Caring, growth and choice

by Chris Bertram on October 21, 2022

In any society, certain needs have to be catered for, either socially or privately. At a minumum, those unable to work, because they are too young, too old, or too sick have to be cared for. Of course, they can be cared for in ways that are better or worse for them, but caring there must be, and that is going to take someone’s time, labour, and money.

I’ve been thinking about these rather obvious facts over the past few days partly because a report came out showing how many people – mainly women – are being driven out of the the UK workforce by the need to care for relatives, given that the social care system is broken. At present, there are also a lot of people out of the UK labour market either because they can’t work due to COVID and its after-effects, or because the underfunded National Health Service has been shattered by the pandemic and they can’t get the treatment they need in a timely fashion for other health problems they have. If left languishing, the skills these people have will atrophy. Many of them will never work again.

At the same time, our soon-to-be-former Prime Minister has been pushing her “pro-growth” agenda, which largely consisted of tax cuts, and her now-former Home Secretary mocked the anti-growth coalition of “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating, wokerati”, of which I am proud to consider myself a member.

Their central assumption is that growth is best served by a low-tax economy and that public spending needs radical reduction, with the fat-cutting exercise of the last twelve years now to be extended to the bones. Well, I hope readers can see the problem. You don’t get growth by pursuing policies that effectively force people to give up productive work either through their own sickness, or in order to care for other people. If these needs are not met socially, they will be met privately, and, again, because it bears repeating, in ways that are disproportionately damaging to women.

But there’s also a part of me that wants to push back against this instrumentalization of care for the sake of growth. It may be true that the cutting agenda is incoherent and self-defeating because it ends up undermining the very economic growth it claims to promote insofar as many services are not most efficiently promoted by leaving citizens to fend for themselves. But the point of caring is to meet people’s needs rather than to boost the Gross National Product. I’d like people to have the option to rely on good publicly-supported social care rather than being forced to abandon work to look after the elderly relative who has just been discharged from hospital. But unlike these self-styled “libertarians” in the Tory party, I also care about freedom and choice. So if people choose, against the background of a reasonable set of options, to come out of the paid workforce in order to care for others, that’s also fine. I don’t want that possibility to be undermined by the national growth target.

Of course, there’s more to be said, not least about the incoherence of modern conservatism, which combines the view that everyone ought to be working hard in paid employment (ideally for low wages) with policies that end up driving people out of the workforce, but then also has periodic spasms of enthusiasm for “Eastern” models where families care for their elderly at home. Here, the patriarchal agenda is explicitly at work, either because they thought women should be in the home all along or as a rationalization of the effects of their other policies.

You may not want to pay for a “welfare state”, but the things the welfare state does will need to be done by someone, somewhere, at some time, using resources that come from somewhere.



engels 10.21.22 at 11:13 am

“Guardian-reading, tofu-eating, wokerati”

I prefer Quorn. I’m politically homeless.


Brett 10.21.22 at 3:14 pm

You’d think the older folks themselves would heavily support such a service. At least anecdotally, most older folks I know don’t like having to rely on their children for support – they’d much prefer something that lets them keep their independence as long as they’re healthy enough to do so.


bekabot 10.21.22 at 3:58 pm

“the things the welfare state does will need to be done by someone, somewhere, at some time, using resources that come from somewhere”

The people you’re talking about are aware of this, in pretty much the same way that they’re aware that everybody needs to defecate and needs a time and a space in which to do it. (Which is a whole ‘nother issue on its own.) But they think that the things a welfare state does are indecent and degrading and that, like matters of personal hygiene, such things ought to be pursued in private, well out of the public sphere (which they would only contaminate) and that they’re best never talked about, let alone legislated over or arbitrated in court. Under this rubric, the public sphere may, out of its munificent charity, condescend to notice the necessities of the private world and lighten its travails, but it ought never to be regarded as being obliged to do so; what’s more, when the public sphere does deign to pitch in a penny here and there, it ought to be perceived as going well above and beyond its plain duty, and its contribution(s) should be greeted with joy and relief and exuberant hosannas. That is the conservative idea.

In other words, the people you’re talking about regard caregiving more or less in the same way that the society they belong to regards pooping; and they think about their own participation in the scheme in the same way that a baby reacts to its bowel movements. So it’s more of a case for psychiatrist than for an economist, though we’re approaching the point past which the recommendations of shrinks and finance guys aren’t going to make much of a difference.


jdc 10.21.22 at 6:59 pm

the people opposed to caring for those too young or too old to work think that they ought to die, miserable and alone, if they can’t make a rich guy richer. there truly is nothing deeper than that. they viciously, furiously hate the disabled and if they could kill them in a camp, they would.


John Quiggin 10.22.22 at 2:54 am

It seems as if the worst problems could be fixed by
* “Soft Brexit”: that is, free trade and free movement, but leaving Britain outside EU and eurozone
* PR or Instant Runoff, which would make a future Tory majority almost impossible
* Reversal of tax and spending cuts since GFC

None of this is particularly radical, but so far seems to be too much for Starmer even with a massive lead in polls.


engels 10.22.22 at 5:46 pm

#5 Starmer is the candidate of intelligent Tories basically (not that there are many of those).


engels 10.22.22 at 6:13 pm

If left languishing, the skills these people have will atrophy. Many of them will never work again.

While I agree with the thrust of this paragraph I don’t think this reflects the reality of the British welfare system. People’s skills and health are allowed to deteriorate, yes, but once this has happened they can not stay on the dole and are forced into low-paid work commensurate with their reduced “value” (with further negative effects on their health). Only those with uncontestable disabilities or personal resources of some kind can exit the labour market altogether.


J-D 10.22.22 at 11:07 pm

Is it in fact the case that every society cares for those who are unable to care for themselves? Obviously, every society cares for those who are too young to care for themselves, or at any rate for many of them, because if it didn’t it would cease to exist. But a society which provided no care for those too old or too sick to care for themselves would not thereby cease to exist, and I know I’ve read about such societies, although I don’t know enough to judge the accuracy of those accounts.


Ingrid Robeyns 10.23.22 at 9:10 am

There is lots of interesting work on these topics that has been done by a field called “feminist economics” – where the economy is generally conceptualised as the system that should work towards provisioning and prospertity, rather than GDP growth, and where care is a central economic activity, just as producing stuff and other services is (and care can be paid or unpaid, and when paid, by the market (regulated or not) or via the state, or via collectives). Scholars such as Nancy Folbre, Susan Himmelweit, Julie Nelson, and many others have devoted their entire carreers to these issues and written really interesting scholarship. But I’m sad it has had too little influence in politics. In fact, we are regressing in most former welfare states (and I also take Chris’ post to essentially say this).

Most mainstream economists in policy making have never given those questions much tought; the models and reasoning that is used has only two types of ways in which to spend your time, “labour” and “leisure”. Philosophers who have been influenced by economists in the 1980s and onwards have very much copied this model – you can see this lack of unpaid care and household work as a third category also, for example, in the philosophical literature on basic income.

Sorry for the long digression, but in essence I think that in order to have better policies for better societies (which put some broad account of wellbeing central instead of aggregate (and often distribution-insensitive) material accumulation), we also need very different scholarship, that starts from those richer accounts. The work by Kate Raworth on the Donought Economy, or by Tim Jackson and his team at the Center for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, as well as the policy-driven research by reserachers for the Alliance of Well-Being Economy, are in my opinion pointing us the way. I’m planning to focus my own research on this in the near future, once my book on limitarianism is finished and I’ve been able to rest for a bit.


natywoman 10.23.22 at 12:13 pm

and about:
‘Caring, growth and choice’

where else but in a progressive world =


engels 10.25.22 at 3:29 pm

If left languishing, the skills these people have will atrophy. Many of them will never work again.

I guess it’s also worth adding that the reason for this suction into permanent underemployment (or unemployment, in case that’s still possible somehow) likely has much more to do with employer prejudice than skill deficits.


engels 10.25.22 at 3:56 pm

And “permanent unemployment” is a rather anodyne term for what I am referring to: being forced to apply incessantly for precarious low-paid work far below your qualifications, which you find meaningless and which you know to be damaging your health, which doesn’t keep you out of poverty and comes with no hope of progression, on pain of state-sanctioned destitution until you literally die.


SamChevre 10.25.22 at 8:32 pm

You don’t get growth by pursuing policies that effectively force people to give up productive work … in order to care for other people.

I think I would disagree: “productive work” and “work that adds to GDP” are not the same thing, at all–there is a lot of overlap, but it’s incomplete on both sides.


engels 10.26.22 at 10:23 am

instrumentalization of care work for the sake of growth

Is there a small paradox here in that care is inherently instrumental? It’s something done for sake of someone else. I think this comes out in the feminist objections to UBI that Ingrid is may be alluding to. UBI is bad because it doesn’t specifically value care but people as people, regardless of whether they are working, caring for anyone or doing anything else society considers to be of value. But why is caring for people valuable? Presumably the answer is not the capitalist one that they are workers or potential workers but that people should be valued in themselves. But this leads you back to something like UBI rather than exclusive valorisarion of care.


TM 10.26.22 at 11:53 am

CB: “Many of them will never work again.”

Probably what you meant to write was “many of them will never be in decent paying employment again”. Not the same thing. I realize others have made similar points.

Second Ingrid Robeyns. It’s ridiculous that mainstream economics is still completely unable to conceptualize care work, after all the research done by feminist economists.


engels 10.26.22 at 7:11 pm

It’s ridiculous that mainstream economics is still completely unable to conceptualize care work

It’s completely unable to conceptualists work<\i>. And that’s a feature, not a bug.


Peter T 10.27.22 at 8:24 am

There’s a fascinating book (Floud et al; The Changing Body) which looks at the impacts of economic changes on height, nutrition and so on. One observation that struck me was that around 10% of the Victorian population were simply unable to work due to prolonged malnutrition (as the author puts it, they were incapable of much more than “a little light begging”). And these people died in hard winters. A stratified human population is entirely capable of perpetuating itself socially and politically while continually destroying the lowest strata: slaves worked to death in the West Indies; paupers in C19 London and Paris; dalits in India and so on. Are we going back there? If some had their way…


Tom Hurka 10.27.22 at 2:44 pm

A historical question:

At least in North America (Canada and the US) the big period for the expansion of the welfare state was the 1960s, and the expansion could happen because it had broad, or broad enough, popular support. But the 1960s, or at least the mid-1960s, were also a period of consistently strong economic growth, around 4-5% every year.

I’ve often wondered whether the two aren’t connected, i.e. whether when people are consistently getting benefits from economic growth, such as a slightly higher income each year, they’re inclined to be generous to others and to support social welfare policies. But when they’re not getting those benefits, and are even sliding backwards in income, as many in the US are these days, they’re much less inclined to be generous or to support welfare policies.

This isn’t to say tax-cutting is the way to growth (though taxes were, I believe, coming down in the 1960s from their 1950s highs). But it does suggest that economic growth, while in one respect potentially in conflict with policies such as the social provision of elder care, may in another respect be needed, or at least useful, for those policies to have the popular support that can get them enacted.


engels 10.27.22 at 8:13 pm

when people are consistently getting benefits from economic growth, such as a slightly higher income each year, they’re inclined to be generous to others and to support social welfare policies.

It seems very possible, but also that their shrinking incomes are partly an effect of the eviscerated welfare state; and that both are part of an intended policy response by capitalists to reduced profitability.

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