A little while ago, I posted a selection from Michael Ignatieff’s The Needs of Strangers. In rereading that post on its own, it occurred to me that so isolated it loses much of its original nuance and critical edge. In exposing the role that welfarism has taken to mediate relationality and thereby atomize our collective solidarity, Ignatieff is not arguing for the dissolution of the welfare state as such, but is seeking to explore its more perverse and debilitating social consequences. In many ways, Ignatieff’s book as a whole represents reflections of one deeply shaped and influenced by liberalism on the one hand, yet frustrated, disillusioned, and sharply critical of it as well. At the heart of his project is a political and philosophical inquiry into the nature of “needs”. Welfarism plays such an important part of his criticism precisely because it is touted as the means through which our societies can satisfy the needs of the poor. Unfortunately, the institutions of modernity — pillars of our liberal democracies — are incapable of achieving such a project.
To start with, liberal politics grounds the ethical in freedom and justice as preserved by the quasi-philosophical paradigm of “rights”. Framed within a presumed context of individualism, such a language remains inadequate to engage the depths of human belonging, formation, praxis, and identity. This is strongly manifested in the debates over the welfare state. Ignatieff writes,
“The distinction I want to make is also one between needs which can be specified in a language of political and social rights and those which cannot. Most arguments in politics these days are about the first sort of needs, for food, shelter, clothing, education, and employment. The conservative counter-attack on the welfare state is above all an attack on the idea that these needs make rights; an attack on this idea puts into question the very notion of a society as a moral community.
“In the attempt to defend the principle that needs do make rights, it is possible to forget about the range of needs which cannot be specified as rights and to let them slip out of the language of politics. Rights language offers a rich vernacular for the claims an individual may make on or against the collectivity, but it is relatively impoverished as a means of expressing individuals’ needs for the collectivity. It can only express the human ideal of fraternity as mutual respect for rights, and it can only defend the claim to be treated with dignity in terms of our common identity as rights-bearing creatures. Yet we are more than rights-bearing creatures, and there is more to respect in a person than his rights. The administrative good conscience of our time seems to consist in respecting individuals’ rights while demeaning them as persons. In the best of our prisons and psychiatric hospitals, for example, inmates are fed, clothed and housed in adequate fashion; the visits of lawyers and relatives are not stopped; the cuffs and clubs are kept in the guard house. Those needs which can be specified in rights are more or less respected. Yet every waking hour, inmates may still feel the silent contempt of authority in a glance, gesture or procedure. The stranger at my door may have welfare rights, but it is another question altogether whether they have the respect and consideration of the officials who administer these rights” (p. 13).
In this way, we can see that when the debates over “need” gets too rapidly reduced to the raw material necessary to enable and sustain organ function, what is often overlooked is the fact that the means through which these raw needs are met can also be the condition under which those other human desires and longings necessary for human flourishing get ignored.
Additionally, Ignatieff maintains that at the center of this problematic remains the teleological question of the good. “I am saying that a decent and humane society requires a shared language of the good. The one our society lives by — a language of rights — has no terms for those dimensions of the human good which require acts of virtue unspecifiable as a legal or civil obligation” (p. 14). This is really important for evaluating welfare. What does health look like? What is the normative condition our assistance aims to achieve? What virtues direct the practices capable of such a task? The critical point is that there is always a good. Unfortunately, it is often cast in terms of the good of the state, civil society, and the market. It is often coined as a question of power.
Finally, Ignatieff also offers various critiques of choice and freedom. For him, these remain integrally connected to the question of teleology. More importantly, they are fundamental in determining ahead of time our perception of need. Sidestepping the totalizing discourses of political liberalism requires developing sufficient language to adequately articulate needs.
“It seems a fact of life that individuals have different needs. Some people need religious consolation, while others do not; some need citizenship, while others seem content with a purely private existence; some pursue riches, while others pursue knowledge, power, sex, even danger. Who is to say which is the truer path to human fulfillment? If human nature is historical, individuals have different histories and therefore different needs.
“If this is all we can say about human needs, then it seems to follow that the proper domain of politics ought to be the satisfaction of people’s expressed desires, rather than the enactment of some vision of what their needs might be. A free society can stand for justice – for the idea that private preferences should not result in harm to others – but if it stands for more than justice, it will jeopardize the freedom of individuals to choose their needs as they see fit.
“This is the core of the liberal creed in politics. It draws a line between the needs which can be made a matter of public entitlement and those which must be left to the private self to satisfy. Since the disestablishment of the churches and the granting of rights of toleration, some of our most durable historical needs – for consolation and ultimate explanation – have passed into the domain of private choice. Likewise, a market society leaves it up to each of us to find work capable of satisfying our needs for purpose and meaning. By and large, few of us would exchange the freedom to choose our own beliefs and our own vocation for the solidarity of the Islamic or Stalinist theocracies of the modern age.
“Doubtless the price of our freedom to choose our needs is high. We have Augustine’s freedom to choose, and because we do, we cannot have the second freedom, the certainty of having chosen rightly. That certainty, Augustine believed, could only be granted by the gift of Grace. The modern political utopias of Rousseau and Marx were attempts to imagine a secular political equivalent to the state of Grace, a state of social unity in which each private self would feel its own choices ordered and confirmed by the general will. As such, their resolution of the alienation between self and society was a leap out of politics into metaphysics. If this is where our needs for certainty take us, it would be better for us to be reconciled to the burdens of our private choosing.
“Yet the problem they pose remains. Is there a form of society which could reconcile freedom and solidarity? Is there a society which would allow each of us to choose our needs as we see fit, while providing us with the necessary means to make these choices? Freedom is empty as long as we are trapped in physical necessity. Freedom is also empty if we lack a language in which we can choose the good.
“For all its shortcomings the modern welfare state can be understood as an attempt to reconcile these antimonies: to create a society in which individuals would be given what they need so that they would be free to choose the good. For all the apparent relativism of liberal society – our interminable debate about what the good in politics consists in – in practice a shared good is administered in our name by the welfare bureaucracies of the modern state. From birth, our needs for health and welfare, education and employment are defined for us by doctors, social workers, lawyers, public health inspectors, school principles – experts in the administration of needs.
“The paradox is that this continuous intrusion into the logic of our choosing has been legitimized by our public commitment to freedom of choice. It has been in order to equalize everyone’s chance at a free life that the state now meets needs for food, shelter, clothing, education, transport and health care (at least, in some countries). It is in the name of freedom that experts in need now pronounce on the needs of strangers. Apparently, societies that seek to give everyone the same chance at freedom can only do so at some cost to freedom itself” (pp. 135-137).