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By Andrew Lilico

When we face difficulties in life, such as unemployment, illness, or simply aged infirmity, there are a number of ways we could cope.  We could use resources we have accumulated (e.g. savings); we could ask for charitable assistance from strangers or the state; we could have purchased insurance; or we could call upon family or other similar obligation to us.

Insurance and savings are forms of self-help.  The state provides certain forms of insurance (e.g. sickness insurance) – albeit desperately inefficiently.  Let's ignore that for now.  The state could mandate that we save for our retirements (e.g. in private sector schemes).  Again, let's set that aside.  So, instead of self-help, let's think about appeals for charitable or duty-bound assistance.  Finally, let's set aside private stranger charity.

Instead, let us imagine two kinds of social assistance system: in one, the role of the state is to stand in the place of private charities, providing money or other resources to help those in need; in the second, the role of the state is to broker and enforce familial obligations.  In the UK at the moment, we use both kinds of assistance.  When you claim non-contributory means-tested benefits, or state education, or state healthcare, the state is standing in the place of private charities.  When the state imprisons a parent for neglect, or the Child Support Agency extracts maintenance payments from an absent father, the state is enforcing a familial obligation.  The thought I want to raise is whether a number of current challenges of the welfare state could be better addressed by a significant extension of the familial obligation enforcement/brokering system than by a significant extension of the state's charitable role.

For example, in Singapore the Maintenance of Parents Act entitles those aged over 60 to claim maintenance payments from their children if they are unable to support themselves (closely analogous to the way a single mother can claim maintenance payments from an absent father).


One could imagine a system that generalised this principle from single mothers and the elderly.  Incapacitated people could claim maintenance from their relatives.  The long-term unemployed could do likewise.  Indeed, we could go beyond maintenance into other areas of welfare provision.  For example, if parents were not deemed wealthy enough to pay for a child's education, then other more affluent relatives could be obliged to pay.

Note that such systems are by no means laissez-faire.  Few would be tempted to allege that of the CSA or the Maintenance of Parent Act.  Indeed, if an obligation brokering-and-enforcement system were generalised, then state action would probably increase versus a "charitable provision" concept of the state's role.  For example, consider a case in which there were four siblings and one became incapacitated.  If the other three siblings could noot agree upon their roles, the state might need to decide that she would be located with one whilst the other two had to pay amounts relative to their affluence.  So instead of the state needing to assess one person's circumstances (the incapacitated sister) it would need to assess at least four.

But there would be great advantages that might offset such an increased role for the state.  We might enrich social bonds, rediscovering concepts of familial duty.  Many people's reaction to such a scheme might be something like: "But I didn't choose my parents, so why should I be obliged to help them!"  One great gain of such a scheme would be an outright assault on such an attitude, an attempt to re-educate people that we have duties and obligations that we do not choose – there are bonds of blood and promise as well as inclinations of convenience.  Whilst socialists seek to collectivise love and individualist libertarians deny any obligation not chosen, Conservatives surely should stand full square behind intermediate institutions and obligations.

Next, moral pressures upon the indolent would be much greater.  When the state acts as a faceless charity and we talk of our "rights" to receive welfare benefits, there is little sense that there is any victim when we claim benefits that we do not really need or fail to work to support ourselves when we could do so or fail to make personal sacrifices that we could make so as to avoid becoming a burden upon others.  But if what the state does is to impose me as a burden upon my sister or cousin, then I am much more likely to seek to lighten the load.

Of course there would be many complexities to such a scheme.  For example, how far would familial obligation extend?  Parents and children and siblings, for sure; uncles and aunts and first cousins, presumably.  But would that be the full scope, or would second cousins be included, also?  What about brothers- and sisters-in-law, or parents- or children-in-law?  What about second cousins?  What about step-parents or step-children?  Could there be perverse incentives to avoid marriage, for example, so as to avoid potential obligations falling upon one's relatives?  And of course there would have to be some residual welfare provision for the true foundling or those whose relevant relatives are all dead or abroad.

But despite these complexities, there would be great merit in many aspects of such a concept.  The most obvious and straightforwardly attractive extension, of great current policy relevance, is to the care of the elderly.  My grandmother lived with my family in old age, after my grandfather was gone.  Until recently, this would have been thought of as an obvious familial obligation.  But now we are moving to a world in which care for the elderly is taken over by the state, in a charitable role – money from the state; healthcare from the state; social care from the state.  Is that really how things must go?  Why shouldn't the state demand assistance – if not financial, then as carers – from children and grandchildren, if they are wealthy enough to provide it?

25 comments for: Andrew Lilico: Family-based welfare

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