Benefits Street drew the biggest TV audience in over a year for one of the countries most watched TV channels. It is perhaps no surprise to see it generating such a huge debate about welfare benefits, crime and immigration; topics which the reality show covers in a divisive manner. Some claim that it’s a depiction of real life and thus no different to any other reality TV, whilst others claim it is propaganda aimed at attacking the ideals of left-wing politics such as welfare benefits.
Drawn from economics, political and ethics research for my second book, I wish to briefly examine five myths sparked by these issues.
1) People are unemployed because they are lazy.
Perhaps the easiest myth to debunk on this entire list; regardless of current levels of unemployment, some level of unemployment is a necessity in any system of capitalism. Capitalism must be incredibly flexible in order for it to work: the supply of products must rise or fall based on the demand for those products. In periods of economic recession this means that demand for many products falls, thus companies must be allowed to sack excess workers and create further unemployment in order to keep profits functioning as high as possible (the core principle a private company must follow). Similarly, when the economy picks up, there needs to be an excess of unemployed workers with which companies can hire in order to boost production.
The final thing to note is that in order for companies to make the most money, there must always be a pool of unemployed people with which to dip into when they want to boost production. So generally speaking, without unemployment, there can be no growth as production could not be increased to allow for it (although growth can also come from technological progress or invention). And, of course, growth is the ideal of capitalist economics – without it we are not looking at capitalism, so a lack of target for growth could not be accommodated.
This is economic reality. Unemployment is not the fault of lazy workers or the unemployed; it is an absolute necessity of the system we live under. Under a logical system of capitalism, the collective groups of companies in the country should completely cover the cost of keeping unemployed individuals. This is partly the logic behind corporation tax as well as employment tax, etc, and also why we fail when we deliver tax breaks to big companies.
2) People on unemployment benefits should be in poverty/should not be allowed luxuries.
The assumption we make in this kind of statement is that we pay for what these people on benefits have, and so we should have more than them because we work and they don’t.
We might want to agree with the assumption that those on unemployment benefits shouldn’t be on more than those working, this seems fair enough. The unemployment benefit never currently reaches minimum wage though, so this is already happening. However, more importantly, we have already discussed how unemployment is a necessity in the system in which we work. We wouldn’t even be able to work in our system of economics without unemployed people existing – they play as important a part of the system as the workers – so how can we logically justify a forced underclass of unemployed people? After all we need them to be there, it isn’t their fault.
There may well be argument to say workers should be better off than the unemployed, but we must understand the economic reality of necessary unemployment before we begin demonising or creating such a class of poverty stricken people. Similarly, if we are unhappy that unemployed people are living almost as well as the working people then we should be less concerned about lowering benefits (as these already are low enough to often put people in states of poverty) and more concerned about creating laws to guarantee higher minimum wages. At current both benefits and wages are relatively low in comparison with the profits companies bank each year.
3) Immigrants are stealing our jobs
In general, those employers who favour immigrants do so for the low cost of the labour. Just as unemployment is an economic necessity, if we allow companies to pay less for labour from elsewhere they will do so. This is primarily a problem of the system of capitalism, not with political decisions or immigrants themselves.
As a philosophical point, there is also the idea of national identity. Many eastern Europeans, for instance, hold a reputation for being hard workers. This is far from proven opinion, however if it were true it would beg the question: why shouldn’t they be allowed to compete with a British person for a ‘British’ job? Just because you fell onto a particular piece of land when you were born should not rationally justify that you have the right to work on it over anyone else.
There are various practical reasons why that kind of philosophy is not the be all and end all, but roughly speaking it is the reason why immigration is more open than it used to be. Tribalism – such as nationalism, in which one decries certain rights over other nationalities – is an out-dated concept when it is practiced for nationalism’s sake. It does make sense to allow people more of a chance for a livelihood where they were raised than half way around the world (for practical and community reasons), but we still must challenge this notion of what ‘our’ jobs really means, or why ‘we Brits’ is any more meaningful than ‘we Europeans’, or even we ‘earthlings’!
4) If the unemployed turn to crime we should cut their benefits.
I find it as difficult to sympathise with criminals as the next person, however we must accept the social realities of poverty and unemployment. Unemployment is a necessity of capitalism, however we provide very low benefits to those who are unemployed – in some instances leading to poverty – and thus we offer little help for this person within the law.
Crime – from drug taking to shoplifting – is statistically much more likely in areas where unemployment and poverty rates are high. It isn’t rocket science to work out why. People in these two statistical brackets feel like they have less to lose and more to gain from such risks. If anything, the occurrence of crime means we should spend more on the community in question, not less. Spending less is a way of enacting senseless and irrational revenge – let’s not forget that we, as a society, put this unemployment there. If we continue to remove resources or opportunities from run down communities, or even simply ignore the lack of them, then we will encourage more crime. We can accept this reality and do something about it, or else we can ignore it and support mythical revenge fantasies.
5) Unemployment is necessary for our economic system to remain, why shouldn’t we be harsh on those who do not accept it? After all, we have to accept our wages being taxed.
The final myth is a much less common one. Suppose that you are a working person but accept the necessity of unemployment. Why shouldn’t you be angry about other people in the system – namely the unemployed – committing crime or being lazy?
This seems a fairer conclusion than the other myth-based opinions that I have so far examined. However, it assumes that unemployment (and the low benefit associated with it) is something we must all put up with. This is simply not true. It is certainly necessary for the system we live in, yet the system we live in grants massive tax cuts to companies that make billions of pounds profit a year and pays huge bonuses to people who already make millions individually per year. None of us chose to live in it, and it has clearly become extremely biased toward certain people.
There are undeniably benefits to capitalism which, in my opinion, we would be foolish to lose. But the system of capitalism which we currently have is extremely biased toward big business and the wealthy, despite its responsibility to be a system which organises all of society’s trade and wellbeing. There are other ways to run capitalism; we shouldn’t put up with a system which forces high levels of unemployment, low levels of pay, much lower levels of welfare for those out of work and yet lets the obscenely wealthy away with the kind of tax cuts which could solve these kinds of financial problems in one swift move. Capitalism is an economic system, and as such it’s job is to ensure everyone has the right level of resources to live happily; as a side note we wish for it to motivate people to advance and progress society. The current system focuses solely on the side note rather than the principle it was set up to do, and it needs changing. As do our opinions.
“A Theory of Everything That Matters: How to Fix Politics and Economics” is currently in progress with a plan to publish in 2015.
“Rational Morality: A Science of Right and Wrong” is available now: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rational-Morality-science-right-wrong/dp/1908675179/