A case for the welfare state

PHOTO: conwayhall.org.uk

PHOTO: conwayhall.org.uk

IT would be odd to regard general welfare as irrelevant to policy. The discussion here is in favour of private organisation or industry, a plural society, multiplicity of parties and evolutionary politics. No attempt is made to engage in any semantic exposition of the meaning of socialism which definition is as varied or variegated as there are discussants thereof. My experience as a run-of-the-mill politician has been that some of the reputable arguments which make voters to vote for socialist rather than free enterprise candidates derive from the general attitude towards publicly organised or supported social services provided for the satisfaction of relative standards of comfort and security. Indeed, a great majority of people would confess their favour of or support for the “progressive” candidate because they believe in the necessity for social services on the scale advocated by social welfare campaigners and because they associate the socialist or progressive platform exclusively with the desire to provide them services. Political parties therefore mischievously tend to hide their predilections for views that run contrary to the social welfare regime by the use of subterfuge, semantic obloquy or taradiddle.

Truly, publicly organised social services on an adequate scale particularly in the dire social circumstances of Nigeria are a desideratum. The failure to recognise this is one of the underlying causes of our manifest economic distortions or of the social imbalance which afflicts us. Co-incidentally, those who are opposed to the social welfare genre on the basis of alleged “gross inequalities and the injustices of personal taxation,” etc. that may ensue from its exercise have exposed themselves or allowed themselves to be drawn into general criticisms and arguments positioned to give rise to reasonable doubts about the sincerity of their espousal of or support for the provision of generous social benefits, however they may be sourced or financed. The result is that their general expression of the cause of free enterprise has tended to be murky or, even, lugubrious and so unacceptable. This ideological mistake is more observable and has found un-refreshing repetition in the Republican Party in the United States and, to a lesser degree, in the Christian Democratic parties on the continent of Europe.

The responsibility for the care of the sick, the education of the young, the relief or reduction of poverty, the amelioration of the frightening consequences of old age, etc. undertaken both by private charity and public provision are today a veritable tenet of the philosophy of good governance. The natural or moral corollary of the abundance created for us in Nigeria by nature is that the spread thereof should be wider and the level progressively higher. The state, through its ingenuity and the efforts of those who are in work, the adult who is in good health, etc. must necessarily bear the burden of the welfare of all. The product of our collective industry, superintended by an organised state, should be able to carry us piggyback. The channels of taxation from personal income, produce, oil and gas production and sale receipts, etc. of personal savings and of private charity must be fostered and energised to unleash their innate potentials for freeing the wealth-creating power of enterprise, trade and investment in the national interest.

We must not succumb to the smug indifference or sabre-rattling of some who hold that relative social security is something to be denounced as it discourages enterprise. They propound the socially untrue thesis that the poverty-stricken, the handicapped, the slum dweller, etc. who are helped or assisted by the safety net inherent in the social security system are invidiously encouraged to be imprudent or to drown their sorrows in pito, burukutu, ogogoro and such-like debilitating substances. But the welfare state is beneficial to both those who receive the benefits and those who make them possible or provide them; for it gives security and hope to those in need, assists them to plan their future, to live thrifty and rewarding lives, and to engage in activities for improving their fortunes. The welfare state is truly a state for the furtherance of the individual’s sense of self worth and for the ascertainment of the true value placed on his membership or citizenship.

Furthering or applying the philosophy of natural selection to our discussion, we posit that the physically handicapped (whether by accident or disease or congenital debility), the old and the young, etc. are, in the natural scheme of things, unable to benefit by the qualities or rigour demanded for success in a highly competitive environment. Theirs are therefore matters that must be catered for specially in a well-organised society. The idea that they could be left entirely or mainly to the vagaries of the efforts of thrift, of private munificence or charitable trusts is socially irresponsible. I can, for instance, see no alternative to the financing of education out of the proceeds of taxation or the public till if its provision is to be adequate and evenly spread. The view seems to be gaining ground insidiously for the provision of education requisite or relevant to its costs. The burden of the provision of education per value in terms of its social costs, its huge financial or capital outlay, etc. is today being unfairly canvassed to be borne by parents or sponsors.

The odious debate was kick-started by Governor Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State who wondered aloud why parents could afford to send their children and wards to fee- paying private institutions where egregious fees are charged and turn round to question as scandalous or extortionist any appreciable hike in tuition and other fees proposed to be charged by publicly-funded higher institutions. In his halcyon tenure as a trade union leader, Oshiomhole would have shouted himself hoarse, led his constituency to hold vigils on lawns, picketed official quarters regarding the enormity of the situation or circumstance of a proposed mindless hike in school and other fees. He would have combatively and dialectically engaged the situation. How times change!

It is, however, demonstrable that the provision of social services and benefits can best be deployed by a social welfare regime, properly so called. Taxation, which is a responsible way of channeling the product of industry into desirable ends, if properly harnessed, would be left to pay for the education of children and others. Our inadequate health provision, exemplified by the terms of its tokenist National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), including its approved societies, etc. which are as expensive as they are inefficient, will also be a worthy beneficiary. So far as the practical operation of the current health care delivery system goes, we can also say that it has not shown, after many years of trial runs, any appreciable or significant improvement in the regime before it.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in an all-time denunciation of cant, has characteristically identified or pin-pointed the dialectical relationship which necessarily exists between the performance of government and its vaunted social programmes; between profligacy or thieving in government and the objective requirement to source for and apply funds to advertised social welfare programmes. As nature abhors vacuum, if the funds which were employed to prosecute the free education programme of the Awolowo years had been left idle in government coffers or not tied to some specific social upliftment policy, some smart Alec would have found private or inordinate use for them. This, today, is one bane of governance in Nigeria; too much money as loose canons. Our government has no enduring commitment to the values of social welfare. Only a lip service is vainly paid thereto.

No serious study or understanding of the incidents of the welfare state can fail to grasp the fact of its concern for the moral and practical issues of our communal existence. If our collective experience is to place a proper value on our human condition in the face of the objective realities of the moral requirement to provide for one and all, in the full dimension of our individual peculiarity, diversity, respective identity, etc., the welfare state is the paradigm shift or conceptual framework within which change can take place. The change that does not question or frontally confront the social inequalities or the economic distortions in the polity or of our existence is in-apt and can only be presumed to have been positioned to catch votes or obtain the popular mandate by subterfuge, chicanery or shenanigan.

•Rotimi-John, a lawyer and public affairs commentator, contributed this piece from Abuja.

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