I left this comment on a Journal.ie thread, in response to the many calls on a ‘poll’ asking whether child benefit should be cut, which is to say, a ‘poll’ issuing the tacit propositions that (a) cutting child benefit is a legitimate thing to do; and (b) the annual budget process is a fundamentally democratic exercise in which the elected government always carries out the will of the sovereign people, not the will of the sovereign markets.In discussions on child benefit, advocates of ‘fairness’ in Ireland -which is to say, advocates of a bearable level of market violence and capitalist exploitation- regularly make calls for means testing to be introduced, in order to account for the disparities in income among its recipients. Whether they believe they are doing so in the interests of equality or not, the fact that they are doing so means they consent to the neo-liberal priorities of the Troika, the ratings agencies, the local business elites, and the national government that obeys them, as self-evident necessities. It is no longer (was it ever?) a matter of broad political choices about the kind of economy that ought to serve society on the whole – whether, for instance, it should be one that serves finance capital, or the great majority of the population- but of grinding the lens -through polls inviting popular participation such as this one- so that the minutiae of the diminished budget for social spending become the main object of popular debate.
Those people who think means testing child benefit is an equitable proposition are either liars or walking into a trap set by liars. What we see with the proposition to means test child benefit is clear evidence that children’s rights are not taken seriously in Ireland, whatever about referendums and the like.
In fact, we can see precisely how children’s rights are not taken seriously by considering the example of Fergus Finlay, former Labour Party spin doctor and current CEO of Barnardo’s, who had called for a more ‘modest’ universal payment as part of the overall reduction in public spending demanded by the Troika and local business elites. ‘Modesty’, with its Victorian overtones conjuring images of the deserving poor, has no place in a discourse concerned with the vindication of children’s rights.
But however repugnant I might find the notion that charities should be treated as authorities on children’s rights, and that notion’s embodiment in the figure of Fergus Finlay, even Barnardo’s recognises that universality is a good thing in the provision of child benefit. Why? Well, I don’t know why Barnardo’s in particular thinks such a thing, but here are my reasons. One, it is an elementary principle of a genuine democratic society that we have mutual responsibilities toward one another. That does not mean we share each other’s underwear, but it does mean that we believe that we are responsible for ensuring that everyone living in our society is treated with dignity and respect.
And that entails things like being prepared to contribute towards the health, welfare and education of others. This –contrary to the authoritarian conception of the family contained at the heart of the Irish constitution- means being concerned with the health, welfare and education of other people’s children (everyone is the child of someone else, right?).
When we abolish child benefit as a universal payment, and opt to means test it in accordance with the parental ability to pay, what we are saying is that it is down to the parents alone to be concerned with children. It follows from this that any parent who requires child benefit is failing in their duties towards their child. To move towards means testing is also to do away with the notion that child benefit is also a form of payment for the work of raising children, which is an essential form of work in any society, even if it goes unpaid on the whole.
The destruction of universality in welfare provision is part and parcel of the overarching project of US and European elites to destroy what remains of social democracy and the welfare state, and put in its stead a society based purely on market relations and the survival of the fittest, in which only the children of the rich get to live decent lives. A society grounded in a life which for the majority of its inhabitants that is nasty, brutish and short. If you think this is a bad idea, and if you believe children’s rights are important, then you shouldn’t be supporting means testing; you should be defending universality, whilst opposing the rest of the Troika-backed government cuts agenda with every sinew.