The Welfare State, Individual Freedom and Morality

Doctoral Thesis / Dissertation 2012 30 Pages

Politics - Miscellaneous




Chapter 1.0 Theoretical Underpinnings of the welfare state
Chapter 1.1 How do we define Freedom?
Chapter 1.2 Liberalism, the Individual and the state
Chapter 1.3 From Poor Laws to Welfare State

Chapter 2.0 Welfare Dependency: Encouraging Idleness
Chapter 2.1 The Underclass
Chapter 2.2 ‘NHS Dependency’
Chapter 2.3 The NHS as a ‘Sacred Cow’

Chapter 3.0 The Welfare State, Morality and Human Nature
Chapter 3.1 The Welfare State and Morality
Chapter 3.2 The Welfare State and Human Nature
Chapter 3.3 The Welfare State and the Church




- ‘To what extent does the welfare state erode individual freedom’


In the Western world it has long been the norm that some relief is provided to the poor and destitute. Historically it was the duty of the local community to provide this relief but with the growth of large cities these local arrangements became inadequate and it became the responsibility of the state to provide such relief. What we now know as relief or welfare is merely and adaptation of the old poor laws applied on a national scale. However, were once this assistance was limited to only those experiencing extreme deprivation it has now become ‘the recognized duty of the public to provide for the extreme needs of old age, unemployment, etc., irrespective of whether the individuals could and ought to have made provision themselves’[1].

In modern times the term welfare has taken on different meanings. In the US ‘welfare’ refers to ‘means-tested, residual, assistance dimensions of state provision’ whereas, in the UK and Western Europe it is often referred to as social welfare and refers to social security, socialised healthcare, social housing and other personal social services[2]. The theory behind the ‘welfare state’ can be found in the British tradition of political philosophy which came about in the late nineteenth century although the term ‘welfare state’ was not used until the 1940s. Although the term ‘welfare state’ can have numerous meanings it is generally defined as ‘a system whereby the state undertakes to protect the heath and well-being of its citizens, especially those in financial or social need, by means of grants, pensions and other benefits’[3].

Every since the creation of welfare states in the US and Western Europe there has been enumerable debates as to what extent the existence of such welfare states undermines individual freedom. It can be said that the welfare state undermines individual liberty in a number of ways. Whether it be by limiting the freedom of consumers to choose their providers of welfare, by limiting the freedom of potential suppliers by creating an almost complete monopoly of funding, control, delivery, and regulation in education, health care, income support and employment protection; and massive influence in pensions and housing, by denying individual choice through the compulsory provision of services or by limiting an individuals freedom to control their finances by imposing on them ever escalating level of taxation. Each of these criticisms of the welfare state will be analysed and evaluated in this dissertation.

The first chapter of this dissertation deals with the theoretical underpinnings of freedom and addresses issues such as how should we define freedom? To what extent is freedom compatible with attempts made by the state to promote the welfare of its citizens? Does liberty reside in independence from state interference? Chapter two focuses on welfare dependency and debates as to whether the provision of welfare imposes constraints on individual liberty? The final chapter analyses the effect of the welfare state on morality and human nature. It aims to analyse issues such as whether morality be taken into account when deciding who should receive state welfare? And whether state interference goes against human nature?

Chapter 1.0 Theoretical Underpinnings of Freedom and the Role of the State

Chapter 1.1 How do we define freedom?

Freedom is term which evokes emotion. For many its use conjures images of rebellious serfs casting off their chains and rising up against their masters or oppressed minorities campaigning for equal rights. Countless lives have been lost in order to promote or preserve it. Over the ages, an inconceivable amount of blood and treasure have been sacrificed in the name of freedom. In the name of something which can neither be seen, nor torched, nor be given a monetary value and yet remains a person’s most precious possession.

We tend to think of specific freedoms such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press or freedom of religion. Freedoms which we are aware of and can exercise in our daily lives, perhaps constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. But it is far trickier to simply describe ‘freedom’ without citing specific examples. Freedom is a term which is commonly used and yet one which is not often fully understood. Philosophical definitions of freedom often complicate what is essentially a very simple concept. As Charles Murray puts it ‘There is nothing complicated or exotic about the essence of freedom. Freedom is made up of thousands of choices, large and small, unhindered by government, by which we shape our careers, our families, our communities, our identities’[4].

Freedom is viewed as a natural, inalienable right, which is an essential part of life. However, it can be argued that ‘as socialism gained influence in the twentieth century, it became intellectually fashionable to mock freedom, first in Europe and eventually the United States’[5]. The left argued that freedom was worthless so long as poverty existed. As the twentieth century progressed, ‘the same dismissive attitude towards freedom, especially economic freedom, spread from intellectuals into mainstream politics’[6]. Over time, the very word freedom became antiquated and its meaning became inextricably linked to ambiguous terms such as ‘social justice’ or ‘fairness’.

It can be argued that welfare states are ‘programmed with an inbuilt, possibly unintended, mechanism to expand exponentially’[7]. This expansion can be described as a ‘ratchet effect’ as the welfare state has a tendency to gradually expand as politicians use it to address ever more problems. This somewhat misguided believe that the welfare state should take on more and more responsibilities has led to the welfare state increasingly encroaching on individual liberty. The most common justification for the welfare state is that it is far better to sacrifice freedom for security than to simply be free to starve.

It has generally become accepted in the US and Western Europe that sate interference in people’s lives is both necessary and beneficial to them. It has become the norm that any expansion of the welfare state can be justified so long as it promotes ‘social justice’. Many do no view the welfare state as a threat to freedom at all. There is on doubt that when questioned the vast majority of people in the US and Europe will say that they value freedom greatly. However, this raises the question as to why people have being willing, perhaps unknowingly, to sacrifice often hard-won freedom to the state in return for welfare provision.

Chapter 1.2 Liberalism, the Individual and the state

Although all liberals claim that they, by definition, strive to promote liberty, there is disagreement among liberals about the concept of liberty, and as a result the liberal ideal of protecting individual liberty can lead to very different conceptions of the role of government. Liberalism has thus fractured into a number of competing theories about freedom and the role of the state. Broadly speaking, the two dominant theories of the concept of liberty within liberalism are negative liberty and positive liberty.

Debates on individual freedom and the welfare state are often centred on the concepts of negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom to live one’s life free from obstacles, barriers or constraints. Positive liberty on the other hand, is granting the individual the chance to ‘act in such a way as to as to take control of one’s life and realize ones fundamental purpose’[8]. The concept of positive freedom is often associated with concepts of equality of opportunity and self realization. The idea of distinguishing between a negative and a positive sense of the term ‘liberty’ goes back at least to Kant but the most distinguished contemporary author of the subjects of negative and positive liberty was Isaiah Berlin in the 1950s and 60s.

During the eightieth and nineteenth centuries the most influential political ideology was economic or classical liberalism. Classical liberalism is associated with the economist and philosopher John Smith (1723-90). According to Smith the self interest of individuals benefit the rest of society. Smith put forward the theory of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. This is the theory that individuals by necessity pursue the most effective means for promoting the happiness of mankind and that through the unintended consequences of their actions, they increase the total sum of human welfare. Classical liberals view liberty as negative liberty and argue that the state should be limited to a purely regulatory role. For classical liberals poverty is natural and it is not the responsibility of the state to interfere to alleviate this poverty. Although classical liberalism was the dominant economic theory throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it lost credibility following the 1929 crash and the depression of the 1930s. Keynesian economics with its focus on state interventionism in the economy became the norm.

The concept of positive liberty is strongly associated with modern liberalism. Modern or social liberalism originated around 1870 in response to the problems created by lassie faire capitalism (poverty, great inequality, unemployment, illiteracy etc). The idea, though not the term is associated with T.H Green (1836-82). Modern Liberalism rejects the classical liberal view that freedom is not simply freedom from the state but rather the freedom to achieve ones full potential. This is known to modern liberals as positive freedom or ‘freedom to’.

Modern liberals, such as Green and Hobhouse, found it hard to defend the idea that liaise faire liberalism created a fair and just meritocracy (the idea that a persons position in society was a result of their effort alone) and countered this with the notion of ‘equality of opportunity’. Modern liberals argue that many people in society, through no fault of their own (e.g. poor health, poor education, disabilities etc) do not have an equal chance to benefit from such a free society. This was the view of the US philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002). Rawls argued that it is beyond a persons control whether they are born into a poor family or whether they posses few natural skills and this undeserved injustice needs to be taken into consideration. According to Rawls, the solution is not to eliminate indifference (which would be impossible), but to organise resource allocation so that each individuals’ skills would be harnessed for the good of the community as a whole. Rawls argues that in a state of complete equality rational individuals would choose to create a system to minimise the potential negative consequences of natural inequality.

This is known as the ‘difference principle’, according to which:

“All social primary goods – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favoured” (Rawls .J. A Theory of Justice, 1971)

As many liberals are influenced by the teachings of Rawls, the general view in (social) liberalism became that of an interventionist state, that the state should provide greater levels of social welfare services and regulate people’s lives to some extent. One of the key advocates of social liberalism Joseph Chamberlain argued that the traditional liberal commitments to free trade and individual freedoms were no longer sufficient. In his September 1885 speech on his ‘radical programme’ he argued that:

“The great problem of our civilization is unresolved. We have to account for and grapple with, the mass of misery and destitution in our midst, coexistent as it is with the abundant wealth and teaming prosperity. It is a problem which some men put aside with references to eternal law of supply and demand, to the necessity of freedom of contract, and to the sanctity of every private right to property. But gentlemen, these are the convenient cant of selfish wealth. They are no answers to our question.”[9]

Many social liberals acknowledge that poverty and deprivation curtail individual freedom. Some liberals would go further and argue that some people are effectively “enslaved by poverty”[10]. Early social researchers such as Charles Booth and Rowntree (1840-1916) but forward the theory of ‘cycles of deprivation’. This was the theory that impoverished communities would remain in poverty unless there was some outside interference. It became clear that if people needed help to achieve their full potential (self realisation) then there must be and agent to help achieve it; state intervention was to become that agent. Some social liberals would argue that welfarism, rather than undermining liberty actually enforces it.

As we have seen, different liberal theories of individual freedom have resulted in very different conceptions of welfare and the role of the state. For classical liberals, only when ‘there is sufficient individual freedom from institutional interference…then the autonomous development of human talent and ingenuity will find its own means and resources for securing wealth and well-being’[11]. In this sense welfare ‘is not something that is provided but something that is achieved through the free and independent actions of an uncoerced individuality. In turn, the welfare of each individual promotes the well-being of the entire society by increasing the sum total of freedom in which its members live’[12]. It is therefore ironic, that in the UK it was a Liberal government which laid the foundations for welfare capitalism in Lloyd George’s reforming budget of 1909 and that the welfare state, arguably the single greatest threat to individual freedom, was envisaged by a liberal.


[1] Hayek F.A The Constitution of Liberty (2006, Oxon), p.249

[2] Lund Brian Understanding State Welfare: Social Justice or Social Exclusion (2002, London), p.1

[3] Definition taken from Oxford Dictionaries

[4] Murray Charles What it Means to be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation (1998, New York), p.22

[5] Murray Charles What it Means to be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation (1998, New York), p.3

[6] ibid

[7] Littlewood Mark Freedom and the Welfare State The Free Society (23/5/08) [available online] http://www.thefreesociety.org/Articles/Comment/freedom-and-the-welfare-state [accessed 18/2/12]

[8] Carter Ian, Positive and Negative Liberty The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), [available online] http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/liberty-positive-negative [accessed 12/2/12]

[9] Marshall Paul & David Laws The Orange Book Reclaiming Liberalism (2004, London), p.34

[10] Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Federal Constitution

[11] O’ Brien Martin and Sue Penna Theorising Welfare: Enlightenment and Modern Society (London, 1998), p.43

[12] O’ Brien Martin and Sue Penna Theorising Welfare: Enlightenment and Modern Society (London, 1998), p.44


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Title: The Welfare State, Individual Freedom and Morality