Reframing Social Citizenship

March 19, 2009

Peter Taylor-Gooby's book is an impressive edifice, but not a stable one. Meticulously planned and plotted though it is, the dry rot of internal contradiction threatens its structure. This book argues that the new welfare reforms are an attempt to preserve the welfare state in times of socio-political flux, but that while they meet our current welfare needs, their sustainability is highly questionable.

Behind the shift in policies, Taylor-Gooby identifies a subtle and implicit shift in values. These incipient but potentially pervasive new values threaten to corrode our entire welfare framework, like a dot of rust on a new car.

The "old" values coalesce around the concept of citizenship, and are threefold: mutual trust between state and citizen, inclusion and reciprocity. The erosion of these values will result in the demise of our welfare system and ethos.

Taylor-Gooby's themes are complex and his confidence in deploying and intermeshing them admirable. However, the reader hoping that an easy style will compensate for the difficult subject matter will be disappointed. The writing is compressed and unyielding. Yet, while difficult, the themes are not abstruse but pertinent to us all. As a woman who juggles childcare, work and the care of an elderly mother (fearing each day that those airborne spinning plates will smash to the ground), I recognised myself embedded in Taylor-Gooby's narrative.

The analysis begins by identifying major accelerating changes in contemporary society. It is argued that the chosen response to these changes has been an embrace of individualistic and market-orientated initiatives. Behind these is a New Managerialism that enthrones cost-effectiveness and prescribes a plethora of quantified outcomes. And, from his perspective as a key player in the research assessment exercise process, Taylor-Gooby observes that these initiatives are not isolated to welfare strategies but are also prevalent in education. This leaves actors with a sense that efficiency and competitiveness are replacing the needs of people as the central consideration - and such a sense erodes their trust in the system.

Taylor-Gooby outlines how governments throughout the world are being driven by global pressures to develop strategies for welfare reform that emphasise this individual self-regard and the logic of individual rational choice. His analysis of theories of individual action and choice (spanning psychology, political science, sociology and behavioural economics) is particularly apt for the social science community. A contrast is drawn between this logic of individual rational choice and normative and expressive ways of understanding how people relate to the values of the welfare state.

The book climaxes with a call to arms: "sustaining the values that underlie (the welfare state) requires political determination to enhance competitiveness by reducing the privileges of advanced groups and extending the inclusion of the weakest ... to rebuild public trust by extending democratic engagement in social provision".

However, Taylor-Gooby's overarching argument is undermined by the suspect premise that these strategies for welfare reform are justified although flawed. Given his rigorous examination of how the sustainability of consumerist reforms is undermined by the collective loss of faith in the welfare system, which he discerns as the unintended consequences of these reforms, it is baffling that he does not infer that the whole reform initiative is bankrupt.

Surely it would be better to propose radically different strategies instead of using the rhetoric of inclusion and democracy to bolster a critique that contrives to justify what it condemns? Welfare should not be reduced to targets and cost-effectiveness. And neither should education.

Reframing Social Citizenship

By Peter Taylor-Gooby
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199546701
Published 13 November 2008

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