The moral absolution of the welfare state

Last week I overheard a conversation between two strangers where one man was telling the other how he was back in the UK to visit his terminally ill mother who is living in a nursing home. He said that he moved to Australia when he was in his early twenties for work and never looked back, admitting that he had never considered the consequences of making a life for himself so far away from the rest of his family. The other man nodded along, accepting that in today’s world this is a fairly common situation for someone to find themselves in. Even within my own family, there are those who are happily living in a far away country, content in the knowledge that the parents they left behind will probably end their days in a care home in the company of people that know little of their lives and have minimal emotional connection with them.

It has always made me feel a little uncomfortable that care homes are now becoming the norm for the care of the elderly. When I listen to stories of family deaths recalled by relatives over the age of 70, those who took care of the dying in their final days were invariably family members doing it for love, not care workers doing it for cash. I had never devoted much time to ponder precisely why this change in societal norm had occurred until I read this article by James Bartholomew last week.

In the UK, only 13% of women without a partner over the age of 65 live with another member of their family. There are countries in the south of Europe where this percentage was significantly higher but the most striking contrast was that in Denmark, a country regularly presented by the Left as an ideal example of healthy social democracy, this figure is as low as 2%. The figures are similar for elderly people put into care homes as opposed to being taken care of by their family during their final years. This suggests there is a deeper underlying problem.

I’ve no doubt that many people would say that the availability of care facilities can only be a good thing, and that many elderly people who may have otherwise had to suffer alone will benefit from the provision of professional care. While this may be true in many cases, the flip side is that it has become the accepted norm to place an elderly parent into a care home rather than attempting to personally look after that parent. This increasing dependence on care homes has led to one of the most significant increases in unhappiness that we may have ever witnessed. 21% of care home residents in England and Wales would actually prefer to be dead. This is an extremely alarming figure and it is critical that we identify and tackle what the root cause of this is. As with many an issue today, an overbearing state is the prime suspect.

One of the key results of state activity in an area of life is to to absolve the individual of responsibility. Examples of this can be seen everywhere; the state provides a generous welfare system, therefore donating to charity is something to do only if we’re feeling generous, not something the moneyed should feel obliged to do. The government regulates, taxes and outright bans those items which are bad for us, so that we no longer have to think about or take responsibility for what it is that we may choose to consume. And of course, the government provides a care service for the elderly, so that we need not be inconvenienced with the task of caring for those who once cared for us. It may be telling that Denmark, the Scandinavian social democratic paradise of high taxes, high welfare and one of the largest state sectors in Europe, shows the greatest symptoms of this cultural disease.

One of the more frequently rolled out quotes by the Left to show how heartless the Tory party is “there is no such thing as society”, which Margaret Thatcher famously said in a newspaper interview in 1987. What they invariably fail to include is the rest of the paragraph from which this was taken. Thatcher was not advocating that people act purely with selfishness and greed but quite the opposite. There is no such thing as society in so much that there is no indivisible, benevolent entity to which all problems should be deferred for solution. Rather, society is the sum of the individual actions of people trying to help each other; it is the next door neighbour who takes care of your children when you go on holiday; it is the parents who lend you money for the deposit on a house; it is your best friend who takes you in when you find yourself homeless; and it is the children that you raised who care for you when you can no longer care for yourself.

The circumstances of every individual will be course be different, and moving back in with your parents to care for them may not be best, but many other options preferable to care home will usually be available if the individual is prepared to choose them. It is time to once again tackle the notion that “society” has the obligation to fix our problems for us, and to start taking more responsibility for how we conduct our lives.

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