Comedian and generally notorious bearded bloke Russell Brand has been at it again. Last year he appeared on BBC Newsnight and caused a stir by urging people to abandon the current political process and abstain from voting (which I discussed in a previous piece), but this time he’s been rallying 50,000 people at an austerity protest in central London last weekend – organised by the People’s Assembly. Before I muse on the latest Brand-ism that’s grabbed my attention, let’s briefly examine the myth of austerity.
Whilst it is true that the coalition government has cut spending on some government programs, it is still set to add an estimated £530 billion to the national debt in just five years, which is more than previous labour governments did in 11 years. In short, David Cameron’s government will double the national debt in just one parliament. Furthermore, as regards spending on welfare, which the People’s Assembly is particularly concerned with, Britain’s spending on its welfare state and pensions has increased by more than a quarter over the past thirteen years – growing at a faster rate than in most of the developing world. As for the perceived slashing and burning of the welfare state, since the coalition government came to power in 2010 spending on welfare as a percentage of GDP has fallen by just a quarter of one percent; and in fact the welfare bill is set to increase from £180bn in 2014 to £203bn in 2018.
So, where’s the austerity? There isn’t any. All and any spending cuts have been essentially negated by spending growth elsewhere, most of which is promises from previous governments. It’s important to remember that the UK government, including its unfunded liabilities, has debts equivalent to 130% of its income. In order for it to have a chance of avoiding bankruptcy, defaulting on its debts and almost instantly wiping out vast amounts of wealth in the UK economy, it has to cut its spending by a significant amount; say around 40 to 50%. The current government’s best efforts, 0.25% on welfare, are not even close to what is required.
Despite the fact that current government hasn’t managed to make any significant dent in welfare spending and is set to increase or at least maintain spending on healthcare and education over the coming years, the People’s Assembly has curiously resolved to resist all cuts on the grounds that they are “unjust, immoral and undemocratic”. According to their manifesto, they have a “…plain and simple goal: to make government abandon its austerity programme. If it will not it must be replaced with one that will.”
What they want, then, is a government that will spend even more than the current one has and previous ones did. They believe the “necessary resources” can be provided by taxing banks and major corporations at a rate sufficient to do so. This is the age-old urge to steal from the rich to give to the poor, except in the modern version government is expected to play Robin Hood. It’s also the age-old fallacy that higher taxes lead to more money for government to spend on the poor. Today, the top tax rate is 40-50% and tax revenue is 35% of GDP, which is the same percentage of GDP as in 1974 when the tax rate on top earners was a whopping 84%. From the late seventies to the present day tax rates have varied from 20% up to 83% but the revenue generated as a percentage of GDP has only ever varied by 5% at most, from a low of 31% of GDP to a high of 36%. In short, huge tax hikes do not result in huge revenue increases for government. Politicians realised this long ago and it is why governments borrow against the future earnings of the unborn so voraciously.
The People’s Assembly manifesto represents the delusion that the private sector, is a bottomless pit of money that can be tapped into indefinitely and which the poor can live on happily ever after. And not to mention the completely amoral notion that it is perfectly fine to just take other people’s money by force in order to give it to someone else. This very idea is rooted in envious hatred, the baser part of Man, and not in reason or ethics.
That’s enough on non-existent austerity and the People’s Assembly’s demands for a tyrannical State that can confiscate as much wealth as is ‘necessary’ from the wealthy or anyone who’s got a few quid. Let’s discuss something Brand said. Addressing the crowd at the austerity protest, Brand remarked:
“I signed on for eight years, I lived on benefits. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have been able to work on my quite severe crack and heroin addiction.”
This might be a joke, but as the old saying goes, every joke has a kernel of truth.
Without government who would pay people to become drug addicts or fund their drug addictions? Won’t somebody think of the junkies! The fact that the benefits he received for eight years were sufficient to largely fund both a crack and heroin addiction, says much about the ‘generosity’ of the welfare state in the UK. Generous to a fault are our politicians. But then, it’s not difficult to be generous with other people’s money. In fact, it’s rather easy. You simply declare to voters that you’re going to save the poor with an ingenious welfare system and then parcel out money ad infinitum to anyone who can convince some uninterested chap in a dole office that they need it. Due to the tragic and corrupting nature of such an affliction, few will be more convincing about their need for benefit money than a drug addict.
Making the (valid) point, intentionally or not, that one of the unintended consequences for society of the welfare state is that it will facilitate self-destructive and anti-social behavior like drug addiction was a curious thing for Brand to do in front of a large crowd who marched under the proclamation that the welfare state is an essential foundation on the path to a better society – and who believe that reducing its size or scope would be immoral. Indeed, the national secretary of the People’s Assembly, Sam Fairbairn, declared: “Make no mistake, these cuts are killing people and destroying cherished public services which have served generations.”
Brand’s comedic remark got me thinking. How many people could be having their fledgling or entrenched drug addictions nurtured or maintained by government benefits like Brand once was?
Government figures give us some idea of the degree to which this might be happening. 1.7. million people claimed employment and support allowance (ESA) in the UK in 2013, which is a state benefit that can be claimed by anyone who is ill or disabled. For 1.5% (26,000) of those claims drug misuse was declared as the ‘main disabling condition’ by the claimant. (Curiously, this represents a three-fold increase from the number in 2010). So that’s nearly 30,000 drug addicts that we know are in receipt of government benefits. ESA can be claimed by people who are employed, but entitlement to the benefit is not based on whether the person is seeking treatment for their condition, but whether they are ‘fit to work’. Which means all these claimants have been declared by the government as unfit to work, which means that their government benefits are almost certainly their only source of income.
The question is: given the proper freedom to choose, would people choose to give a regular and unconditional income to drug addicts or to people susceptible to addiction? It is certainly not something that drug treatment charities do. They offer counselling, therapy and medication, but not an unconditional income.
Perhaps some people would give an income to drug addicts if they knew the individual was engaged in structured treatment to overcome their addiction, but according to research by DrugScope, the UK’s leading independent centre of expertise on drug use, there is an estimated 100,000 opiate and crack cocaine users in the UK who are not in contact with structured drug treatment services. Also, according to Addaction, one of the UK’s largest specialist drug treatment charities, there are 500,000 ‘problematic drug users’ in the UK. Each year only 30,000 people access Addaction’s treatment services, and it’s one of the largest. This suggests that there’s at least 100,000, but potentially more, drug addicts who aren’t seeking or having treatment. At least a third of these are not working and are dependent on government benefits, but it’s probably much more because not all or even many addicts admit to having a drug problem – as our figures suggest.
Russell Brand was one of the lucky ones. He overcame his heroin and crack cocaine addictions a few years after his TV career began to take off, and he hasn’t used drugs since 2003. But more than half who seek treatment to overcome a drug dependency don’t succeed. According to DrugScope, from 2011-2012 only 45% of drug addicts left a treatment facility “having completed their treatment and overcome their dependency on the drug for which treatment was sought.”
Addaction, although officially a charity, is mostly funded by government grants. No doubt other drug treatment charities are the same. Which means society, via the welfare state, is effectively subsidising drug abuse and then footing the bill for most of the cost of treatment to help people overcome drug addiction. Last year the government spent around £400 million on drug treatment on ‘behalf’ of society.
We can’t know whether, in a society without the coercive redistribution of wealth, Addaction would receive similar levels of funding, less or even more. We can’t know whether such a society would spend £400 million on helping drug addicts or not, but we would know that the amount spent would be the result of millions of free choices, the result of voluntary action, and therefore that such allocation of resources was in accordance with society’s wants. In today’s world we simply cannot know whether society wants to fund the gigantic welfare state that it now has because the individuals whose money is confiscated to fund it aren’t free to disagree. Thus anyone who argues that the welfare state represents the will of the people and therefore should be kept in existence forevermore can’t possibly know this, and can only be telling us what they believe is or should be the will of the people. Given that charities that offer drug treatment receive donations we have some idea of the value society places on funding the treatment of addicts, but this ‘signal’ is greatly distorted by the presence of government grants.
Like so much government action, the apparent need for it is a result of the problems caused by previous or parallel government actions. The drug addicts being treated by largely government-funded charities like Addaction are mostly those whose addictions were developed or maintained in an environment of subsistence living on government benefits in the first place. We mustn’t ignore the role poverty plays in drug abuse and indeed the role the welfare state plays in perpetuating poverty. According to poverty.org.uk “…addiction and regular use [of class A drugs] are more likely to develop among young people from lower social classes.” They also note that heroin use is more prevalent amongst disadvantaged groups. People sign up to government benefits because they are poor and then very often remain poor because they are on government benefits. The welfare state traps people in poverty, and the vast majority of poverty in the UK is the direct result of government control of the economy. Escaping poverty only ever gets more difficult because economic growth is stifled, slowed, made more costly and difficult by a web of government laws, regulations and legislation; because an ever-increasing minimum wage effectively prohibits from working people who aren’t worth employing at the rate set by government; and because of inflation caused by government rapidly increasing the money supply.
The strongest and foremost argument against the welfare state is always an ethical one, which is that the government has no legitimate right to use coercion to force individuals to fund anything, regardless of good intentions or whether it is for schemes aimed at helping the poor. Ends cannot morally justify means. But arguments from effect are also useful. In this case that the welfare state (which has become the government ‘solution’ to the poverty government causes) breeds and facilitates self-destructive behavior such as drug addiction.
In a piece for The Guardian last year Russell Brand wrote: “I cannot accurately convey to you the efficiency of heroin in neutralising pain.” The welfare state is to society what heroin once was to Russell Brand. An act of self-destruction masquerading as the only solution to the problem, which must be maintained at all costs.