Universal benefits were a big thing when I was growing up in the UK in the 1970s. From free healthcare and school milk, to additional income for families with children, many state benefits were distributed regardless of income or wealth. As we progressed through the 80s and 90s, many of these benefits were scaled back in keeping with the broader pushback on the boundaries of the state. Increasingly, universal benefits were replaced with means-tested ones. To those that feared that this would lead to an undermining of support for the benefits system, the retort sounded intuitively correct – if the benefits only went to the deserving, they would become more , rather than less popular.
Looking back on those arguments, it is clear that our intuitions were wrong. The benefits system is , on balance, far less well-supported than it was thirty years ago. The only pillar of the welfare system that still engenders near-undivided support is the National Health Service, one of our few remaining universal benefits. Even the pension system lacks the same electoral legitimacy that it once had. So what went wrong? I used to think that it was our inherent selfishness that led to the declining popularity of benefits. Once people stopped getting the benefits themselves, their ability to Sympathize
with others wasn’t strong enough to keep them on board. But this is not a complete answer. For that, I believe, we need to look at humanity’s collective morality. Humans are , by and large, conditional cooperators , meaning that we have a strong inclination toward reciprocation as well as a predisposition to punish those that cheat. We are perfectly willing to be proactively generous so long as people demonstrate that they would do the same. And therein lies the rub. When we apply means-testing to the benefits that people can apply for , it introduces far more ways that you can cheat. In the universal setup, rules were pretty simple. If you had children, you got money for them. If you went to school, you got fed. In the means-testing world, it’s not nearly so simple. You can boost your income by claiming to receive less in wages than you do. You can pretend to be sick when you’re perfectly fit to work. Such possibilities are then amplified through the media who consistently seek to publicise the cheating when it’s discovered. Over time, therefore, our conditional cooperation is undermined as we fall foul of our availability bias to sense that the majority of people are not playing by the rules.
The most interesting conversation in social policy in the modern era is that of guaranteed incomes. With all sorts of fears about how robotisation of the workforce will lead to unprecedented levels of unemployment, there is growing interest in the idea that everyone will need to get income support from the government. While I haven’t seen too much commentary highlighting that this would represent a return to universality, this certainly feels like the direction of travel. And based on the above, that would be a rather welcome development.