One of my favourite comedies of all time is Bottom, the 90’s British sitcom written by and starring Ade Edmondson and the late, great Rik Mayall. I’ve watched every episode countless times and I know the script off by heart.
If you’ve never seen it, the show is essentially about two crude, amoral and perverted lunatics who live on the dole (government benefits) and spend their days scheming to score cash or girls. Here’s a YouTube playlist of clips from the show.
Only recently has it occurred to me that Bottom is a hilariously profound illustration of how the welfare state rewards and sustains unproductive, anti-social and self-destructive lifestyles – ultimately to the detriment of society.
By all accounts the late Rik Mayall was very much conservative in his political views and Ade Edmondson favours left-wing liberal views. I wonder if it ever occurred to either of them that in Bottom they were putting forward a mighty strong case against the welfare state as a liberal progressive ideal.
I remember reading somewhere that Mayall described Bottom as an imagining of what his and Ade Edmondson’s lives would have been like had they not ‘made it’ as comedy writers and actors. They would have hit ‘bottom’ and stayed firmly there (appears to be the suggestion).
What Mayall and Edmondson thought would have been rock ‘bottom’ was actually the false bottom (ooh-er!) provided by the welfare state. The real bottom, the real injurious consequences of the unscrupulous, debased, idle and anti-social lives lead by two men who show no desire whatsoever to earn an honest living would have been destitution, imprisonment or dying in a gutter somewhere. In other words they would have got precisely what they earned or deserved: virtually nothing.
After all, who would want to help these two men if they knew what they were like? Who would possibly think that two men (who steal charity collection boxes and who have twice attempted murder) deserve charity themselves? Who would agree to financially support them for the rest of their lives so they can indulge in their vices and perversions? Only someone very wealthy and completely insane (The Royal Family, then, perhaps?) or very wealthy and ridiculously charitable (but someone that charitable wouldn’t be wealthy for very long).
No, the only way for two of the most botched examples of humanity to receive financial support for the rest of their lives from others would be through the coercive apparatus of the State – i.e. against everyone else’s will.
Richie and Eddie can sit at home all day and wallow in their own depravity and delusions, with admittedly hilarious consequences, because they don’t have to do anything to acquire money in order to pay their rent or put food in their mouths. Given their total lack of skills and willingness to work, they would almost certainly have to resort to stealing money (which they do anyway, actually, to supplement their benefits income) but fortunately for them the government does the bulk of the regular theft for them through the coercive apparatus of the State and taxation.
There is only one occasion on which Richie and Eddie engage in actual economic exchange in order to peacefully acquire money and that is when they agree to run the local corner shop for the day at short notice – for which they receive £50. This peaceful, value-creating behaviour doesn’t last long, however, as Eddie steals a cheque for £53 from the till and they both renege on their promise to run the shop by spending the afternoon up on the roof eating a picnic made up of produce they stole from it.
They make no sales for Mr Harrison, the shopkeeper, who ends up worse off by £100 plus the cost of all the stock they consumed. On top of all that his unattended shop gets looted when Richie and Eddie get stuck on the roof.
If Richie and Eddie weren’t safe in the knowledge that, as a result of the welfare system, they will always have a roof over their heads and food in their bellies, then they would have virtually no incentive to engage in such, admittedly hilarious, but unscrupulous and harmful behaviour. If they weren’t on the dole, then they would have had every incentive to do the best job possible of running Mr Harrison’s business because he may have offered them employment again in the future – having been impressed by their honesty and endeavour.
Their short-term gain of £100, the result of implicit and explicit theft, almost certainly came at the cost of losing any chance of a regular income from Mr Harrison or any other local business in the future, which would have amounted to much more. Knowing that they will always have just enough money to survive as long as they turn up at the dole office every two weeks is what incentivizes them to consistently choose short-term gain over a greater gain in the long-term – and unscrupulous or criminal behaviour is often the easiest way to make such short-term gains.
Richie and Eddie supplement and attempt to supplement their ‘income’ in all sorts of hilarious but, again, immoral ways. Eddie counterfeits money, they go trick or treating and mug old ladies, they steal charity collection boxes, they “nick next door’s gas supply”, they pawn a wooden leg they stole from a drunken man in order to place a bet, and they engage in looting during the annual Hammersmith riots.
The occasions on which they actually acquire money through honest means – getting paid to participate in police line-up’s (although that’s taxpayers’ money) and through an inheritance from Richie’s dead aunt – they spend it on boozing, lose it on gambling or in ridiculous bets with strange characters down the pub. If they weren’t on the dole, then they would have to spend what little money they came into on rent and at least some food.
Let’s face it, if it wasn’t for the welfare state, then Richie and Eddie would either be dead (and no one would care!) or else more likely working in a supermarket. As men who acquire resources peacefully through economic exchange they would be contributing to the creation of society’s life force, wealth, and not merely draining the wealth created by everyone else into the black hole that is their own self-destructiveness by means of the dole. That wouldn’t make for a comedy, but it would make for a better society.
The ultimate problem with the welfare state is that it is virtually impossible to prevent it from being used by the lowest common denominator in society as a means to their ends – the achieving of which benefit no one else. Determining the Richie’s and the Eddie’s from those who actually deserve charitable assistance is practically impossible. And that’s because the Richie’s and the Eddie’s of this world are quite capable of ‘playing the system’ and telling gullible government officials at the dole office precisely what they want to hear so they continue to tick the right boxes.
Those whose highest aim in life is to take as much as possible from everyone else in society without giving anything back develop such skills very quickly because the welfare state is the only means of achieving that. In a society where all welfare schemes were voluntarily funded anyone who chose to live this way would always be confronted with the choice of changing their ways or suffering the harmful consequences of not.
In the absence of the welfare state the rest of society would give the Richie’s and the Eddie’s of this world exactly what they deserve: no cash and quite possibly a swift kick in the bollocks. Which in turn would mean more charitable financial support going to those who truly deserve it.