The Case for Universalism
Assessing the evidence
Produced in association with the Jimmy Reid Foundation, this paper is an updated, UK version of their report The Case for Universalism: An Assessment of the evidence on the effectiveness and efficiency of the universal welfare state.
Universalism is once again edging up the political agenda. This underlying principle behind the welfare state has always been reviled by those who wish to see it dismantled, but more immediately concerning is a growing acceptance that in order to protect vital public services the ideal of universal coverage should be abandoned in favour of selectivity. But this is a false dichotomy - universalism is not an ideal.
Setting people in different income brackets against one another and dividing people by imagined characteristics is a powerful political tool. Creeping selectivity is justified by the argument that those with the broadest shoulders should forgo some entitlements so that the system can continue to provide for those most in need. Policies capping housing and child benefit have started down a pernicious road which can lead in one direction only – detachment and then residualisation. The reality is that wholesale reform of the welfare state is taking shape behind this increasingly acceptable encroachment into universalism.
What has been largely absent from the debate is any serious analysis of the two proposals on the table – a defence of the universal welfare state versus increasing selectivity. So what do we find when we go beyond the rhetoric?
This report examines four crucial aspects of universalism:
- Social impact
- Economic impact
- Implications for taxation, redistribution and equality
- Implications for political philosophy
If there is to be a process of breaking down universal social provision it is essential that it is an informed process. Of course, if the process is informed then it is hard to see how the outcome could be the breaking down of universal social provision. Universalism is progressive, redistributive taxation and seamless provision of social welfare for all in a linked social system. It is a social system based on the dual principles of ‘from each according to ability to each according to need’ and ‘from the cradle to the grave’. It has produced the most effective society civilisation has yet achieved. We undermine that system at our peril.