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The Welfare State: who should pay for the transportation of a rich person’s child to and from school?

Suppose you have a child with special educational needs. Suppose the only school that could meet your child’s needs (as set out by their Statement of Special Educational Needs) was over an hour away (as can often happen). It falls under your local authority’s duties, who agree that they cannot provide a school within your area, to pay for transport for your child along with the essential carer who understand your child’s needs. Finally, suppose you’re very well off: should you pay for that transportation service?

You may think:

(a) you have to pay and that it would be wrong for you not to pay;

(b) that it would be good if you paid, but you aren’t obliged to pay (these
sorts of things are often called “supererogatory”);

(c) you neither have to pay, nor even would it even be a good thing for you
to pay (directly for this service).

I think I believe either (b) or (c); insofar as it could be (b), this supererogation is grounded in my thinking, were I to be rich, I should contribute more to the state anyway—and look, here’s an opportunity for me to contribute more—so in actuality it may be (c), with an additional clause that I contribute more generally. Why do I think this? Well, I think it speaks to how we conceive of the welfare state; and, we should conceive of the welfare state as offering a necessary set of services and goods that we are owed in virtue of our being members of that society.

This case came up in the news this week during a discussion between two housemates on Celebrity Big Brother (I’m pretty sure that’s a first for the Practical Ethics Blog!). Katie Price (a former glamour model and now television personality) explained to Katie Hopkins (a former Apprentice contestant, now pantomime villain) that the state funds her son’s (Harvey) transportation and carer to and from school. Harvey is blind, on the autistic spectrum and suffers from Prader-Willi syndrome. Hopkin’s said, given Price’s worth (reportedly $40m), that this was wrong: “I’ve always held that if you can afford to pay for something you should pay for it and you shouldn’t rely on the government, I think that’s wrong.”

A lot of the responses on Price’s behalf have focused on how much Price, being worth as much money as she is, will have contributed already to the state through taxation. I’m not sure anything should turn on this. Consider, were Price not to be as well-off then she would receive more from the state than she contributes through taxation; this is the case for many people on median incomes with a depend family member, let alone all those less so fortunate. It seems wrong to say here, those people shouldn’t receive support from the state in virtue of their not having contributed more. So it can’t be something worked out through what you contribute versus what you receive.

Is it that receiving from the state is conditional on contributing at the least something? Well, again, I’m not sure it is. The issue is made a little more complicated depending on whether you cash out the service of transportation in terms of a benefit to the parent (who has contributed to the state) or the child (who hasn’t contributed). Either way, I’m not sure it matters. Suppose a child was left on the door step of a hospital; it later turns that they suffer from severe special educational needs and so will never formally contribute through taxation to the state: surely we owe this child support throughout their life?

I’m going to cut to the chase now and get to what I think—especially because what I take to be the strongest argument for (a), that one should pay, arrises in response to my suggestion. The debate (for me anyway) turns on what we conceive of the welfare state to be: one way you could see the welfare state is as a safety-net in place to catch members of society who fall and to provide for them while they try to get back to their feet. It would then be the case that Price should pay for the transportation service, since she (and Harvey) doesn’t need that support. I’m not happy with this view. I think the welfare state should be seen as providing members of society with a set of services and/or goods that they are owed in virtue of their being members of that society. And, plausibly, the structure (both, for the child and for the parents) offered by the service of taking the child to school is one of these goods. Some other candidates would be healthcare, education, housing, a basic diet (and, more contentiously, nutrition), well-maintained public spaces, out of work benefits (or, more contentiously, a basic income), etc. To be more precise, I think the service offered is grounded upon offering an education to every child—and, since the needs of a child with learning difficulties are so acute, the appropriate school may often be further a field from home. It could also be something like offering a structured support network for those parents of children with special educational needs. On this view it seems that being able to afford any of these services without the state’s support is not enough to ground an obligation to pay for them oneself.

The strongest objection against this sort of view would be one that runs as follows: that’s all well and good Joe, these services should be offered to everyone, and they should be offered to everyone purely on the grounds of being a member of society; yet, we’re under conditions of scarcity. We simply do not have enough money to fund everything—and so, plausibly, those services that people can afford themselves should be payed for themselves.

The charge is: under conditions of scarcity, those who can pay for certain services should pay for those services. There are two ways this view could be cashed out: either, it applies for all services or we try to rank the services which ought to be owed, and those that fare low on the list should be paid for. The problem with the first of these suggestions is that it would imply that were a rich person to need an expensive operation, then they should pay for that operation; they should also pay for their children’s schooling (assuming they go to a state school); and so on. Someone may reply, that’s exactly what I think. I shall come back to this below. Against the second way of thinking (the ranking view) I’m not sure it’s going to get us as far as we want: it seems highly plausible that the structured transportation of children with special educational needs is of as fundamental importance as many other goods that we would intuitively place at the top of the list; that is, I think everything offered is going to be too important. Why is everything going to be too important? Because these are the things, by the very function of the welfare state I have suggested, that should be owed to everyone.

Which leads me to my reply to the first point: the reply shouldn’t be, ‘in times of scarcity, those that can pay for services should pay for those services’; the reply should be, ‘during times of scarcity, those that can afford to contribute more, should contribute more.’ Receiving from the state should not be seen as conditional on how much you have given (or are able to give); rather, it should be offered in virtue of your needing it. As mentioned, we don’t say those that can afford more should pay for their own healthcare, their own schooling and should pay VAT on essential goods such as food or children’s clothing, in virtue of the fact that they can afford them. And so, if we can’t offer the full range of services that we think should be offered to everyone (viz., we’re under conditions of scarcity), then we shouldn’t make some people pay for some of the stuff themselves, we should make those that can pay more, pay more simpliciter.

* There is a separate question of whether I am owed these goods and services from my state in virtue of being a citizen, or whether I am owed them in virtue of being a human being, and yet the state is the most practical level at which to achieve this—I won’t address this question here.

You can follow Joseph on twitter @joe_bowen_1

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6 Comment on this post

  1. I am one of the people who thought this was not right that she had the taxi free when she had a fortune of 20million me myself I couldn’t do that if I had that amount of money she should of let somebody else benefit from the kitty less well off than her ,I think she is a greedy woman who could well afford to buy her son the best as could his father it’s shameful

  2. Just an aside. Should members of parliament who are millionaires be paid for representing their constituencies whilst other members of parliament do not have any other wealth? Who decides what is a cut off point for who is wealthy and who is not wealthy? No clear answers here?

  3. A very interesting post, Joe and thought-provoking. I must confess, although I do not think people should be shamed into not accepting benefits that they are entitled to, I do share the common discomfort about this case (that is, I think there would be a case for making such a benefit means -tested in general but if they are not set up that way then I don’t think that wealthy people should have to refuse benefits on a moral ground).

    But your post makes me wonder why I have that intuition. You go through various reasonings for benefits but I wonder whether there is just one basis for providing benefits, or whether there are different categories of benefits. Some are a safety net (job seekers allowance), some try to even out inequalities or provide a minimum standard of living (housing benefit). Those that are truly universal -like education-might be for pragmatic reasons: since education is a legal requirement, it would be difficult to introduce the requirement without the provision. Universal healthcare is perhaps a bit of an anomaly and in the UK it appears that that is almost for emotional reasons as we are very attached to the NHS and its ideals (I personally favour the Australian system where the wealthy are encouraged to enter a private system through tax breaks but everyone is covered by the public health system so no-one is without good care).

    I would agree with you that getting a child to school is covered under the education category since a child can’t have an education unless they get to school. However, this is true for many children whose parents have to pay for the school bus. For some parents this is a significant financial burden. It would seem that whether the child needs a taxi or a bus, they both have the same need to get to school. Also, the wealthier the parent is, the more choice they have about where they live in relation to the school. So this might be a benefit in the category of housing benefit – provided to those that need it to ensure that they are able to meet the minimum standard of living. Of course the threshold for a taxi would be higher as not many people could afford daily taxis. But the principle is the same.

    Another valid argument against it though would be another pragmatic one: if so few people fall into this category that the system costs more to administer than it saves. This might well be the case for this as few people need a taxi for school. I understand there is an argument to remove university tuition fees on the same basis.

    I don’t think the fact that everyone is owed a certain good means that the state must pay for it for everyone. Everyone is owed shelter, water, heating and so on. But if I can afford to pay for those things I should. If I can’t then the state should. At least, you could move to a communist system – but it doesn’t seem to gel well with human nature…

  4. It seems to me the question is framed in a bit of a strange way. Katie Price is not the one, strictly speaking, that receives the government benefit. Harvey receives it, and is owed it by the state.

    Do parents have an obligation to pay for services that otherwise the state would provide, if it is well within their means? This brings in more fundamental questions about the obligations of the wealthy as regards their wealth.

    Whatever the cost of the transportation to school, if Price reimbursed the government, would be added back into the state’s education budget. Does Price, with her large fortune, have an obligation to increase the education budget? I don’t think her having a son who benefits from that budget really answers this question. If there are better causes to contribute to than the local education budget, it’s more plausible that she’s obligated to send her money there.

  5. I think the ethics of means-testing benefits (of various sorts) depends a lot on the particulars of the benefit, rather than the asset base of the agent. I like means-testing for state pensions because wealthy people who have done well financially have comparatively weak claims on public money, but I’d put severely disabled people – children or adult – up the front of the queue, irrespective of the assets their parents might have.

    This is because I think what the state is really doing here, which strikes me as both reasonable and kind, is socialising some serious risks according to a sort of informal luck egalitarianism. [Arguments for rich people getting pensions usually turn on “getting something back out” or similar arguments about rewards, which is different (and less convincing, in my view) stuff.]

  6. You are right, “we shouldn’t make some people pay for some of the stuff themselves, we should make those that can pay more, pay more simpliciter.” Means testing is not only a waste of time and money it flies in the face of the principle of insurance. If I have paid my premiums to an insurance company and then made a claim, I would not expect to receive a letter from them saying that because I have a bob or two they were not going to pay my claim. For sure, national insurance is slightly more complex than the average insurance policy, but in principle they are much the same.

    The laissez-faire libertarians must be delighted that so-called left of centre political parties like Labour are declaring they will engage in means testing the winter fuel allowance and other welfare payments if they win the general election. The right-wing media have been very successful at undermining social cohesion and solidarity that national insurance and welfare creates by atomising society with stories of the undeserving poor and rich. Whilst their readers and viewers are diverted by the tittle-tattle of who is or is not deserving of a few pounds of benefits, the more urgent task of diverting billions of pounds from the coffers of the super rich to a place where it might be of benefit to all is forgotten.

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