Migration is a Social Imperative

The ‘debate’ – and this label is highly questionable – over immigration in the United Kingdom has come to establish a strong foothold in contemporary political discourse. But beyond the cheap populism which plays to the misguided perception of immigration being a negative phenomenon, migration represents a social imperative which we must defend earnestly.

The Conservatives have launched an all-out assault on immigration, seeking to curtail the right to free movement in the European Union, taking steps to combat the virtually nonexistent benefit and healthcare ‘tourism’, and aiming to reduce net migration to an arbitrary level. On the other side of the political divide, Labour has sought to apologise for New Labour’s stance on immigration, promising instead to in some way curtail low-skilled immigration, and to be more aware of the social impact of immigration on communities. Most senior figures in both parties recognise the myriad benefits of immigration, but have opted to embark upon the politically expedient path of immigrant-bashing, seemingly failing to recognise the immensely pernicious long-term effects of doing so.

The much more politically challenging, but ultimately just stance, is to defend migration as a social imperative. Migration is not merely economically beneficial, but also hugely culturally enriching as well. Moreover, migration has powerful philosophical and ethical groundings.

The economic justification for migration is a straightforward one – it greatly expands the range of individuals able to occupy vacant positions in the economy. The greater the number of people available, the greater the chance that vacancies in the economy will be taken by truly committed, proficient, and astute individuals. With proficient individuals driving the economy forward, the economy produces more advantageous and beneficial results for all in society.

Although rarely mentioned in contemporary political discourse, there are also manifold cultural benefits to society stemming from migration. Nigel Farage took many political observers by surprise when, in an interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson, Farage suggested that ‘there is more to life than money… the social side of this matters more than pure market economics’. In the wake of this comment, some commentators have suggested that those in favour of migration simply cannot effectively counter those who oppose immigration from a sociocultural standpoint, as Farage has done. Quite to the contrary, the cultural dividends of migration are immense and hugely beneficial to society. The globalised nature of the modern world has made it such that many modern societies have evolved from being mostly monocultural, to being truly multicultural. These societies have been hugely enriched by the diversity of the many cultures that exist within them. Beyond the immediate cultural reward of multiculturalism which manifests itself in the proliferation of alternative ideas, lifestyles, art, and creativity, embraced multiculturalism also fosters much more tolerant, liberal, and open societies which are able to be much more aware of the world around them, and much more willing to engage with ideas which might otherwise be considered to be unusual or different.

Finally, the philosophical and ethical basis for migration is hugely powerful. Although the members of humanity are born into different societies and cultures, we are all fundamentally human and inhabitants of the same planet. Thus, it is difficult to justify from an ethical perspective strict border controls which curtail immigration and prevent people from migrating to other parts of the world to build a better life for themselves, their families, and ultimately the global citizenry. Indeed, in this light, the nation-state’s ability to in essence discriminate against individuals from other countries is deeply archaic and unreasonable. In the globalised economy, there also exists a disparity between capital and people – in a world where capital increasingly knows no borders, nor should people. The European Union is a bright beacon for progress in this sense with its right to free movement for all European citizens within the EU, which forms not just a central component of the Single Market, but also a central component of the EU’s constellation of social rights.

Taken together, these aspects of migration make a powerfully positive case for migration. The rise of nationalistic, protectionist, isolationist, and anti-immigrant political movements was an inevitable byproduct of the global financial crisis, foreseeable as a distinct possibility by any student of history. It is notable that the United Kingdom has fared relatively well in its ability to eschew the sort of extremist politics which have come to threaten peace, safety, and order in some other European countries such as Greece. However, many mainstream politicians have found it politically expedient to appeal and provide succour to the reactionist anti-immigrant movement precipitated by the global financial crisis. In times of great economic hardship, the fear of ‘outsiders’ may be easily exploited by those seeking the most expedient path to power. While this may be politically advantageous in the short-term, such a course of action will be deeply pernicious in the long-term. Fundamentally, migration is a social imperative and to allow it to be strictly curtailed is to betray this imperative. Migration must not be sacrificed in the pursuit of short-term political expedience.

Let’s revitalise society by realising a basic income, embracing automation, and affording choice of waged employment

As we are beginning to experience the real substance of the digital revolution and the Information Age, we are becoming increasingly aware that automation and computerisation will, unlike the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions before it, permanently erode a vast swathe of the labour market, making a considerable level of unemployment a permanent fixture of our economy and society. If this trend is left unaddressed by society, the issues currently experienced in our economy and society will become further exacerbated and accentuated. If, alternatively, this trend is addressed by society and met by effective government policy, we could well be at the inception of a radical shift in and reimagination of how we perceive work, productivity, and societal contribution, ultimately improving people’s lives substantially.

For many centuries now, our society and economy have been built upon the idea of wage labour, the relationship wherein an employer pays an employee to conduct some productive activity for them. This is because the production of goods and services has been fundamentally dependent upon the labour provided by the human workforce of an economy. Whether that production is cultivating farmland, being stationed at a cash register, or operating a machine, humans have been an indispensable part of the economy, without which the economy would cease to function. Moreover, owing to this economic imperative for labour, society has been structured in a way that makes people dependent upon employment to live well, and more fundamentally, to survive. (In this sense, European welfare states are notable in that they have traditionally provided a safety net to prevent poverty and destitution. However, it is not possible for welfare recipients to enjoy a dignified existence, as welfare is not designed to be permanent and does not extend beyond providing for the very basics of life. Although the right likes to suggest it is, it is simply not possible – except in a negligible number of cases – to live comfortably on contemporary welfare.)

With the advent of the Information Age, this long-standing fact of life, wage labour, is changing, dramatically. Some estimates suggest that up to half of all occupations are under threat of automation, removing the need for humans from numerous lines of work. Significantly, these technological encroachments do not merely affect supposedly menial lines of low-paid work, but also threaten well-paid and traditionally middle-class professions, such as paralegals and public transport operators, such as train drivers. Automation and computerisation will have a dramatic impact upon all but the highest levels of society. Additionally, those professions which are difficult or impossible to automate are currently generally undervalued in the economy – such as nurses, teachers, and healthcare assistants – leaving the very real possibility for average wages to remain stagnant or possibly even become reduced. While many waged occupations will remain, undoubtedly a considerable number will be lost.

At first glance, the erosion of such a vast portion of our labour market appears daunting and highly unsettling. Indeed, if the economy is left to its own devices, mass unemployment, stagnant and falling wages, and exponentially increasing wealth inequality are inevitable. The result of such trends would be human suffering and the growth of a deeply unjust society.

There is an alternative direction of travel, however. As a society, we could seize this opportunity to harness automation and computerisation to afford people the choice of waged employment, allowing them to pursue what is most valuable to them in life.

The current socioeconomic model places too great an emphasis on the conventional profit-driven economy, to the detriment of innumerable avenues of human endeavour which while having little or tenuous economic benefit, are hugely beneficial to society and humanity itself. Take, for instance, the spaces of academia, philosophy, and creativity, areas of human endeavour which characterise and punctuate our very existence as a society and civilisation. These things are the very essences of life, yet are so easily brushed aside by the unrelenting and often impassive profit-driven market forces which drive our current reality.

The current socioeconomic model also brings about a less compassionate and more self-interested society, particularly amongst the more affluent elements of society who live comfortably and find it difficult to relate to or acknowledge the standard of living experienced by millions at the lower end of society. This is particularly evident in the dispiriting stigma surrounding welfare, unemployment, and immigration. Those with a comfortable standard of living too often condemn less fortunate individuals, rationalising them as being the product of their own incompetence and lack of work ethic. In the case of immigrants, they fail to recognise that they are humans, seeking a higher standard of living which they have a right to, and that they contribute greatly to the diversity and quality of our society and culture.

Significantly, there has grown a strong school of thought within society that is bound to the idea of wage labour and monetary self-advancement being at the apex of society. Society simply does not facilitate, to a desirable degree, alternative means through which citizens could contribute to the betterment of society outside the scope of profit-driven economics. In fact, such alternative contributions are often derided, as they do not conform to what many people have come to conceptualise as being work and societal contribution. In many ways, this overzealous attachment to conventional societal contribution in the form of wage labour has come to undermine the very essence of existence and life in its disregard for anything that is not economically valuable. People are expected to work hard, work long, and increasingly work for very little remuneration. In doing so, many people have been forced by the sociocultural climate to invest their time too heavily in conventional work, to the detriment of their personal wellbeing and that of those around them. Moreover, the commitment of so much time and effort to conventional work results in a dearth of societal and cultural productivity, diminishing our society and increasingly reducing it to a mere economic machine lacking in emotion, thought, and enjoyment. Doubtless, we are lucky to live in such a diverse society which has produced manifold cultural gifts. Nevertheless, society and culture would benefit from a loosening of our emphasis on conventional work, in favour of a greater emphasis on the essences of life – culture, art, philosophy, academia, thought, social relations, innovation, invention, exploration, and others.

The principal means through which we could move towards a much more cultured, healthy, and intellectual society, is the concept of a basic income. This idea has long been mooted, but never adopted by mainstream thought or implemented in any significant manner. The idea is simple: every adult citizen would receive an income from the state, a sort of “Citizen’s Wage”, as some have put it. At its most abstract definition, a basic income can be any amount of money, though in reality for it to be viable and achieve its aspirations, it would need to be ample, equivalent to or greater than the living wage, so as to provide all those who would rely on it with a dignified and comfortable standard of living. There are also further questions to be asked concerning the technicalities of a basic income.  Questions include whether the income would supplement that already received from wages by those in work, or whether it would be, in essence, taxed away. However, one of the basic income’s greatest advantages is its pure simplicity at both the conceptual and practical levels, compared with the famous European welfare states where their immense complexity is a distinct disadvantage.

Welfare states have developed over decades of different governments and changing socioeconomic conditions. This has led to the creation of myriad welfare schemes, requiring the development of vast administrative infrastructures necessitated by the often complex conditionalities of welfare schemes. The troubled implementation of the Universal Credit by the current government is a testament to this. Worse still, the complexity is only increasing, owing to the current political climate, in which politicians have withdrawn from the universal principle, instead advocating ever greater amounts of means testing, whereby welfare schemes must meet an array of exhaustive criteria, such as a person’s physical condition or financial state. This is increasing the size of the welfare state’s bureaucracy substantially, cumulatively costing more to operate than before, and damaging social cohesion in the abandonment of the universal principle. The introduction of a basic income would remove the need for many welfare schemes, transforming the welfare state into a form which would be much simpler to understand, monitor, and modify, and would reduce administrative infrastructure costs dramatically, allowing more money to have a tangible and meaningful effect, rather than be bogged down in bureaucratic and administrative costs. The welfare state would be streamlined, with its schemes being distinct and visible.

The immediate effects of the introduction of a basic income would be hugely beneficial to society in many ways. There would be a renaissance in art, creativity, philosophy, and academia. We would experience a significant upsurge in occupations which the economy greatly undervalues, such as parenting and familial activities, political activism, philanthropy and volunteering, and the open-ended pursuit of ideas, innovation, and invention.

There is also a strong ethical case for the introduction of a basic income. Under current policies, it is simply not possible to lead a dignified existence and enjoy a comfortable standard of living without waged employment. Many people, through no fault of their own, are placed in the demoralising position of unemployment with minimal prospect of respite. Without the support of family and friends, these people are forced to rely solely on the meagre income provided by the welfare state. This comes principally in the form of Jobseeker’s Allowance, the very name of which explicitly reveals its basis in wage labour, as opposed to having a grounding in basic human compassion and the wellbeing of people. It should be embarrassing that a modern and developed 21st century nation does not afford all of its citizens a comfortable standard of living. From an ethical perspective, a basic income would enshrine as a fundamental right for all people a dignified existence and a comfortable standard of living – something all people have a right to, regardless of employment status.

The introduction of a basic income would also yield powerful economic dividends. The economy would be provided with the space and impetus to move forward with automation and computerisation at great speed, unrestrained by the current social concerns of governments which expect the economy to supply full employment. The government would be free to invest heavily in developing modern technology, fostering a highly technologically advanced economy. This economic transformation would represent a firm alternative to the current agenda of racing to the bottom in terms of living standards, working conditions, and regulation in the obnoxious “global race”, instead advocating a race to the top, both in terms of economic activity and in terms of the social, economic, and cultural wellbeing of all citizens. The existence of an ample basic income would also raise questions over the future of the minimum wage. It may need to be raised above the level of income provided by a basic income. Alternatively, a different approach entirely could be taken. Either way, a discussion would need to be had over the future of the minimum wage in a basic income era.

Clearly, the provision of a basic income equivalent to or greater than the living wage for every adult citizen in a country the size of the United Kingdom would hardly be inexpensive. Moreover, a basic income would not remove the necessity for strong public services such as the National Health Service or the BBC. In fact, the public sector should in the future encompass more areas fundamental to life, such as, but not limited to, rail transport and the provision of energy, water, and broadband. However, the challenge of arranging the public finances in a manner which would accommodate a basic income would not be insurmountable. Firstly, a basic income itself would mean more people having more money to spend in the economy, which is generally a good thing for economic activity. Secondly, our tax revenue as a percentage of GDP currently rests somewhere between 30 and 40 percent, while in Scandinavian countries, this figure is closer to 50 percent, indicating the need for the UK to raise its tax revenue closer to, and possibly beyond, Scandinavian levels. Moreover, the UK tax system lacks progressivity – notably, the wealthy contribute less than they should – and is hemorrhaging revenue due to tax avoidance and evasion. Thus, it is completely within our grasp to achieve an ample basic income if we set our minds to it.

Looking forward into the long-term future, the introduction of a basic income would, in all likelihood, expand and improve the quality of discourse in society concerning equality and the distribution of wealth. This is because society, manifested in democratic governance, will have much greater control over the income of a considerable portion of the general population. Moreover, unlike the myriad arcane schemes of a traditional welfare state, a basic income would be clear and visible, leaving little room for misrepresentations or misconceptions in discourse.

As an aside, the benefits of automation outlined in this piece do not negate the risks to society of other aspects of automation, and the Information Age more broadly. The Information Age has delivered countless innovations, but such innovations are rarely forensically analysed with a healthy degree of skepticism. In the space of warfare, the rise of autonomous drones is a disconcerting spectre on the horizon. In the space of social media, some individuals hide behind the cloak of anonymity to blurt vile vitriol against others, privacy is frequently breached and poorly understood by people, and the impact of online social networking on social relations more fundamentally is considered by some to be pernicious. These are just some of the issues provoking nascent discussion. The Information Age provides at least as many negative opportunities to society as it does positive ones. There is almost certainly an imperative for societal introspection in this new area of life, something which we are currently lacking.

Ultimately, the Information Age is presenting society with an opportunity not previously available to it. For centuries, economic activity has been inexorably dependent upon the labour of humans. This inexorable dependence is being eroded by the rapid evolution of technology in recent times. If this trend is met by compassionate social policy, principally in the form of a basic income, it can afford people the choice of waged employment, and ensure a dignified standard of living for all as a fundamental right. Many people will remain in waged employment, but a considerable number of others will be free to contribute to society in ways that are usually marginalised under the current economic model, allowing all people to pursue what is most valuable to them in life. Such a change in society has the potential to release the real essences of humanity in an explosion of culture, creativity, knowledge, philosophy, discourse, social relations, philanthropy, and numerous other human endeavours. We will soon be presented with a socioeconomic and technological climate in which the idea of a basic income can be realised, and as such, the idea should come to form a central component of modern social democratic movements.

Credit: Karoly Lorentey - http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorentey/1438477358

An Encompassing Parliament

The UK Parliament, in its current form, is anachronistic, and needs to not merely reform, but transform entirely. Parliament needs to change from being composed of two separate chambers, to being composed of three distinct but collaborative representative bodies: national politicians, nonpartisan civil society envoys, and regional envoys.

The House of Commons is elected through an archaic, and in many regards arcane, electoral system which fails consistently to reflect the political and social fabric of the country. The system also makes it immensely difficult for political movements to produce substantial change outside the scope of the two primary parties.

The introduction of mixed member proportional representation (MMP) to the House of Commons would fundamentally alter and enhance the tenor and character of politics in Britain. It would empower every single voter, as currently millions are left essentially disenfranchised. This is owing to the nature of first-past-the-post elections and safe seat constituencies, wherein the votes of those who opt not to support the predominate political party within their constituency have virtually no effect on the wider national election result. MMP would also herald in coalition politics as a mainstay of our democracy, and in doing so ensure that a greater cross section of our society is represented in government than would be the case under a majoritarian electoral system. Majoritarian governments almost invariably represent a minority of the population, while coalition governments generally represent over half of all voters.

The House of Lords is, quite simply, not elected at all, and has virtually no substantial democratic mandate. While its nominal role as being a measured and nonpartisan collection of specialists, experts, and leading lights in all walks of life is an admirable and vital one, its composition must have democratic foundations which can only be achieved through democratic elections. The recent phenomenon by which governing political parties seek to, as it were, “pack” the Lords with partisan peers is also deeply disobliging in relation to the Lords’ aforementioned nominal role.

Owing to the immense dislocation in legitimacy experienced by the Lords, it should be abolished and its responsibilities assumed by two new representative bodies: nonpartisan civil society envoys, and regional envoys.

Civil society, in the form of charities, pressure groups, think tanks, and other similar organisations, have never been truly represented in the legislative process, and are often sidelined by governments. The transformation of Parliament would allow us to address this problem directly, with the most favourable solution being the creation of a representative body of civil society. This body would be elected nationally, preferably under the single transferable vote (STV) electoral system, possibly with staggered elections, with each candidate being a nonpartisan organisation. It could potentially be the case that individuals, alongside organisations, could be elected, with a share of the seats being allocated to organisations, while another share is allocated to individuals; for instance, a 75/25 allocation of the seats between the two types (organisation, individual) of candidate. In the allocation of seats to individuals, decision makers would need to be acutely aware of the dangers of personality politics. The imperative should be to ensure that this body effectively represents civil society in a measured manner.

Devolution has established a seismic shift in British politics, placing much more power in the hands of regional representatives. Devolution will almost certainly be extended in the future to the remaining English regions which currently lack the same degree of regional representation that their fellow Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, and London counterparts enjoy. However, there is no institutional representation of regional interests at the national level. This should be resolved by the creation of a representative body of regional envoys, each acting as a delegate for their regional government. This body of delegates would be similar to that of the Bundesrat of Germany.

Ultimately, the Commons would preserve its legislative supremacy, with the other two bodies scrutinising legislation emanating from the Commons, just as the Lords does currently. It could also be the case that legislation pertaining to devolution would require consent of the regional delegation body, though this is an area where discussion will be needed.

Significantly however, this model of Parliament would depart from the traditional concept of there being two bodies residing in two separate chambers. Instead, this model would establish ubiquitous and extensive interbody and intergovernmental collaboration. All three of the bodies would, for instance, attend Prime Minister’s Questions, rather than only the national politicians. Moreover, the bodies would often share the same chamber and debate. This would cultivate a much more fluid, flexible, and open legislative and deliberative process.

It is vital that we recognise that we have long passed the point of reform in Parliament. We cannot simply tinker around the edges in a piecemeal manner. We must tackle the issues and anachronisms of Parliament directly, in a cohesive and cogent manner. Anything short of a total transformation of Parliament will fail to produce the change in politics that is desperately needed in Britain.

(Featured Image Credit: Karoly Lorentey)

Economic growth is no longer enough

The growth rate of a nation’s gross domestic product, or GDP, has long been heralded as the automatic solution to all of society’s ills.

The concept is simple enough to grasp: employment usually increases in tandem with economic growth, with labour being required to drive such growth. With increased employment and a competitive labour market, wages increase, as do living standards.

This has largely proven true for nations transitioning to and developing industrialised economies, with relative affluence spreading amongst the population, establishing the exalted middle class.

However, for today’s most developed nations, economic growth is increasingly becoming a facile obsession for those who extol free market ideals with little substance. The standards of living that we, in the developed world, have rightfully come to expect, are no longer being met by the automatic effects of growth.

Instead, society is becoming stagnant. Wealth inequality shows no sign of receding from its horrendous level, the megre minimum wage leaves millions of workers earning less than the living wage, and dismal zero-hour contracts have proliferated in many sectors of the economy.

The combination of a meagre minimum wage which is nowhere near the living wage and the ascendance of workfare policies which in essence force the unemployed out of the welfare state and into underpaid jobs produces a situation worryingly analogous to a modern, subtle, concealed and quasi-voluntary form of slavery.

I am aware that such an assertion, with all the very negative historical connotations of the term “slavery”, sounds strong. But, take a step back for a moment and think about the lives of the lowest paid in our society.

Their jobs often entail menial and demoralising tasks. They are paid well below the living wage. There is often minimal prospect for finding a higher paying job in the future. They suffer the stress and anxiety incurred as a result of high living costs for food and bills, the continuous spectre of overwhelming debt, and the disheartening position their life is placed in. Further, the state, stung by the misguided populist stigma of “scroungers and skivers”, has effectively abandoned them.

Clement Attlee’s welfare and public services consensus established following Allied victory in the Second World War has done much to counter many of the societal imbalances caused by dizzying wealth inequality. But, short of the state paying all citizens the living wage they deserve, there is little more the state can fiscally or institutionally do to offset the inequitable wage realities of millions of citizens.

While Ed Miliband’s concept of predistribution hardly struck a chord with people outside academic circles, it is highly apposite to the problems described previously which modern society faces. The idea of predistribution, put simply, is that fundamental changes can be made to the way in which the economy functions, which in turn builds a fairer society, even before redistribution provides more tangible effects such as public services and the welfare state.

We must maintain and continue to advance the idea of strong public services such as the National Health Service. Additional public services, such as trains and utilities, should also be integrated into the public sector. However, we must equally recognise that within a capitalist system, the capitalists must also play a role in improving the quality of people’s lives, as oxymoronic as such a proposition may sound. The state should not in effect subsidise and tacitly approve of people being underpaid for the labour they provide to businesses. Instead, government should be much firmer on the rights of employees and more statutorily active in ensuring not just the volume of jobs, but the quality.

Labour’s Chuka Umunna recently recognised the systemic issues of employment, by stating that “any old job won’t do“, in response to the government’s pursuit of raising employment regardless of the quality of employment.

The value of a job should not be seen from a purely macroeconomic standpoint, but rather from the perspective of the person occupying that job. In a developed society such as ours, the mere fact that someone is employed does not automatically translate into higher living standards for them, far from it.

Finally, we must also pay much greater attention to the happiness of the nation. In recent times, it has become increasingly clear that a distinct chasm exists between the economic productivity and happiness of the nation. This touches upon the need to transform not merely wages, but also the conditions in which people work, in order to reduce stress by building more relaxed and productive workspaces.

To summarise, while in the past economic growth has automatically led to an increase in living standards and the establishment of a burgeoning middle class which enjoy high living standards, in a developed nation such as ours it is no longer enough for growth to be the primary source of the reduction of wealth inequality and the advancement of people’s living standards. Instead, we must shift our attention as a society towards people’s wages, working conditions and happiness, and then act to combat the issues which arise from these metrics, rather than relying upon traditional conceptualisations of growth trumping all else and being the panacea for all of society’s ills.

Contributory welfare betrays the very essence of welfare

The debate over the future of welfare has intensified over the past year or so, with Labour being placed under increasing pressure to declare its vision, and the right of the party and especially the “Blue Labour” faction advocating a downsizing of the welfare state which would be tantamount to a new consensus, abandoning the settlement established by the Attlee government following the Second World War which established uniformity and more importantly equality of treatment when it comes to welfare.

In it’s simplest form, welfare exists to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society. It combats the inherent weaknesses of capitalism by preventing members of our society from slipping into regressive cycles of poverty where generations would otherwise be presented with a very limited scope of opportunities and the inability to escape poverty. More than this though, it builds a sense of societal solidarity where we, as a group, recognise that life does not always go to plan and that we all need support at times in our lives due to no fault of our own. In these situations, people deserve to be treated with respect and helped to return to some sense of normality in order to get back on their feet. Significantly, this support does not exist for society to give itself a pat on the back, but due to the fact that at a fundamental level all humans are equal with a common set of rights which should not be subject to upbringing, life choices or wealth.

The basic goal of Labour is not to have a big state or to centralise government. Instead, it is simply to build a society in which every person has equal opportunities and a pleasant quality of life. For this reason, some in Labour have mooted the concept of contributory welfare. The idea is a rather adventurous reimagination of welfare which would see people ‘pay’ into the system. The more someone ‘pays’ in, the more they get out in times of need. Professor Heinz Wolff recently aired a similar idea for elderly care on Daily Politics. In both cases, ‘paying’ into the system does not refer to money, but rather to volunteer work helping your local community or elderly relatives. At the core of this concept is the desire to nurture a much more philanthropic, caring, and communally active and aware society.

However, while it is perfectly noble and valid to pursue such a vision for a caring society, doing so through welfare reforms would be both unfair and heavy-handed. Contributory welfare betrays the very essence of welfare which is to offset inequalities and to treat everyone at the same equitable level. In many ways, it’s an oxymoron as welfare based on contributions would essentially introduce inequalities into a system which is supposed to dampen inequalities through a sense of solidarity and equality of treatment. However much we would like to expand the philanthropic sector and build a more volunteer and community centric society, we cannot do so through treating some people better than others in their time of need.

Additionally, it is unclear how you would gauge the level of contribution to society, whether disabilities would be factored into the equation, as well as the time consumed by people who have jobs and thus have no time to volunteer, or the skills required to care for people with complex illnesses. These issues would make it  likely that the realities of contributory welfare would spawn a greater bureaucracy than is currently the case. On top of this, large sections of the population would need to be exempted from the contributory system due to the fact that their lives simply permit them precious few opportunities to contribute as much as others.

Expanding the philanthropic sector is a key responsibility for any future government, but doing so by introducing overt inequalities into the welfare system would be a poor course of action and would ultimately prove to be a regressive, rather than progressive, measure, harming those in need while at the same time failing to achieve a real philanthropic society. Government-led schemes to organise, provide a framework for, and to encourage a more philanthropic society are needed, but they must be optional with those taking part doing so in an altruistic manner to help others rather than themselves. Any reform to welfare must not sacrifice equality or be heavy-handed.

Credit: Xavier Häpe - http://www.flickr.com/photos/vier/192493917/

Europe must move together

French President Francois Hollande recently called for a eurozone economic government with the power to raise taxes, borrow and have a budget. This is not really surprising, with the almost-unanimous agreement amongst economists that for the euro to survive, it needs a strong fiscal union in order to better handle future crises in the currency.

What is worrying however is the speed at which Hollande has advocated the idea. Clearly, there are 16 additional opinions to be heard on the matter, though there is a very real risk that a fiscal union could be implemented without a broader vision for the entirety of the EU. Many have termed this possibility as being a two-tier Europe, one in which the inner circle of eurozone countries move towards ever-greater integration both fiscally and, significantly, politically, while non-eurozone members become an afterthought on the sidelines. This would be a terrible course of action.

We are currently undergoing a substantial challenge to the EU, with minority and mainstream parties alike speaking of reform – a general spell of isolationism in an economic depression, hardly to be expected – a foreign enemy is always a convenient scapegoat. In some ways, it’s interesting to note that with all the integration up to this point, there seems to be a distinct lack of solidarity on the European level – Europe just isn’t together in fighting in the same corner against common adversity.

Of course, I would love to see dramatic reform of the EU, but only in a constructive and progressive manner with a unified vision of solidarity and compassion, and of sharp critique of isolationism. Following the same disjointed path as the United States would be disastrous – a situation where two catch-all centrist parties are at each other’s necks constantly, a constitution so entrenched that common sense need not raise its hand, and a federal government system where nothing gets done and the people with popular support are hamstrung by those without.

My key point is that we cannot rush reform, and more importantly we must not retreat from integration as a way to resolve the democratic deficit. Instead, we should work to strengthen the democratic heartbeat of the Union, the Parliament, by truly making it the absolute authority, discarding the Commission and other messy and undemocratic intergovernmental relics of which the Union is in abundance. Crucially, we, all 27 member states, must move together. We must look at the bigger picture, move away from technical issues and seriously ask ourselves the question: what do we want Europe to be?

(Featured Image Credit: Xavier Häpe)