A building block for a modern ‘social contract’
by Henrik Ræder Clausen
This is a piece regarding the welfare system, and how to apply it to encourage more constructive behaviour in society. The welfare systems as we know them today were generally designed during the 1970’s, and have grown to be a large component of public spending. Some have argued that welfare systems are inherently a bad idea and ought to be abandoned.
I do not belong to that group.
While it is true that the welfare system places a noticeable burden on the working class, an affluent modern society should be able to care for the weak and the ill in a reasonable manner. This provides citizens with an unprecedented degree of freedom, unique in the history of man. While fundamental institutions of society, such as legislation, education and upholding the Rule of Law are obviously of higher priority activities than welfare systems, our societies are rich enough that we can afford more.
However, in some situations welfare does permit and tolerate irresponsible and destructive behaviour. This is a problem. Not only is this economically wasteful and harmful for the mutual trust inside society, it is also disrespectful for those working people who carry the burdens, in the long run destructive to the system as such. There is no greater crime against the welfare system than misusing it.
This essay, inspired by the Intifada-style riots of immigrant youth in Denmark in the winter of 2008, describes some simple measures to make the social system discourage asocial behaviour.
One of the problems regarding ‘boredom’, vandalism and random riots is that the youngsters doing so have nothing to lose, and thus no direct, personal motivation for day-to-day constructive behaviour. While one may politely request them to stop torching schools and cars, this approach has not yielded results, as the continuous problems in Sweden, France and elsewhere demonstrate. Other ideas are needed.
This suggested ‘Modern social contract’ is a proposal encouraging social responsibility and constructive behaviour. It does not place additional burdens on productive citizens, nor does it require investing faith and money in exotic ‘social projects’ of unproven value, or create major administrative burdens. It is a simple suggestion for improving behaviour and responsibility.
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The principle is simple: Recipients of social security in any form should have an obligation to adhere to certain very fundamental rules of conduct. If these rules are violated, social security payouts will be temporarily suspended. This does not constitute punishment in the legal sense of the word, merely that a benefit provided by society is withheld due to concrete, practical causes. The intention is to make it clear that certain rules of conduct are fundamental, and society will not support their violation. This encourages responsible behaviour and improves lives for all parties involved.
For this purpose, the family shall be considered a fundamental social unit. Parents are responsible for behaviour of their children. Thus, if their children behave badly, the parents can rightly face relevant consequences for the actions of their children.
Some examples of relevant rules:
- The children must attend to their school.
- They must act with appropriate respect for the school, the teachers and the subjects taught.
- Children may not participate in riots or vandalism.
- Underage children in particular must not be pushed to crime.
- Violence is not acceptable behaviour.
- Any kind of drug usage or trade is unacceptable.
This is not intended to be a complete catalog of punishable offenses, and some of the items mentioned above are not even punishable under the law. These are fundamental rules of conduct that we expect every citizen to abide by, and thus it is meaningful to take practical measures to encourage this. Convictions for various crimes are meaningful triggers for consequences, as well as several non-criminal actions.
This is intended to be a motivating factor for parents, so that they may be more active in the upbringing of their children, so that they make certain responsibilities clear to their children, and is a contribution from the public authorities towards raising the children to participate responsibly in a modern society.
An important element of this proposal is that the suspensions of payouts be swift — and brief. This makes the consequences of bad behaviour immediately noticeable, and the parents will appreciate the need to make sure that their children abstain from causing trouble.
It is also important that decisions can be taken by the administration, without engaging in a complex system of law and appeals. The administration, which is the provider of social payouts in the first place, must have the authority to make final decisions, and only in severe cases, such as very frequent suspensions, can complaints be submitted. The legal basis for this is that we are not talking fines or taxes, that is, taking of property, but merely the withholding of public benefits.
While direct monetary savings are not the primary purpose of this proposal, they may result. The money thus unspent may be used to pay citizens to repair any damage done, like painting, removing graffiti, repairing lamps, sheds, plantings and other improvements of the local environment.
By applying funds in this manner, it might even be meaningful that someone who participated in vandalism, and had their social payouts suspended, participate in this work. This has the intentional effect that those who repair things easily gains a sense of ‘ownership’ of their work, which may in turn cause them to deter others from destroying it. Further, they get an experience that real work pays off, and they get an opportunity to compensate for the lost income their behaviour has caused.
This has a potential for abuse, however, in that some may think they can vandalize things in the expectation that they will later be paid to restore them. But the fact that the money comes from suspended social payouts would make such misuse susceptible to condemnation from their friends and families, who lost the money in the first place. Even a minority of would-be rioters breaking ranks and preferring social behaviour over destruction would be a fine example to set for others.
In Denmark, we have two examples of this system having the intended effect, and that the potential negative consequences tend to be self-eliminating:
- The municipality of Helsinore had significant problems getting children of Roma immigrants to attend school. The municipality then decided to suspend welfare payouts to the affected families. This worked out just fine. The children had a sudden major increase in school attendance, and the families would receive their welfare payouts anyway. As fundamental education is vital for the future of the children, the benefit is obvious. Unfortunately, the system was declared to be without legal foundation and had to be abandoned.
- Braband Boligforening, administrators of the immigration-heavy Gellerup area, decided to battle crime by evicting entire families with criminal children, and followed the policy through several legal challenges. Initially, it was feared that such a measure would render countless families homeless, but eventually a mere three families had their rental contract revoked. Crime in the area fell significantly, and it is generally assumed that parents, faced with a credible threat of losing their homes, had some serious talks with their children about what is decent behavior and what is not.
This system would have no negative implications for families who live on welfare provided they take a basic responsibility for the lives and behaviour of themselves and their children. Something so obvious that until now we have not found a need to formalize it.
On a practical level, it could be useful to take some concrete measures to clarify what is expected by families receiving government support. An obvious approach would be to have the receiver read and sign a contract with the terms as part of the application to get the benefits, preferably making the benefits contingent on accepting these terms. This makes the expectations on the recipients clear, and is also a tool within families to clarify, backed by the authorities, that certain rules of behaviour are essential for the family income. Including a wall poster to place in the home wouldn’t hurt, either.
I consider this to be a solid conservative approach to encourage civilized and constructive behaviour. We have had enough ‘carbecues’ and rioting in Europe over the last few years, and it is high time to employ more measures to stop the vandalism and encourage constructive participation in society, lest our societies descend into worse situations leading to radically more drastic reactions.