work for, what farmers could and could not grow, which companies would make tanks and which aircraft and so on.

The success of that system in British survival, and eventual victory, made it certain that any post-war government would opt for something similar. Hayek did not condemn
socialists as bad people, just misguided, not able to foresee the final damaging consequences of their good intentions.

His point was that the more the state expanded into the lives of people, and the more the state controlled the economy and social apparatus, then we were heading for a modern form of serfdom, where individuals could exercise very little autonomy due to their dependence on state
decisions and payments.

The democratic socialist left, of which I am a lifetime member, has ignored the warnings. It was understandable. No-one in 1945 would pay heed to an anti-socialist economist. The bitter experience of the 1930s, with its working class poverty, burned into the collective mind, and in its place the Clement Attlee government gave us the structure of the welfare state.

At last, there was to be no fear of serious illness, at last a lid was put over the pit of poverty into which we would no longer fall. Attlee’s welfare state was founded on the principle of national insurance and tax 
contributions earning rights to 
benefits, all underpinned by full employment, which would form the successfuleconomic base to pay for it.

Today’s welfare state is larger than Attlee’s, and many benefits have no foundation in contributions through national insurance or income tax.

Hayek’s argument has been a long time in being proved, but that time has arrived. Millions of us are now wholly dependent on the state for our incomes, and rents as tenants of local authorities or housing associations. When money was everywhere and free, and Brown lashed it around the welfare system, no-one saw the dangers as he proclaimed the benefits as “welfare rights”.

Hayek was right and the left wrong. There are no welfare “rights” when the government on behalf of the state decides they do not exist, and so changes the system at will.

The bedroom tax is a classic example that proves the case. The policy lacks humanity, will impose hardship, indignity and misery because it takes no account of individual circumstances – the granny who has a spare room for visits from grandchildren, or as somewhere to stay for a son or daughter going through a marriage break-up, or a wife who has to sleep in a separate room due to an acute medical condition.

There are scores of individual circumstances where not having a spare room causes family misery. And of course, there is the simple matter of what is a “home”. If you can be easily forced out by government policy, then you never have a home in the sense that Tory ministers have a home – something fixed in the family, a refuge, a place to retire to, to enjoy life in, a place of cherished memories, a place to shelter from a storm.

We must recognise that intrinsic to the present welfare state is the power of government to control the most essential aspects of peoples’ lives. If we are to have a welfare state that is not an instrument by which government has the power to crush people, we shall have to re-construct it on a different basis, and we shall have to change our economic model to deliver the full employment and the economic strength to sustain it.

That requires bold new thinking, at a deep level not tried in this country for a generation. Remain with the welfare system we have, and the road to serfdom has no ending. That’s the challenge. Are we up to it?