Are There Such Things As ‘Social Rights’?

by Beth Cherryman

The press coverage concerning the British welfare system and how it will be effected by the Con-Dem coalition government’s spending review and cuts has dominated news outlets the past few weeks.

It has prompted me to question whether simply being a British citizen gives one the right to be looked after by the welfare state.

Who is it that benefits from the welfare state?  Surely the predominant beneficiaries are the working middle classes.  They have access to the NHS, state pension, state education and subsidised (at least for the time being) higher education.  Although, many would argue this is fair because it is also the working middle classes who make the greatest contributions to the funding of the welfare state.

This is not to say that the welfare state does not benefit the poor.  I do not see people dying on the street – rough sleepers, yes; I guess no system is perfect – but no sick and starved bodies lining the gutters.  Even a British citizen who does not work has access to NHS facilities.  The welfare state provides a basic minimum, or safety net, to ensure the poor are not without a minimum standard of healthcare, education, or nutrition.

Of course, lets not forget the State also benefits from such an arrangement.  Keeping the Nation’s human stock healthy makes for a more efficient workforce.  If productivity increases then this in turn bolsters Britain’s standing in the economy both internally and internationally, which is good for Britain (in theory).  Also, more people are able to work – I am quite sure many a politician has dreamed of full employment, but sadly since WW2 that dream has eluded them all.

However, the benefits given out are not generous and so much of the responsibility has been privatised.  For instance, although everyone is entitled to a State pension often a further sum is needed to live on and this comes from a former employer.  Benefits in this country are also means tested and this process can be made extremely hard and unpleasant, perhaps to discourage people from taking up the all the finance available to them.  The working middle classes get the most out of the system because they are able to take up the State services and their various work benefits.  (As discusses above this system also encourages people to work.)

The welfare state of this country thus strikes me more as a system of rewards for cooperating with the State.  That is, for being a member of the labour force.  It perhaps also fulfills a certain moral obligation of a wealthy developed state to allow everyone access to a basic quality of life, but importantly also the potential to enter the labour force to improve one’s lot (and National efficiency).

If welfare provisions are a reward, then they are not a ‘right’.

It appears to me that ‘rights’ are by definition intrinsic; with humans came rights.  The ‘right’ to education means that every human being is entitled to education wherever they are in the world, or indeed whenever they lived in the world.  All people past, present and future are entitled to education wherever they are whatever their circumstances.  Obviously this is not the case.

None of the ‘rights’ we enjoy are first principles: they were fought for.  The reason the Nation’s average working week is 40 hours is because workers held strikes and demanded a reduction in working hours.  Voters demand certain conditions in return for their input.  (The median voter is middle class, so it makes sense that the welfare state primarily benefits this sector of the British population.)

Maybe ‘rights’ are social constructs.  Because workers participate in the labour force and fulfill the duties of a British citizen they are entitled to certain things in return and these things are embodied in the welfare system.  So the rights equate to rewards.

I think this view is mistaken.  The ‘right’ to education is not enforceable.  There are people in Britain who do not go to school, whether by choice or because they believe their situation makes it untenable to attend, and what of it?  An entitlement is just an entitlement.  You can’t make people act in accordance with their entitlements.  Similarly it is hard to ensure ‘rights’ are universal.  Everyone has the ‘right’ not to be tortured, yet this ‘right’ can be forfeited for the “greater good” it would seem without consequence.

This is because ‘rights’ are theoretical constructs not social constructs.  As soon as a right becomes enforceable, that is, negligence or inaction becomes an offence, then it ceases to be a ‘right’ and becomes a law.  It is the law in Britain that children must attend school from the ages of four to seventeen.  If they don’t then their parents or carers could be locked up, or social workers assess their situation and try to help the family into a position that the child can attend school.

No longer is it a ‘right’ to education, it is compulsory education whether you would choose to be educated or not.

Human ‘Rights’ don’t exist; they are not tangible real things of which there are examples of in the real world.  They are ideals – the worst kind because they are undemocratic ideals.  They have no value because they involve no input from the people they pertain to.  I was not consulted as to which entitlements human beings are to enjoy regardless of anything other than the fact they are human beings.  Maybe this is one of the reasons they are habitually ignored.

Likewise, social ‘rights’ do not exist.  In fact they do not exist in a more immediate way than human ‘rights’.  There is not even a conceptual framework for social rights.  They are simply rewards for the people because they cooperate with the State and the economy (i.e. capitalism), and because the people asked for them, demanded and fought for them.  Indeed compromised to obtain something that resembled the ‘rights’ they wanted.

No one has a ‘right’ to be looked after by the welfare state.  ‘Rights’ are theoretical constructs with no bearing on, or value in, the world we really live.  That which could be perceived as social ‘rights’ is no more than the evidence of struggle and compromise between State and labour market to maximise efficiency and minimise dissatisfaction of workers and employers.

And on that note, I cannot say I agree with the drastic cuts to the welfare state the Con-Dem coalition is about to inflict upon the British people.  To me this does not seem like a good way to either maximise efficiency or to minimise dissatisfaction.  If anything I think it will only serve to widen the already substantial gap between the super-rich and the poor.  Further the cuts will condemn us to decreased opportunities for social mobility, which in my opinion is the most fundamental element to a successful and happy society.