[…] [M]eans testing of public benefits is little more than a trap set for progressives by those whose ultimate goal is the total destruction of these programs. Universal social rights are politically defensible, while particularist benefits are not. This lesson is, I think, supported by the work of Political Scientist Paul Pierson; as Joshua Tucker explains at the Monkey Cage, Pierson “explained how difficult it would be for governments to consolidate or retrench existing social policy programs, because these policies (pensions being the best example) create their own support coalition that reaches far beyond the left-wing electorate.”
There is, however, an additional reason to support universalistic rather than targeted public programs, and this is a matter of principle rather than politics. The problem with means-tested benefits is not only that they are politically untenable, but that they inevitably put the state in the business of judging the worth and deservingness of applicants–and thus, by extension, judging the way in which they lead their lives. If, for example, welfare benefits are made contingent on performing work of some kind, then the state must decide what counts as a legitimate form of work. Does, for example, a mother’s time spent raising a child count? Does getting a college education count? If it does, are all majors equally acceptable?
The fact that the state must adjudicate these issues–and must do so continually over time, since a person’s status is constantly subject to change–means that benefit recipients are constantly subject to arbitrary bureaucratic domination. Universal benefits, on the other hand, require relatively little meddling in people’s lives: in a country with universal health care, the only consideration for the state is whether or not you are a citizen. One should not, of course, understate the extremely fraught and contentious politics of citizenship itself, which may turn out to be the Achilles’ heel of social democracy in the 21st century. Nevertheless, I regard it as a major step forward if we are arguing over who has the rights of citizenship rather than attempting to judge what makes a person deserving of some particular benefit. I think that ultimately, means tested benefits tend to make the poor less free and less autonomous than the affluent. This is precisely the opposite of the goal we should be aiming at in thinking about the welfare state, which should be about enhancing human freedom and facilitating human flourishing.
This line of argument is, in a certain sense, in sympathy with critiques of the welfare state that have been offered from libertarian, anarchist, and Foucauldian perspectives. Unfortunately, discussion of these arguments tends to become bogged down in a narrow debate over whether one is “for” or “against” the welfare state. By now, however, we should all understand that there is not one welfare state but many, and that different institutional configurations can have very different implications for people’s lives. Thus my goal as a writer and researcher is to promote a vision of the welfare state that enables individual autonomy and freedom by guaranteeing a basic standard of living as a human right, while simutaneously critiquing the idea that public benefits are special supports provided only to the deserving poor, and only in those instances where the private capitalist marketplace has “failed”. [++]