A short history of the social rights myth

Today, many industrialized nations have developed a multitude of social programmes, and these have become so entrenched that theorists, and politicians alike, claim the ‘right’ of citizens to their services. We are told we have a right to health care, education, unemployment insurance, and so on. Indeed, Jack Straw, the UK Justice Minister, recently proposed to codify these entitlements in a new British Bill of Rights. But do we, as citizens of developed nations, actually have these rights?

The development of ‘rights’

The term ‘right’ has come to characterize anything to which either the government or the citizenry feel they can make a fundamental claim to – but this is to express a deep misunderstanding of rights and their traditional link to civil liberties. Instead, a definition of rights has evolved which people almost universally accept but which remains false and untrue to their original intention. Rights began as protections against what the state could not do to a citizen; now they have become what the government must do for an individual.

The concept of rights first developed with 17th and 18th Century writers such as Hobbes, whose argument centred on the natural rights of humans to their own life and a freedom to socially contract with one another for protection, and Locke, who argued for non-interference by the state. People found themselves under physical threat from others and formed states to provide mutual protection. They knew that they could better secure themselves collectively than individually. Naturally, given that the state was formed to protect the right to life, the state could not remove that right without the due process. Locke’s contribution was to add liberty and property to the list of natural rights.

Manifestations of these rights appear throughout the great documents of western civilization. By the time of the American Revolution and the publication of The Wealth of Nations (1776), fundamental rights of citizens against their government had been established in England; and soon after enshrined in the United States’ Bill of Rights. These were the rights outlined by a nation newly free of unrepresentative rule, a clear example of the potential abuses of the state. They outlined and reiterated the liberal rights against arbitrary imprisonment and the interference of the state.

By this time, however, a sense was growing of further capabilities of cooperative efforts, beyond national defence and internal policing. Ideas began to form around other activities that people could agree to better achieve collectively, rather than singularly. These were often services that, by their implementation, would benefit the public at large and retained the original spirit of the state as a cooperative effort of individuals to better achieve their idea of the good life. By this time, education and provisions for the ill were often seen as beneficial to society and socially desirable; even Adam Smith, in Book V of The Wealth of Nations, called for a rudimentary education ensured by a government.

Smith paints a picture of a parish tutor, perhaps subsidized by the community coffer but employed primarily by the student’s parents to ensure his effort. Smith’s mention of education might be used to advocate the universal policies of today, but we must remember that his vision of education was drastically different. Smith saw education as a public good that served not just the individual, but also the community: the major benefit being a more educated populace. He argued that, “An instructed and intelligent people besides are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant one.” The education of the populace was so important for the proper functioning of society that public funding may be beneficial, when properly directed.

Smith, however, and the writers of the liberal cannon which followed, never would have referred to education or any other public good as a ‘right’. It was a service that the public had decided would be advantageous to their community, and its benefits were aimed more at the community than the individual.

Over time, however, states began to implement policies and programmes intended to ease the pressure on individuals from certain negative externalities of early capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. In its infant forms, England’s Poor Laws and ‘poor houses’ provided a minimal level of care to keep people from complete destitution. The US had enshrined traditional liberal rights in the Constitution, but by the end of the 19th century many of the newly formed Western states included in their constitutions a guarantee to social services like education, disability and old age care. While these were not federal programmes (not yet), states had enshrined in their constitutions the guarantee to citizens of social services, indicative of the populist sentiment of the day. Although populist ideas were growing, the classical conception of rights continued to have strong advocates. In the 1830s, Jeremy Bentham referred to classic rights not as ‘rights’ but as ‘securities against misrule’. This is perhaps the most accurate characterization of rights in the liberal tradition, disallowing the confusion that has occurred today in the idea of social rights.

The rise of the welfare state

A real turning point in welfare policy came in the first half of the 20th century and in the subsequent changing conception of the state. Before both the world wars, economists like JA Hobson and LT Hobhouse had begun advocating economic interventionism and ‘welfare economics’ – plans to alter the workings of the economic system itself to benefit the poor. After the Second World War this thinking took hold most strongly in Europe and the UK and, to a lesser extent, in the US. Nationalized medicine, pensions, and welfare handouts became the norm in Europe while in the US the policies of the New Deal and Great Society implemented a number of programmes for the very poor or very sick. These programmes reflected a growing thought in the western world that the state could, through planning, could perhaps change the material relations of society to the benefit of all. State planning became paramount, and the belief spread that a proper government could not just alleviate problems, but potentially solve them.

In 1938 Harold Macmillan wrote The Third Way, in which he pushed for an expansion of social programmes. This would become indicative of the post-war political consensus. He outlined what he called the ‘human charter’ of social programmes of the state: “the items [the charter] contained might be presented either as rights that the individual is entitled to demand from society or as obligations that society owes to the individual.” Here is one of the first manifestations of social rights, representative of the perversion of the rights originally formulated by liberal theorists, as well as the ‘public good’ writers such as Smith outlined. Smith advocated a social good, like the education of children, that might be recognized as important to the population as a whole but perhaps not best achieved individually, so that it could be subsidized by a local government to ensure its provision. Examples like the subsidization of medical care, based on the notion that a country is undeniably better off when the populace is healthy, do not stray far from the original intent of Smith’s writings. However, perceived rights to health care and its provision through a centralized and hierarchical system do. They misunderstand the difference between a social good and a right.

The problem with ‘social rights’

The problem emerges when programmes such as the government provision of health care or education become so entrenched that the populace cannot imagine a different state of affairs. The programme is institutionalized and centralized to such an extent that private alternatives seem inconceivable. Soon, people are claiming a ‘right’ to these services, because it has become something which a western liberal government cannot exist without providing, much like a guarantee to free speech or the freedom to practice a religion. Today, many services have been provided for so long that the people begin to see them not as a good public service that the government has endeavoured to provide, but a service to which they hold an intrinsic claim; something no government can deny them.

Macmillan himself, albeit inadvertently, laid out the problems of social rights. In defending the increase in welfare provisions, he argued that the increase isn’t a new idea, but the logical conclusion of an old one – the obligation of a state to its citizens. But as soon as one decides a state has material obligations to its citizens, the possibilities for extension are endless. To what will we have a right next?

A further problem is that the material involvement in the life of an individual opens up that life to state inspection and interference. If the state pays the rent, is the home still a private residence free from intrusion? If the state provides health care can it order you not to smoke, or drink, or eat fatty food? Issues similar to these are arising today because of the heavy involvement of the state. What happens when a right to non-interference and the obligation of a state to interfere collide?


Social programmes and ‘rights to them’ represent a fundamental change in thinking about the state that had begun in the early 20th century but took its true form in the post-war years: that the state could and should manipulate economic conditions and provide social programmes in order to improve the lot of the general citizenry. Macmillan advocated the idea of social rights in 1938. Today, social rights are so accepted that no one need advocate for them, and challenging them has become politically unacceptable. This is a cause for real concern.

The provision or subsidization of locally accountable public goods intended to benefit society as a whole might fall under the natural role of the state, assuming the community agrees to their value. But claiming a right to a centralized and hierarchical programme involving massive state control does not. Indeed, it threatens the legitimate rights citizens have against their government.

Ultimately, people have rights to life, to liberty, and to property. The provision of public goods is simply a matter for the populace and, latterly, the government of the day.

Tories must face the taxing realities

Where do the Conservatives stand on the issue of tax? With the increased possibility of a Conservative Government in power by next June, Dr Eamonn Butler looks at how Cameron could deal with the mess we find ourselves in.

Another week, another Tory tax pickle.

Last week, David Cameron said that the top rate of income tax might have to go up to 45 per cent. His core supporters were not best pleased – add national insurance, and top earners would be seeing two-thirds of their incomes disappear in tax.

This week, Ken Clarke put his Hush Puppies in it, saying that the Conservatives might abandon their pledge to scrap inheritance tax for most people. That didn’t go well with the core voters either. Nor with the millions of middle-class folk who see Gordon Brown grabbing 40 per cent of the family home when mum finally shuffles off.

Tax has troubled the Tories ever since David Cameron became leader. The focus groups told them firmly that the Great British Public simply doesn’t believe that you can cut taxes and improve public services at the same time.

Cameron was desperate to show that his party was caring, concerned, and committed to public services. So he and his Treasury spokesman George Osborne refused to talk tax cuts, however much their voters grumbled about it.

But with the threat of a snap election in autumn 2007, Osborne had to say something about tax. So, at the Conservative Conference, he muttered that, just possibly, and on a good day with a fair wind, he might, maybe, just think about potentially ending inheritance tax for anyone who wasn’t actually a millionaire.

That produced an immediate surge in Conservative poll ratings that took the leadership completely by surprise. They started to see the wisdom of keeping their core supporters sweet. And yet Ken Clarke’s gaffe shows they are still in two minds about tax.

Their problem is the huge hole in the public finances. Conservatives don’t like taxes, which they think stifle the work ethic and economic growth. But they don’t like governments being in debt either.

And this Government is in debt up to its ears. Taxes have gone up by half (in real terms) since 1997, but public spending has expanded even faster.

Gordon Brown has plugged the gap with borrowing, and then more borrowing – so much, in fact, that the International Monetary Fund has been warning him about it since 2003.

It’s profligacy, not prudence, and it’s left us in the world’s fifth largest public debt hole. The Chancellor, Alastair Darling, says that he owes 41 per cent of GDP – £41 for every £100 we earn. But then he and Gordon Brown have taken on lots of other commitments that he doesn’t mention.

I researched the figures for a new book, The Rotten State of Britain. They are truly staggering. There is the cost of all those new schools and hospitals, paid for on tick under the Private Finance Initiative. Guarantees to Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley, plus other massive bank bailouts. A £21bn guarantee on Network Rail’s borrowing. A £70bn bill for decommissioning nuclear power stations. Those alone more than double the Government’s debt to 89 per cent of our national earnings.

But dwarfing all of these is £1,000bn of pension promises to public-sector workers, and even more for the state pension promised to every retired person.

All in all, I figure that the Government actually owes five times what Alastair Darling claims – a real national debt of £275,000 for every household in Britain.

Getting us out of a debt hole that size won’t be easy. The Brown-Darling policy of simply spending and borrowing even more in the hope of staving off the evil day is a bit like trying to cure a hangover by hitting the bottle all over again.

The Conservatives’ poll lead makes them pretty sure that, sometime around June next year, they will find themselves saddled with this problem.

The only ways of plugging the borrowing gap are to spend less, or tax more – or both. But they are anxious not to be branded as heartless cost-cutters, and don’t want to raise taxes either. Hence their confusion.

My advice would be for them to stick to their principles. They should say firmly that it was big government, big spending, and big borrowing that got us into this mess – and only less of all that will get us out. That Keynesian public works schemes actually cost jobs rather than creating them. That Brown’s cheap-money boom was a disaster and that we need sound money that keeps its value. And that if we are to create jobs and rebuild, we need less regulation, not more of it.

Cameron worries that bringing the public budget back under control will mean massive disruption and perhaps unrest, as it did in the early 1980s.

He’s right. But then the painful adjustment of the early ’80s was followed by a decade of enormous and real prosperity as the economy righted itself. The hangover cure will be unpleasant. But it is the past excesses that make it inevitable.

To order a copy of The Rotten State of Britain by Eamonn Butler from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232 or go online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk. Postage and packing is £2.75.

Dr Eamonn Butler is director of the Adam Smith Institute. His new book, The Rotten State of Britain, is published by Gibson Square, price £12.

Published in the Yorkshire Post here.

Blog Review 910


It appears that our Lord Chancellor doesn´t in fact understand what a Bill of Rights is. It is what is ours, not what we owe to him. He also rather misses that we already have a Bill of Rights.

Further problems in the political process. No one is overseeing the executive´s use of tax funds. Isn´t that what led to the civil war that preceded that Bill of Rights?

Indeed, power seems to be abdicated to special interest groups.

An alternative reason for rising inequality....other than bankers´greed that is.

For and against (in part) the Geithner plan for the banks.

A snarl at Paul Krugman and a conjecture: Jade Goody and Hotblack Desiato?

And finally, telling the truth with numbers or, if you prefer, gin and your daughter.

Police, politicians and prostitutes


You'd have thought that after twelve years and countless Acts of Parliament on police, crime, and terrorism, the government would have its security policy about right by now. But no, the Policing and Crime Bill, which is coming up for its Third Reading and will go to the Lords soon, is a rag-bag of measures – some administrative trivia, but others fundamental to our freedoms.

There is, for example, a bit stuck in which would allow the police to insist on CCTV being installed within licensed premises – that is, all bars, pubs, clubs, corner grocery stores that sell alcohol, and even the poshest, quietest, country house hotels. Quite apart from the fact that I don't want some camera lip-reading me, or looking over my shoulder as I tap out my PIN number in a restaurant, my concern is that, once again, it will be the innocent who get criminalized by this technology. The police will regularly demand the CCTV records, and if they find one occasion where the shopkeeper has failed to ask some 20-year-old for ID (perhaps because he's known them for years), well, that's an offence and another nice conviction to put towards Gordon Brown's targets.

Then there's the bizarre new offence of paying for sex with prostitutes 'controlled for gain'. It's billed, of course, as preventing human trafficking. But it actually says that if 'any' of a prostitute's activities are controlled by another, the clients are nicked. So that's an end to places where some experienced woman actually schedules and looks out for the girls. From now on, they're on their own in that big bad world. I guess it would include girls who use agencies (like taxi drivers do) to bring business to them. After all, that peripheral part of their activities is 'controlled for gain' by the agency managers.

Again, agencies actually protect the girls they manage – barring violent clients, checking on the girls to ensure that clients have left on time without doing them injury. Depending on how these vague clauses are interpreted – and you can be sure that the police and the Home Secretary will interpret them as widely as they dare – it all means that there will be more prostitutes out there, on their own, without the protection of experienced other people. Like the human trafficking legislation that preceded it, this law isn't going to catch any nasty guys – it's simply going to be used to harass girls who are trying to make a living from an entirely voluntary activity. This government really are turning into a bunch of fascists.

Dr Eamonn Butler's new book, The Rotten State of Britain, is now available to buy.

Bill of slavery


If Labour wins the next election and the new Bill of Rights is introduced, it will be a step towards a new type of slavery in this country. One that would enshrine in law the government’s stranglehold over the people of this country. The legislative foundations will shift, drowning freedom under a plethora of rights and responsibilities. A step greater than the 1998 Human Rights Act, if introduced, this should make all who value freedom weep.

The rights and responsibilities agenda is viral. It assumes a de facto subservient relation of subject to ruler. The Bill of Rights would permit entitlements to free health care, education and mush else that the state is best left out of. A lawyers dream, but a nightmare for the productive, as the government strips them bare to uphold their side of this new socialist contract.

Any rights and space within the law for freedom will in effect be subsumed by the rule of ‘social justice’. As kings and queens before them, politicians will be the undoubted granter of rights and the ones to whom we owe responsibility. Hobbes’ Leviathan is taking shape nicely.

We could not trust the opposition to scrap it when finally in power;, after all, they are unlikely to do much in taking back powers lost to bureaucrats in Brussels. Similarly the fourth estate is scrambling around in the dirt, perhaps busy planning the rise and fall of its next celebrity superstar. As such, if Labour were to win this Bill of Rights would slip below the radar. The Times and Telegraph are well off the mark with their evocation of a ‘nanny state’, while the Daily Mail is mistaken in branding the Bill ‘spin’. This is nothing less than the blueprint for setting socialism in law.

Decisions, decisions


As most of the world knows, the AIG bonus situation is quite a sore spot for the United States right now. Even though the company received $182 billion in bailout money, AIG will have distributed $165 million in bonuses total to over 400 executives by the end of March. The bonuses were written in a contract created in late 2008, so there is a limited amount of options the government can take at this time.

There are two aspects of the solution that the government should look toward. The first involves incentives, meaning that the original intention of this bailout was to help save a company that the country’s commerce depends upon. The media has already begun demonizing every executive at AIG, even though many of them are opting out of the bonuses. What this means for the future of the company is not difficult to predict. Employees from AIG will seek jobs at other companies, whose names might not bear the same stigma. The company will soon lose the most talented individuals who were able to find other positions, possibly resulting in a worse performance than if those employees had stayed. This is not what the United States was originally hoping for when they signed off on the bailouts.

The second aspect of the solution deals with the constitutionality of government intervention in such a situation. Obama has been evaluating the house’s bill, passed last week, which will place a 90% tax on bonuses received by employees with salaries above $250,000 at companies receiving federal aid. This is a pretty serious move by the House, it is essentially breaking a contract that the US government approved quite a long time ago.

Obama himself said on 60 Minutes that, "As a general proposition, you don't want to be passing laws that are just targeting a handful of individuals. You want to pass laws that have some broad applicability. And as a general proposition, I think you certainly don't want to use the tax code...to punish people."

Whether the bonuses are ethical or not, it is no small matter if the government uses the tax code to sidestep contracts. Let’s see what Obama decides…

Blog Review 908


If government is willing to violate a contract only a month after passing a law stating that government will uphold that contract, why would anyone believe promises made by government?

Such loss of faith in the word and bond of government will of course make everything worse.

Repudiating the AIG bonuses is an excellent way of killing any method of rescuing the banks. Doesn't achieve much else though.

For example, this on the face of it sensible plan will not work if investors believe that any profits will be taxed at extortionate rates.

Yes, we're in a recession. So worth asking perhaps, "What has capitalism ever done for us?"

A quote on a quote of the day: "In other words, capitalism gets the job done, other systems don't."

And finally, how health and lifestyle issues are decided these days (naughty words alert).

A sorry state of affairs


In The Times, Camilla Cavendish delivers a damning and spot-on criticism of the government and public services. She touches upon the fact that average public sector wages are rising whilst those in the private sector are rapidly falling and this brings into question ‘who is working for who exactly?’ I have blogged on this before.
The claim that the government has ‘mortgaged’ our futures is sadly all too true. It is indicative of a government who only consider winning votes and cannot see past the end of their noses towards the long-term prosperity of Britain. Indeed, in his new book, The Rotten State of Britain, Eamonn Butler has calculated that the average public debt is now almost £270,000 per household. This includes future costs which the government has tried hide, such as unfunded public sector pensions, PFI liabilities, and the cost of nuclear decommissioning. 
The article shows how our public services really have become a sorry state of affairs – almost an embarrassment. There are examples of failure in healthcare, education and welfare. It is absurd to consider that the NHS is the third largest employer in the world, yet the service it offers is so far behind other developed nations. It would be easy for the government to blame current failings on the global recession, which in turn they blame on America (or anybody besides themselves). But this lack of quality in our public services just highlights how inefficient they have become. You cannot simply pour resources into a service in the vain hope it will boost the quality of output.
Essentially, the government seems to feel it has a right to spend our hard-earned money. They don't see it as the privilege that it is. Unfortunately, it is not the current crop of politicians who will suffer the consequences, but future generations and future governments. Perhaps a severe lack of accountability is to blame.



In his first pre-Budget report as Chancellor, the infamous ‘boom & bust’ phrase, that mantra Gordon Brown came so steadfastly to believe in, can be seen lurking in the opening paragraphs. What this showed was that Gordon Brown held no singular understanding of risk, and/or the global economy.

Over the past 18 months we have heard continual cries for risk to be curbed. Yet risk is something that humans curb naturally: by learning from their errors. What bailouts and new systems of regulation achieve is that the various parties involved in the financial meltdown do not learn, as the bonuses at AIG show.

Lawmakers have to understand that risk is inherent in all that we do, which is why we have a ‘natural’ system that ‘booms and busts’. Unfortunately for us, lawmakers have taken it upon themselves to concentrate the control of the economy in their own hands with the result that the peaks of growth and the troughs of contraction become ever higher and deeper respectively.

Gordon Brown and those who invested based on his assertion that boom and bust were over are much like King Canute and the tide. They failed to understand the risks involved, and also misread all of the information that was available that would assist them in investing wisely.

Gordon Brown had to make a quick buck so as to cover the 50% rise in taxes that he had implemented, whilst others believed that the prices could only ever rise and that somehow risk had been vanquished. Those in the business and banking world should now be made to learn from their failures, not through new legislation and regulation but through the cold hard fact that the risks they took were wrong; they should be the warning to us all not to allow risk to be undervalued and taken for granted.

Risk is a cold-hearted mistress.

Play games and die?


In a move that'll shock no one, but will further antogonise Britain's successful and profitable game industry. The Advertising Standards Authority has rejected objections to the "play video games and die early" advert.

The MCV reports that the ASA responded with this terse statement:

Whilst the ASA Council understood the concerns of Tiga and those complainants who worked in the video games industry, it noted that the ad did not claim that playing computer or console games alone would lead to illness or premature death.

Funny that anyone seeing the advertisement in the article might come to a rather different conclusion. If you want to see the ASA make excuses for its decision the article has their complete response.