Welfare State

Culture of victimhood: The rise of argumentum ad victimam


Now that argumentum ad hominem has become a bit old hat, (unless of course said hominem is in a category utterly beyond the pale, such as old white males), clearly there is a need for another form of argument which;

(a) doesn’t require an analysis of the issue at stake,

(b) has the firepower to shut down the opposing view, and

(c) provides an opportunity for ‘virtue signalling’.

Luckily the authoritarian, censorious and would-be virtuous among us can call upon what I would label argumentum ad victimam. Habitually employed by the opponents of any reduction in government spending, it is commonly heard at budget time. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the only examination of the budget that matters is an ad victimam one. Should an incumbent Treasurer propose, for example, to reduce the public spend on childcare by 0.5 per cent over the next four years, the Opposition and press will, in the blink of an eye, produce some benighted parent whose life will be made intolerable by their child no longer being eligible for subsidy.

The victim naturally has to elicit our sympathy, so welfare recipients need to be chosen with a little care. However, now that most of the population is in receipt of other people’s money by way of various ‘benefits’ it isn’t difficult to find personable victims for any planned curb in public spending. Children are a pretty sure bet, but even aged pensioners lacking obvious sex-appeal can enjoy their 15 minutes (or less) of fame.

This partly explains the curious phenomenon of the rise and rise of welfare expenditure in Western democracies, because it is both difficult to feel sympathy for the rich people (most of whom, let’s face it, are old white males) forced to cough up a few more tax dollars every week, and easy to feel sympathy for the children who will probably end up on drugs if they don’t get subsidised childcare.

It is not only in the arena of welfarism however, where we see the ad victimam technique employed; during the term of the previous federal government footage of a mistreated bullock in an Indonesian abattoir brought about the shutdown overnight of the entire live cattle trade to that country. A senior member of the same administration lamented, after a failed attempt to regulate the Australian press, that it might have succeeded had they had the cunning to parade a victim of Big Press (also known as Rupert Murdoch) before the Australian people.

Similarly, when Mark Steyn spoke in support of repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act on Q&A recently, the response from a Labor politician on the panel was to tell the story of a child called a “half-caste” by a neighbour, in order to convince us of the critical need for the existing legislation (which incidentally did not prevent this allegedly happening).

However shallow its ethical and intellectual basis, there is no doubt that ad victimam can be a very effective technique in debate. There is a nice illustration of this from the field of public health, where the anti-vaccination movement has gained considerable traction by emphasising the harm done very rarely to individual children by vaccines, whilst failing utterly to acknowledge the enormous benefit of vaccination to countless children and the wider community.

So what is one to do for example, if invited onto the Q&A panel and served up an argumentum ad victimam? Well, as in the case of an ad hominem attack, if one is alert to the technique, at least one can recognise it for what it is. I would suggest pointing out that good intentions are not of themselves a sufficient basis for government action (and indeed if used as such almost inevitably result in unintended and unfortunate consequences).

The making of sound law requires sound principles, so that rather than focussing on individual cases, however appealing that may seem, we ought to be looking at the underlying principles as they apply to the population as a whole – but I acknowledge that these arguments are not easy to make in a public forum where issues are adjudicated by soundbite (and that is most of them).

There is a saying amongst lawyers that hard cases make for bad laws; perhaps we might borrow that concept and assert that pitiable victims make for bad laws.


Morrison: Greece a case study on the dangers of the welfare state

Scott Morrison, the Minister for Social Services, speaking to the IPA today on the unsustainability of a generous welfare state:

In just one generation Greece has been forced to surrender their economic sovereignty. The source of their troubles can be traced back, amongst other contributing factors, to the election of the Socialist PASOK Government under Andreas Papandreou in 1981… PASOK ruled Greece for 19 of the next 22 years, enshrining the modern Greek age of welfare entitlement.

Today, those who the Greek Socialists claimed would be the beneficiaries of their welfare reforms, have become their victims…

The Greek electorate has been complicit in its demise… The recent plebiscite results indicate the Greek electorate remain complicit, if not deluded. The Greek electorate wanted to believe in free money and they’re not the only ones – welfare without cost – because in their view their welfare measures were right and just and their sense of entitlement was enough. But … the plan must be funded, it must be measured, it must be targeted, it must be delivered by a competent government. It must be sustainable and affordable…

The drachmanomics experience shows you can’t pay off your debts with moral virtue. Creditors prefer cash…

Greece has not been alone in their journey.

Chancellor Merkel regularly reminds Europe that it has 7% of the world’s population, 25% of its GDP and 50% of its social spending and that If the region is to prosper in competition with emerging countries, it cannot continue to be so generous…

Continue reading here.



What really needs to be recognised


For decades now, governments of all persuasions have sought to improve the prospects of Indigenous communities by giving them more and more government. Unsurprisingly, more government has resulted in greater dependency.

Rather than amending the constitution to recognise Indigenous Australians, government attention would be better devoted to encouraging self-reliance and independence from the state.

Nick Cater in The Australian today, sets out what really needs to be ‘recognised’:

The buzzword for the propon­ents of constitutional amendment – recognise – frames a potential blueprint for a new direction. After decades of welfare failure, it is time to recognise the clumsy, self-servicing arm of government is incapable of assisting. If the proposal to remove race powers from the Constitution is to have any practical effect, we must acknowledge the racist assumptions that underpinned the failed policies of separatism and collectivism.

We must recognise the rich and precious Aboriginal culture is not incompatible with individual enterprise, and that the pursuit of self-interest and public benefit go hand in hand.

Above all, we should recognise the social evils destroying traditional culture are, by and large, symptoms of welfare. White public housing ghettos are little different from the ghettos of Central Australia. The pernicious effects of the welfare life are indifferent to ethnicity.


The false foundations of paternalism

There’s a great article in the Washington Post on “The myth at the heart of the nanny state”.

The article makes the astute observation that paternalism is assumed to be justified because government can make the best decision with more perfect information than the individual. It may sound right instinctively, but when analysed is clearly absurd (even when we factor in good intentions) because government lacks local information based on an individual’s needs.

Using healthcare and education as  examples, that article argues:

there is no objective ideal when it comes to buying insurance; individuals have different preferences. Only if you infantilize voters and declare them incapable of making their own choice do you take the construction of the perfect health-care coverage away from buyers and sellers, just as you must believe college students and their parents when given all the data can’t decide for themselves what they feel is a good deal or not. The government takes decisions away from individuals, turns what is a preference into a mandate or subsidy and packages as a one-size, objective standard. 

The article continues:

The top-down welfare state however insists the government will tell you what a good university deal is based on its own criteria and what is a valid health-care plan based (likely) on legislative deal-making and interest group haggling … It usurps individuals’ decision making and forces money to be allocated in undesirable ways.

It’s a point I also broadly raised in an article in The Australian earlier this year. The assumption behind paternalism is that the government has knowledge and data that trumps individual decision making. It is false, wrong and very dangerous if we want to preserve individual freedom.