The maternal state

The Age reported yesterday on the first women-only political party, What Women Want Australia. Rarely has entitlement feminism been so blatant; usually at least a see-through blouse of principle covers the naked self-interest. According to The Age‘s story:

Launching the What Women Want Australia party in Brisbane today, Justine Caines said women needed better representation and were sick of being paid lip service on key issues.

These included paid maternity leave, post-natal services, access to child care, education and the environment.

Though relatively few women have held senior political positions, much more than lip service has been paid to policies affecting women. Indeed, for all the talk on this blog and elsewhere about redistributing money between income deciles and between household types, one of the biggest things the government does is redistribute income from men to women.

The ATO’s statistics show that men pay more than twice as much income tax as women. Yet they receive back less than women in return.

Nearly 60% of the recipients in the Budget’s biggest expense, the old age pension, are women. The Budget’s second biggest expense, payments to families with children, is primarily to assist what has traditionally been the woman’s role in families. As derrida derider noted a couple of weeks ago, the FTB tends to be paid via Centrelink to the non-earner, usually the wife. The third-biggest expense, health, again benefits women more than men because they are a greater share of the health’s systems biggest users, the elderly, and because men are much less likely to see a GP. Females make greater use of publicly-subsidised education than males, and get better academic results.

This redistribution from male to female occurs because for all the social change of the last few decades gender roles have not changed that much – while more women work than before the proportion who work full-time has only increased slightly and women are still primarily responsible for raising children. As such, women still expect to be supported financially by men – though it seems that their husbands/partners do not provide enough money, so the ATO is sent out to bring in some more.

As regular readers know, I think this has already gone much too far. But at least when What Women Want lose their electoral deposit for securing too few votes we will get a little of our money back.

94 thoughts on “The maternal state

  1. Well I don’t think you will have any luck in getting rid of the concept of relative need (ie that a family of four needs more money than a family of two, or even one) from the income support system. And everything else flows naturally from that idea, really

    You do understand that people’s circumstances change, don’t you? A person may have four kids while they are in a good job earning good money, but then find themselves widowed, disabled or unemployed through no fault of their own. That’s the whole problem with this “people should have only they kids they can afford” argument – people don’t have sufficient knowledge to cover the next 20 or 30 years to make that judgment accurately. Or perhaps you think people should give their kids up for adoption in those circumstances?

    In any case, we hardly have a problem of people having too many children overall – a concern about the diminishing birth rate was part of what got us into this FTB spiral in the first place.

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  2. No doubt you are right on the first point.
    Alas, BG, I guess I hanker for a world where people take responsibility for their lives and decisions. Sickness, death and disablement can all be insured against, if only people had an incentive to do so. It is also possible to self-insure against unemployment by saving or building skills. Clearly I belong in the 19th century, but I don’t understand it how people start producing two or three children when they have just bought a house and have a massive mortgage.

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  3. I’m coming late to this discussion. I also don’t like political parties that claim to concentrate on one particular group either, particularly when they are named after not very good movies.

    However, the main reason why women pay less tax than men and receive more in benefits is that their lifetime earnings are a lot lower than men’s and their poverty rates are higher. (We have recent figures showing that on average women have poverty rates about 20% higher than men in Australia, and for women over pension age it is about 30% higher; for women in the age groups where they have children, the poverty rates are about 50% higher, and this sort of pattern seems common in most OECD countries.)

    So while it is correct that Australia has done quite a lot to “redistribute” family payments from fathers to mothers, the main reason why women get more out of the Australian welfare state is that they have lower incomes, and we have a social security system that redistributes from rich to poor.

    It is also well recognised that the main reason why women on average have lower earnings and lower lifetime incomes than men is a result of the interruptions to employment associated with having children.

    To just paste in something I have written: “Cross-national studies suggest that institutional differences in family-friendly policy stances can have a significant impact on the opportunity costs of children. Davies and Joshi (1990) calculated and compared foregone earnings in West Germany, France, Britain, and Sweden because of lost years of employment, lower hours when the mother returns to the labour force, and lower rates of pay after childbearing. Davies and Joshi’s estimated that the hypothetical West German mother in 1980 was estimated to lose 49% of her undiscounted lifetime earnings if she embarked on the employment and earnings path typically associated with a two-child family, and the hypothetical British mother loses more, 57%. Swedish and French women’s earnings are less affected by childrearing, losing 12% and 6% respectively, mainly due to widely available childcare in these countries reducing barriers to female employment.

    Using data from the Australian Negotiating the Life Course Survey (NLCS), Gray and Chapman (2001) find that for women who have completed secondary education, having one child decreases after-tax lifetime earnings by around AUD 162,000 dollars (additional earnings losses from second and third children are relatively small). Women with one child are estimated to earn 63% of what they would have earned had they remained childless. Because Australian mothers are more likely to return to the workforce and do so more quickly after childbirth than previously, the family gap in lifetime earnings between childless women and those with children while remaining considerable had more than halved between 1986 and the end of the 1997 (Chapman et al, 2001).”

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  4. WHY SUBSIDISE SELF-GENERATED NEEDS?

    In response to Rajat, BG said:

    Well I don’t think you will have any luck in getting rid of the concept of relative need (ie that a family of four needs more money than a family of two, or even one) from the income support system. And everything else flows naturally from that idea, really.

    This misses the key point that the relative need of (larger) families compared to childfree people is a direct result of the choices that the parents made. I could equally choose to go into massive debt to fund 1000 nights of sin and debauchery, enjoy the benefits of my actions, and then claim to be in relative need (ie relative to people who stayed at home and watched Neighbours) and demand a handout from the government to make up for the state of “relative need” my choices had brought on me. This highlights the point, BG, that you are discriminating between lifestyle choices in justifying parental handouts (if you are, in fact, seeking to justify them). I agree that this policy isn’t going to change any time soo, but presumably we are debating the merits of policies; not the politics of them.

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  5. OFF-LOADING RISK?

    BG also said:

    A person may have four kids while they are in a good job earning good money, but then find themselves widowed, disabled or unemployed through no fault of their own. That’s the whole problem with this “people should have only they kids they can afford” argument – people don’t have sufficient knowledge to cover the next 20 or 30 years to make that judgment accurately.

    To the contrary, risk and uncertainty about future circumstances is an inherent part of life. Likewise, long-term committment is (or should be) an inherent part of reproducing. These are real costs and real risks, and parents are the ones who are in the best position to address these risks. Why then should they be able to transfer the costs of these risks to childfree people, rather than being expected to take prudent actions to address these risks, including by taking out things such as income insurance or life insurance policies and/or by not having too many kids?

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  6. I hope you’re not as seriously bitter and twisted as you come across, Tom N, or you must have a pretty miserable life sitting around thinking about what all those blood-sucking parents are doing with your hard-earned dollars. Hopefully I personally haven’t been too big a drain on your standard of living.

    However, If you can’t get the simple concept that four people need more than one person to have the same minimal standard of living, there’s not a whole lot of point in this conversation. Relative need is based on that fairly simple idea, not whether you choose to live a life of debauchery or not.

    Of course people could self-insure against lots of things, but I think that as a society we have made a choice that that isn’t how we want to go.

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  7. “ONE FOR MUM, ONE FOR DAD, AND ONE VOTE FOR THE LIBERAL PARTY”

    And last but not least, BG said:

    In any case, we hardly have a problem of people having too many children overall – a concern about the diminishing birth rate was part of what got us into this FTB spiral in the first place.

    Certainly Peter Costello expressed that concern, but I doubt, BG, that you normally have such faith in the justifications politicians give when dolling out money to constituents.
    Against his view, I would point to the increasing evidence of social and environmental congestion, and recent work discrediting the earlier grim reaper forecasts about the effects of aging, and say that in fact we probably already have a greater-than-optimal population. But even one were to believe that we do need more bods, the next question is whether the extra people should be sourced from domestic reproduction today or the substantially lower-cost route of increasing immigration (of adults) a couple of decades hence.
    In my experience in debating this issue, those seeking to justify parental subsidies find these analytical hurdles difficult to clear.

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  8. While my motives for posting are not really relevant, BG, all I’ve been trying to do by quoting your arguments and then presenting counterviews is to put my arguments in context and engage in the spirit of open intellectual debate and exchange that Andrew’s blog manifests generally. It’s really nothing personal.

    That said, yes, I certainly did “get” the concept of relative need. My response, however, was about why that concept does not provide a valid justification for shifting responsibility for the costs of children from parents to the childfree. Likewise, the fact that society “has chosen” a particular approach to date does not mean that that approach is valid.
    .
    ______

    PS Andrew: My formatting went awry in post 54. The blockquote is meant to end after the fourth line. If its not too much trouble, can you fix it? Ta, Tom

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  9. Tom: “In my experience in debating this issue, those seeking to justify parental subsidies find these analytical hurdles difficult to clear.” Nope – not if you think that having 2 children is a basic human right.

    BG wrote: “I find it a bit sad that you … still believe that “biology is destiny””.
    I wrote “Seems unfair to me – biology as destiny, when it doesn’t need to be.” Please don’t accuse me of what I’m accusing you of – it’s too confusing.

    This thread brings out interesting differences, but I’m not sure whether they’re men/women, left/right, older/younger or lots of other things too. But Rajat and Tom make crystal clear where BG and I have been differing on choice: the right would like to see everyone as on a level playing field of choice, all choices are of equal value (having children or buying a car), we don’t need to look at other factors involved in the circumstances that lead to the action, and what comes after is the actor’s personal responsibility.
    Different worldviews.

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  10. Tom N

    I have made these arguments before, and obviously not convinced many people, but here goes again – and sorry to make this so long.

    People choose to have children, but no child ever willed herself into existence. Children are people not consumption items, so if you are concerned about general social welfare you have to give children an equivalent weight to the adults who chose to have children – and the adults who have chosen not to have children. Saying that parents who choose to have children should bear the costs of that choice is also imposing those costs on the children who had no say in the choice.

    Family assistance benefits the adults who choose to have children, but it also benefits the children. Family assistance in Australia reduces the costs of having children, but it does not reduce it to zero.

    There is (at least) one universal fact of human existence – all adults were once children. All adults born in Australia have therefore already benefited from family assistance and the education and health systems, although the extent of that benefit changes over time as policies change.

    Most people eventually have children, in fact. Completed fertility data suggest that between 85 and 90% of Australian women will have at least one child even today – and I assume that men were involved in this as well.

    Are the minority who at the end of their working life have not had children unfairly imposed on? Well they already benefited from family assistance and education when they were children. In addition, it is other people’s children who will be paying taxes to finance pensions, long-term care, and hospitals, and it is other people’s children who will be paying for roads, and being policemen and stacking supermarket shelves and caring for people in nursing homes. Ultimately, no one is completely independent, no matter what amount of money they have – we need other people to deliver the services and produce the goods we consume as individuals.

    A society which stops having children is eventually a society which ceases to exist. Yes, we could simply import workers from other countries, and it may be cheaper because the costs of raising children and educating them have been met by taxpayers in other countries. However, what you end up with is not the society you started with. (Ultimately this is the sort of society you get shown in Deep Space 9, say, but of course, this is a science-fictional society, not a real one.)

    None of this means that we have the right system of support for families. It is certainly possible that we are over-generous, but this seems to me to be an empirical argument.

    When people reject the very idea of assisting families it seems to me that they are focusing on a very narrow and short-term view of their own interests and conveniently overlooking the fact that they have already benefited from family assistance and will benefit indirectly but very substantially in the future.

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  11. While I agree in part with your characterisation of the debate, Russell, I don’t think its quite that simple.

    In particular, I do not think that all choices are of equal value. My position, however, is that there is nothing in the particular choice to have children that makes it inherently more valid or worthy than the particular choice to not have children. Nor do the inherent aspects of the nature of the choice (such as the long-term committment involved in having a child) per se justify transferring the costs of that choice from parents to childfree people.

    Further, I don’t think that your view that having children is a human right, even if we accept it, justifies parental subsidies either. Rather, as I pointed out in post 43, for your position to be a justification for parental subsidies, it relies not only on the notion that having children is a ‘human right’, but also on the notion that people who exercise that right warrant a subsidy at the expense of people who do not exercise that right. That additional step is one that requires its own justification.

    ____
    PS: The analytical hurdles I was referring to were (a) demonstrating that we need more people; and (b) justifying subsidies for domestic reproduction in preference to future immigration to induce more of them. Your ‘parenthood is a human right point’ per se does not bear on those matters.

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  12. “That additional step is one that requires its own justification.”

    Why? I still think/hope that nearly everyone in Australia would agree that having children is a basic human right. Once that’s decided you accept the cost. BG will accept some of the cost, whereas you and Rajat don’t want to accept any.
    We think that people have a right to life and therefore pay for serial killers to be kept in jail for the rest of their lives. I don’t see myself ever appearing before a court but I’m happy to support the whole apparatus that gives everyone a fair trial because it’s a basic human right.
    That old line “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” springs to mind.

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  13. It is basic logic, Russell, that the fact that person A has a right to do something does not of itself mean that person B should pay for them to do it. If, for the purposes of argument, we accept that people have a ‘human right’ to be parents, that of itself does not mean that anyone other than the people themselves should pay for the costs of exercising that right.

    If you want to argue that childfree people should pay the costs of people who choose to exercise their right to be parents, you you need to make that case. You haven’t.

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  14. DEBUNKING MOTHERHOOD STATEMENTS

    PeterW said:

    [I]f you are concerned about general social welfare you have to give children an equivalent weight to the adults who chose to have children – and the adults who have chosen not to have children. Saying that parents who choose to have children should bear the costs of that choice is also imposing those costs on the children who had no say in the choice.

    Nothing in my position relies on giving no independent value or weight to children or their wellbeing. I fully believe that children are indeed entitled to at least some minimum standard of living – no less than any other member of society should generally be entitled to. However, what is at issue here is who should be responsible for providing the goods and services necessary to attain that standard of living. Contrary to Peter’s claim, it does not follow that making parents responsible for paying for the things necessary for their children to attain that standard somehow involves “imposing a cost on those children”. The children still receive the benefits of those goods and services; but parents, rather than non-parents, pay the costs.
    .
    PeterW also opined that:

    When people reject the very idea of assisting families it seems to me that they are focusing on a very narrow and short-term view of their own interests and conveniently overlooking the fact that they have already benefited from family assistance and will benefit indirectly but very substantially in the future.

    I regret feeling that I have to say this, but this statement has elements typical of the often self-righteous and patronising attitude that one often encounters when debating the family lobby on these issues, and I reject its implied criticisms on several levels.

    First, I have previously pointed to the problems in seeking to justify parental subsidies on the grounds that childfree people benefitted from family payments when they were young, and supposedly stand to enjoy further benefits in their old age. I have certainly not “conveniently overlooked” this argument; rather, I have sought to rebutt it.

    Second, I reject any implication that, in arguing as I am, I am being either narrow, short-termist or even focussing on my own interests. Specifically, my arguments address equity and inter-generational issues, and take into account the interests and welfare of children, parents and non-parents, including prospective immigrants. By contrast, I suspect that most advocates of parental subsidies gave very little consideration to the interests of the latter two groups, at least prior to me and others beginning to raise these issues in the media.

    Finally, if there is a broader implied charge of selfishness on my part (or more broadly on the part of the childfree) here, one might respond by asking “who is really being selfish in this debate: childfree people, or those who choose to experience the pleasures and challenges of parenthood and then expect others to pay for them?”

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  15. DEBUNKING MOTHERHOOD STATEMENTS

    PeterW said:

    [I]f you are concerned about general social welfare you have to give children an equivalent weight to the adults who chose to have children – and the adults who have chosen not to have children. Saying that parents who choose to have children should bear the costs of that choice is also imposing those costs on the children who had no say in the choice.

    Nothing in my position relies on giving no independent value or weight to children or their wellbeing. I fully believe that children are indeed entitled to at least some minimum standard of living – no less than any other member of society should generally be entitled to. However, what is at issue here is who should be responsible for providing the goods and services necessary to attain that standard of living. Contrary to Peter’s claim, it does not follow that making parents responsible for paying for the things necessary for their children to attain that standard somehow involves “imposing a cost on those children”. The children still receive the benefits of those goods and services; but parents, rather than non-parents, pay the costs.
    .
    PeterW also opined that:

    When people reject the very idea of assisting families it seems to me that they are focusing on a very narrow and short-term view of their own interests and conveniently overlooking the fact that they have already benefited from family assistance and will benefit indirectly but very substantially in the future.

    I regret feeling that I have to say this, but this statement has elements typical of the often self-righteous and patronising attitude that one often encounters when debating the family lobby on these issues, and I reject its implied criticisms on several levels.

    First, I have previously pointed to the problems in seeking to justify parental subsidies on the grounds that childfree people benefitted from family payments when they were young, and supposedly stand to enjoy further benefits in their old age. I have certainly not “conveniently overlooked” this argument; rather, I have sought to rebutt it.

    Second, I reject any implication that, in arguing as I am, I am being either narrow, short-termist or even focussing on my own interests. Specifically, my arguments address equity and inter-generational issues, and take into account the interests and welfare of children, parents and non-parents, including prospective immigrants. By contrast, I suspect that most advocates of parental subsidies gave very little consideration to the interests of the latter two groups, at least prior to me and others beginning to raise these issues in the media.

    Finally, if there is a broader implied charge of selfishness on my part (or more broadly on the part of the childfree) here, one might respond by asking “who is really being selfish in this debate: childfree people, or those who choose to experience the pleasures and challenges of parenthood and then expect others to pay for them?”

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  16. Tom N says “Contrary to Peter’s claim, it does not follow that making parents responsible for paying for the things necessary for their children to attain that standard somehow involves “imposing a cost on those children”. The children still receive the benefits of those goods and services; but parents, rather than non-parents, pay the costs.”

    This response completely misses the point that when children are added to a household – even by choice – material standards of living must fall. As Backroom Girl pointed out earlier this reflects a standard assumption in the economic analysis of the household. So if the parents bear all the cost of raising children, then it is unavoidable that this will have an impact on the living standards of the children, since they are part of the same household.

    I apologise if you think that what I was saying implied that I thought that you were selfish, – what I am saying is that I think your arguments are limited. For example, I find it very surprising that you suggest that your arguments take account of inter-generational issues, when as far as I can see they completely ignore intergenerational issues. In fact, this is the point I was making – fairness has to be defined across a long time period, including everyone’s own childhood – when they were dependent on their parents and also on public social support, their adulthood – with and without children, and their retirement, when again everyone will be dependent to varying degrees on social support (provided by the next generation, whether native-born or immigrants).

    This is not an argument about selfishness – this is an argument about logical consistency. If one defines fairness only on the basis of people’s current situation and not also on what has already happened and on what will happen in the future then such a perpective will necessarily be inconsistent.

    This is because this ignores the fact that the vast majority of the childfree – maybe not you – have already had children or will have children. Non-parents are not a fixed set. Now if a 60 year old whose children had grown up and left home said to you or me that it was unfair that they had to pay taxes to support other people’s children, then I think we would both agree that they were being inconsistent. If a 25 year old said the same, they would not necessarily be as inconsistent – except to the extent that they have overlooked the benefits they received in their childhood, but it would be reasonable to point out that they will benefit in the future, so that current contributions will be balanced by future benefits.

    Now it is certainly possible to argue that it would be more efficient to leave all of this redistribution across the lifecourse up to private arrangements, but what I am objecting to is the argument that public redistribution across the lifecourse is in some sense inherently unfair. From a lifetime perspective, periods when people are net contributors are offset by periods when people are net beneficiaries, but the overall balance clearly depends on one’s position in the lifetime income distribution.

    Higher income people – like me – will be net contributors over their lifetime, but this is because we have a highly redistributive tax and benefit system. And even though I do have children my income is high enough that I have received almost nothing out of the family payments system for my children, and there were no birth grants at the time when my children were born. Now if I wanted to I could think this was unfair, but I don’t – because I believe that my good fortune is a consequence of living in an egalitarian society which tries to provide adequate support to lower income people with and without children.

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  17. “This is because this ignores the fact that the vast majority of the childfree – maybe not you – have already had children or will have children”

    This is not true. If 25% of the population doesn’t ever have children, and people live with their children for 1/3 of their life, it means that 1 in 3 people without children will never have children. Given this, it isn’t a huge majoirty. Even if it was, I still don’t see how it is fair that this group get taxed to the end of the Earth (or perhaps overseas for a lot of us), especially over a lifetime. It should be easy to identify this group at some stage (at least for females — say once they reach 45 without children), and therefore, if we want a “fair” system, we should have a tax correction for this group.

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  18. Well, I’m 35 and child-free. Perhaps Tom N, conrad and I could start our own political party? Maybe something like the “Carrie Bradshaw Party” to capitalise on the growing Bridget Jones demographic?
    Just on the inter-generational issue, does anyone really believe that the (Australian-born) children of tomorrow will be emptying my bedpan in 50 years? Moreover, handing cash over to parents today to help ensure a relatively cheap labour supply tomorrow seems a highly inefficient way to generate those workers.

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  19. A long time ago Rajat said
    “I don’t understand how people start producing two or three children when they have just bought a house and have a massive mortgage.”

    It might just have something to do with the fact that most people’s fertile years happen to coincide with the time in their lives when they buy a house.

    And if you, Tom etc start your own child-free party, I wish you just as much success as I originally wished on the WWW party.

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  20. This discussion has probably gone on for too long and wandered somewhat off its original track, but I would appreciate it if Tom and Rajat could just clarify their position for me once and for all.

    Do you believe categorically that there is no place for the state in attempting to ensure that children can be adequately fed, clothed, housed and educated if they have the misfortune to be born to parents who are unable to earn sufficient money to achieve those ends?

    If you do believe this, I think you would be better off living in the 19th Century (I understand Dr Who is back – perhaps he could take you 🙂 ) or perhaps in some Third World country rather than Australia. If, on the other hand, you concede that some measure of income transfer for the benefit of children is warranted, however limited, then we should be arguing about quantum and design not whether the ‘childfree’ should be required to subsidise the ‘childladen’.

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  21. BG, looks like we’ve succeeded in making you nearly as b+t as we are 😉
    In principle, I don’t believe in income transfers in any but the most extreme cases, such as real disability or equivalent. I believe that people should be responsible for the consequences of their choices and should be required to accept the going wage rate if they wish to work. If parents cannot or do not take care of their children, children can be removed from their case, as at present. It’s easy to paint this as brutal, but I suspect very few (additional) children would be removed or suffer real deprivation under such an approach. Those that do would most likely not be helped much by a transfer regime, which by implication presumes rational behaviour by recipients – ie not wasting money on booze, drugs or gambling.

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  22. b+t = ??? (Sorry not up with the lingo)

    My point would be that if you believe in income transfers under any circumstances then you are at the top of a slippery slope. And yes it it easy to paint that as brutal, but since you are in a definite minority, I won’t worry too much. In the end, I think most people are reasonably happy with the form the welfare state takes in Australia, even if just about everyone thinks it need some tweaking at the edges.

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  23. OK, just checking whether you were offering an insult or not. I do try not to be too b+t though (though perhaps I was just a bit when I accused Tom of that). Clearly there are number of things that we will just have to agree to disagree about – I have no desire to live in the 1950s for example, let alone the 19th century.

    Despite what Tom might think, I actually enjoy being a working mother who is a net taxpayer and I try not to spend too much time worrying about whatever it is that the government has decided to do with my taxes. I presume that if they make too many mistakes, people will eventually get rid of them.

    Perhaps it’s because I’m now so old and child-laden that I have lost most of the youthful idealism that the rest of you still have. 😉

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  24. Now, now, BG. You are still an idealist. And I don’t recall you being b+t…much.

    And I agree with you, and Peter W, though I’ve never managed to convince anyone in the kids are commodities set that children are not BMWs. I’ve been working on a line of argument that puts such folk (the commodifiers) in a cave to live on their own. Haven’t settled it yet though.

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  25. Tom wrote: “If, for the purposes of argument, we accept that people have a ‘human right’ to be parents, that of itself does not mean that anyone other than the people themselves should pay for the costs of exercising that right. ”
    A human right isn’t something you can exercise only if you can pay for it – why do you think it’s called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By definition a human right is something we all share and hence are obliged to grant to others. Do you really think that only people who can afford to pay for a fair trial should have one?

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  26. Well, even though I’m not 100% sure that having as many kids as you feel like is a universal human right, I am fairly certain that being able to survive once you have been born is one. That’s where Tom and Rajat’s line of argument leaves me pretty cold – the idea that children should have to pay for the failings of their parents.

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  27. I don’t think anyone is arguing in favour of starving babies in the street, but child support does raise issues in a policy wide context.

    1. Creates moral hazard for potential parents.

    2. Requires further taxation, which infringes people’s right to their own income (private property).

    I don’t buy the “fundamental human right” argument. People have many, many so-called “rights” but they are all really just derivatives of the general right to live free from coercion, i.e. to do what you want. A “right”, properly defined, does not impose an obligation on others, except toleration. For example, I have the right to practice a religion, but “society” should not be obliged to build me a temple to enable me to exercise that right.

    Also, the “fairness” argument doesn’t make any sense. Whether one person in particular received benefit from something or not has no bearing on the arguments in favour of or against it.

    The questions are what is the minimum standard of living we ideally want all children to have (a policy question) and what is the most effective way of achieving that goal (an empirical question).

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  28. Sorry James, I think if people say there should be no support provided specifically for children, I think that does imply that a few children starving is a price they are prepared to pay.

    As I think I said earlier, I am in favour of people taking as much responsibility as they can for themselves and their families, but in the end I would prefer to have a welfare state that provides a minimum level of support for everyone, including children, rather than just leave it up to fate, or the survival of the fittest or whatever. If that means that some people have children they can’t fully afford (something which I don’t think you could stop by making everyone “take responsibility”, by the way), I’m prepared to live with that. (Back in the 19th Century that Rajat thinks would be better to live in, many people had children that they couldn’t afford and many of them died – I think most people would agree that the welfare state with all its imperfections is an improvement on that.) But I agree with you there are different ways of tackling every policy problem and some are certainly better than others, even if all of them tend to have a downside as well.

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  29. Russell,
    People can exercise their ‘human right’ to have babies, if that is what it is, without government support. No one is preventing people from having babies by not giving them subsidies. All that the absence of subsidies would mean in this context is that parents would have less money to spend on other things.

    On the other hand, you seem to think that people should be subsidised for exercising their human rights. If we accept that, then what your “argument” for parental subsidies amounts to is as follows:
    1) you think parenthood is a human right;
    2) people should be subsidised for the costs of exercising their human rights; ergo
    3) parents should be subsidised.
    In other words, your argument as to why parents should be subsidised is that you think parents should be subsidised!
    Well, you are entitled to think that, but it’s not really an “argument”, is it.
    Thus, I repeat, if you want to justify parental subsidies, you need to justify them. Simply asserting that having babies is a human right does not do that.
    Tom

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  30. The reasons I don’t think many children would majorly suffer under a withdrawal of family benefits, as compared to the case in the 19th century, are:
    1. The availability of contraception and abortion
    2. Much higher prevailing living standards, which mean that even someone working in the informal sector has enough to keep body and soul together.
    Yes, children may have to wear ratty clothes and deal with few treats, but I don’t have a problem with that.

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  31. “I don’t buy the “fundamental human right” argument. People have many, many so-called “rights” but they are all really just derivatives of the general right to live free from coercion, i.e. to do what you want. A “right”, properly defined, does not impose an obligation on others, except toleration.”

    James, I’ll need someone smarter than I to answer that. For me the argument ends in feeling: I’ve always felt/known that I was receiving benefits and that I owed the same to others. I don’t know where feelings of gratitude, compassion, justice, relationship come from, but I guess they are the source of feelings of responsibility. When we talk about human rights, it’s as much a statement of responsibilities – what we agree to do for each other. If you don’t feel you have any, then there’s not much I can say.

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  32. I don’t have a problem with children wearing ratty clothes either, Rajat, but I do believe that there is some minimum standard of living below which children should not have to live. However, I believe that it should be incumbent on parents, in the first instance, to provide that minimum; and that if they do not, there is a role for the State to penalise and/or force them to provide adequately for their children. In a sense, bringing a child into the world and not providing for it can be seen as imposing a negative externality, and parents should be held to account for it.

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  33. Russell,

    1. “I’ve always felt/known that I was receiving benefits and that I owed the same to others”
    You acknowledge that you would give up some of your income/property/time of your own free choice and then you assert that it follows the state should take people’s property coercively to redistribute it. Are you operating on the assumption that people apart from you do not feel compassion and do not want to help others? I would challenge such an assumption. Isn’t it possible that helping others is a motivation for many people? In particular, isn’t it possible that many people are prepared to give up their time and money to help others, particularly defenceless children?

    2. “When we talk about human rights, it’s as much a statement of responsibilities – what we agree to do for each other.”
    I disagree with this assertion. As I said, a “right”, properly defined, does not impose obligations on others, except toleration. Sometimes people talk about “negative rights” and “positive rights”, where negative rights are “rights” as I defined them and “positive rights” are rights to be provided with something through the actions of another person or the state. The difficulty with so-called “positive rights” is that they are not immutable (and therefore are subjective and consequently open to manipulation [the basis for the WWW party?]). For example, suppose nuclear war broke out and the entire human population was decimated except 12 people – many of the “positive rights” being claimed the day before could no longer be provided (simply due to lack of resources), whereas the “negative rights” would still apply exactly as they had beforehand.

    3. “If you don’t feel you have any, then there’s not much I can say.”
    It is your assumption that I don’t feel I have any responsibilities. I’m not sure why you have reached that conclusion. Perhaps I should note that I use the term “rights” in a legal sense, as opposed to a moral sense. Although I may argue there ought not to be a legal obligation to do something, I may nevertheless believe there ought to be a moral obligation. The important distinction is that moral obligations do not infringe people’s liberty because they will not suffer legal consequences for ignoring them (such as fines and/or gaol). They may however suffer other consequences, such as emotional and social ones.

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  34. BG,

    1.”Sorry James, I think if people say there should be no support provided specifically for children, I think that does imply that a few children starving is a price they are prepared to pay.”
    I think this is an assumption on your behalf, BG. Perhaps the people arguing against support specifically for children believe that such support will not be effective in ensuring there are not starving children? Or perhaps they believe there are more effective/efficient ways of ensuring this? Or perhaps they think there is an approach which has fewer adverse/undesirable side-effects, or which is a better trade-off in terms of the other policy issues? It would take a particularly callous individual to believe “I am indifferent to some children starving to death” and I suspect such a person would either be a blind ideologue, rather than a considered, thoughtful person, or would have some collateral purpose for saying it (like trying to make some different point or taking the p!ss).

    2. “the welfare state with all its imperfections is an improvement on that”
    This is an empirical question, to which we should be able to determine an answer that we both agree with (once we had agreed on the specific criteria for “improvement” – which would need to include the side-effects of welfare, i.e. high EMTRs). However, that would take a lot of work that I suspect neither of us are prepared to do. Unless you have collected the necessary evidence, your assertion is again based on an assumption. I certainly haven’t collected any evidence, but for the limited purpose of challenging your assumption, consider the conditions that children in the remote aboriginal communities we read about in the newspaper are being raised in – what are the implications of that situation for the assumption that the welfare state is necessarily an improvement on “the 19th century”?
    (I note this is not an apples with apples comparison, since there has been such a massive increase in aggregate global wealth, medical standards, technology, etc, since the 19th century).

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  35. BG,

    out of interest, where have you derived your views of the 19th century from? I’m no history expert and I haven’t read very much about the 19th century, but perhaps at some stage I could share some of the (limited) sources I have derived my generalisations about the 19th century from. My general impression is that reality was not always as bad as Dickens painted it, but then I have not even read much Dickens, let alone history of the 19th century, so your thoughts/experience may be interesting.

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  36. James, of course I understand that I am expressing a value judgement when I say that the welfare state is an improvement on conditions of life before the welfare state. I doubt whether the data exists for you or I or anyone to make an ‘objective’ assessment of whether that is correct, even if we could agree on a definition of ‘improvement’.

    I am not relying solely on Dickens as my authority for what life was like. (Actually, I’ve read relatively little Dickens although of course I have watched quite a lot of movies and TV adaptations of his books.) But I do have a copy of Seebohm Rowntree’s “Poverty: A Study of Town Life”, which I think many people regard as the first attempt to apply a scientific approach to describing and analysing the phenomenon of poverty. I would recommend it if you have an interest in the topic.

    One of the interesting things he found was that many in the population of working poor, particularly large families, had a standard of nutrition that was lower than that provided to indigent people in workhouses and to prisoners in gaol. That was what life was like when there was no public assistance for low-income working families.

    I am not really arguing that there might not be merit in winding back some aspects of the welfare state (though don’t forget that Australia has one of the most efficient and affordable welfare systems among developed worlds), just that I don’t really believe that we would be better off without one at all, and that children would certainly not be better off without one that took their interests into account. I would be happy for you or Rajat of Tom to point me to any society, either current and past, without some form of financial assistance for children (whether provided through cash transfers or tax concessions), where children do better overall than they do in Australia.

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  37. James

    You might be interested in a few statistics from Rowntree’s report on poverty in York at the turn of the 20th Century (presumably things were worse in the 19th).

    In the poorest parts of the city, infant mortality was around one in four of all babies born – compared to less than one in ten infants among the ‘servant-keeping’ class.

    Rowntree found that over 50 per cent of the families experiencing what he termed ‘primary poverty’ (where income was insufficient to meet the most basic needs) were in poverty because their wages were too low to meet the needs of the family. The next most common cause of poverty was having too many children (he defined this as more than four), and the third group was those who had lost the primary breadwinner’s wage because of death, illness or old age.

    Rowntree also adopted a form of life-cycle analysis similar to that referred to earlier by Peter Whiteford. He found that the times of the lifecycle when a labourer was prone to poverty were during his own childhood, during the period when his children were growing but before they started earning themselves and then in old age. Periods of relative prosperity were from when he entered the paid workforce, through marriage and starting a family and later on when children were grown and either contributing towards the family’s income themselves or had moved out of home. I think that kind of description would still ring quite a lot of bells for those of us who have been through some parts of the same lifecycle.

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  38. That reminds me … Rowntree, Cadbury et al. were the FairTraders of their day really – included in the price of the product was the knowledge that their workers were provided with reasonable living standards. Ah chocolate, still doing it’s good work.
    James, on your first point: we’re all born into communities, we can’t live apart from community, and we make some decisions that will apply to the whole community. If we all tried to live by your definition – that it is a human right “to do what you want” – we wouldn’t have a community, let alone a civilisation. Collectively we have agreed that children have rights ( we signed the Convention) and that the state will look after those rights – it won’t be left up to neighbours or acts of individual charity.
    Thanks for your definitions of positive and negative rights – I should know about this stuff, but I don’t. Still, I don’t see why you are so recalcitrant about recognising positive rights because they are subjective and change according to new awareness. I can have a right to free speech (without the government having to buy me a newspaper) that can be interpreted depending on circumstance (wartime, shouting ‘Fire’ in the theatre etc). You seem very dogmatic about this – what’s wrong with living in a state of continuous negotiating about these rights?
    Similarly, I’m not persuaded by your rigid disinction between moral and legal obligations. Most of us feel a moral obligation to not let children live in dire poverty – so we create taxation and welfare. What good is a moral obligation if you don’t create a way to meet it?

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  39. BG,

    I’m not going to address all your points right now, but I will address some.

    1. “I understand that I am expressing a value judgement when I say that the welfare state is an improvement on conditions of life before the welfare state”
    My point was quite the opposite. This is not a value judgment, it is an assumption of fact. I was simply pointing it out because it is an important difference between your position and that of Tom and Rajat. I think it could be resolved with some careful analysis.

    2. The question of historical sources is one that I’m not going to deal with now, but I recall that Rafe Champion used to post an awful lot on this subject over at Catallaxy, so that is one source that may be useful I suppose.

    3. “I am not really arguing that there might not be merit in winding back some aspects of the welfare state.”
    And I am not arguing that welfare for children should be eliminated. In fact, I haven’t argued anything one way or the other on this point. I’m really just trying to make some of the assumptions in the conversation explicit. I suppose I have directed my points to you and Russell because I am more sympathetic to Rajat and Toms’ side of the discussion, but I suspect they also have a number of assumptions they have not made explicit. I remember that at Uni, part of the fun of student politics was making statements without making the assumptions explicit because you knew the lefties would not share your assumptions and would get outraged about it. Not effective communication though and I suspect if we resolved some of the assumptions here, we would be much closer to reaching agreement than was previously realised. Probably too much bother (and unpaid work) for a blog though, hey?

    4. “children would certainly not be better off without [a welfare system] that took their interests into account”
    I would be surprised if Tom and Rajat disagreed with this statement, but I think they would disagree with the assumptions that you may be coupling with it, such as:
    (i) basic welfare given to low-income households is insufficient to support children as well as the parents;
    (ii) taking the interests of children into account necessarily means giving more money to the parents; and
    (iii) the interests of the children must not be compromised at all to other policy considerations, such as the undesirability of taxation and moral hazard for parents.

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  40. James, Tom and Rajat seemed to me to be saying that the same amount of welfare should be enough for one adult or for the same adult and any number of children – if that was not what they meant I stand corrected. If my interpretation of their position is right, however, I don’t see how you could maintain that the level of the dole for a single person or a couple is sufficient to support a whole family with any number of children, without the children’s rights to subsistence being compromised.

    The trouble is that once you accept that welfare payments for people without any income of their own should include amounts for children, then it is a fairly logical consequence that some low income earners will be worse off than people on welfare unless they also receive financial assistance for their children. I have only been arguing in favour of this principle, not in favour of the particular form and quantum of assistance that is currently given to people with children. And in the end, I would love to live in a utopia where everyone fully supported themselves and their families, but I think we should all be able to agree if that is not achievable, especially if (like Rajat) you don’t believe in minimum wages either.

    Don’t forget that Russell has also been taking me to task for my hard-heartedness. I’m the piggy in the middle, here.

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  41. backroom girl said:
    June 30th, 2007 13:46

    “…and since she seems to work only in a voluntary capacity (perhaps she has been scared off by those high EMTRs?), I suspect she is very much a beneficiary of recent Government largesse. But it’s clearly not enough ..”

    Actually, I think you’ll find that Ms Caines has been channeling funds from voluntary orgnisations she has been part of like Maternity Coalition and Homebirth Australia into her new political party. She is certainly not someone at the bottom of society who needs help through the welfare net – I believe her husband is a constitutional lawyer!?!

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