Ethics and Social Security Reform, by Erik Schokkaert

(International Studies on Social Security, vol 7, Aldershot: Ashgate). Hard Back £65.00 Order this book.

This volume, published for the Foundation for International Studies on Social Security has thirteen chapters ordered into three parts. The idea of the volume is that ethics enters into social policy in various ways. Most obviously it enters in the concepts and definitions that guide the principles of social policy. Secondly, ethical considerations are important for the political feasibility of different forms of social policy. Thirdly, they enter into our evaluation of the successes and failures of different social policies.
The first part contains five essays. Schokkaert’s essay suggests social institutions can be evaluated in terms of positive and negative liberty, though the former turns out to be welfare understood as avoidance of poverty, and negative freedom turns out to be personal responsibility and privacy. Westerhall’s essay is a good case study of how changing a social policy may bring about inconsistencies, here with regard to the employed and unemployed in Swedish sickness benefit. Burgess points out how refugees are treated so differently in different countries raising questions about the natural scope of equality. The importance of ethical issues in the framing of problems is brought out in two essays on the measure of poverty. The first essay is by Robert Haveman and Melissa Mullikin and the second is by Jonathan Bradshaw. There are a number of different ways of measuring poverty and the choice of index will lead to different measures of the level, the distribution and the trend of poverty with obvious policy implications. As with Schokkaert, Haveman and Mullikin favour Sen’s capability approach though how well they operationalize this concept is questionable. Bradshaw discusses absolute poverty measures, though does not take enough account of the relative wealth and moral expectations of different nations.
The two essays in the second part deal adequately with moral expectations. Saunders’ and Pinyopusarerk’s table (Table 2.1.4) shows that the Australians they sampled have similar views about the state’s treatment of different categories of unemployed people, with about a third thinking the state has got it about right, while one quarter think the state does too much or not enough (the rest are ‘don’t know’s). The only categories that stand out are the older unemployed (over 50) where few think the state does too much, and over half think the state does too little; and migrants where only about 10% think the state does too little. The tables also show that most people think that the unemployed should show they are looking for work. The tables provides few surprises and the analysis in terms of cultural theory categories does not add much.
The third part evaluates different institutional structures for the provision of social policy. The six chapters in this part are a rather mixed bunch of essays mostly considering social policies and labour market participation. The first three concentrate on the different incentives which are produced by different social policy schemes. The best of them, and probably the best essay in the collection, is by Barbara Wolfe, who discusses a scheme in Wisconsin which attempts to reduce dependency by those receiving state assistance. Providing work incentives for benefit recipients while providing a safety net and high marginal rates of taxation is problematic. She suggests that a complex strategy consisting of a mix of health care, full employment practices, training, loans and so on will best be able to overcome these problems. But the reader is left with the impression that a careful analysis (along the lines of her study of Wisconsin) of her own recommended strategy if ever it were to be put into practice would reveal a whole host of similar problems. Indeed, this impression is gained for most of the recommendations of the writers in this part. Each author analyses some current social policy and then thinks of potential answers which may overcome particular problems; but there seems little to assure the reader that other problems, not considered by the would-be reformer, have been addressed properly.
The volume gains through being consciously theoretical whilst examining practical policy problems, and gains through being comparative across nations. The impression that is left, however, is that whilst ethical attitudes are obviously important to the development and implementation of social security, no-one in the volume, and no nation in the world, has come to terms with different and competing ethical demands. Either some demands must be left unsatisfied, or more radical departures from the standard answers are required which give basic security whilst allowing good market principles and self-determining incentives to exist.
Keith Dowding