Some Debates are Just Plain Tiresome
The furore over "beneficiary bashing" is making its seasonal reappearance. We have grown somewhat bored with the whole thing. Same old, same old. Whenever a government moves to put terms and conditions around state payments to some the furore reappears. It's boring because there is absolutely no way to resolve the issue and move forward.
The reason for the issue's intractability is state welfare benefits are universally regarded as a human right. The type of right in question can only be regarded as a demand right--although most people use the term "right" crudely without that nuance. A demand right functions as follows: I have a need (for food, clothing, heating, recreation, etc.) and my need constitutes a right to demand of others that my needs be met. The enforcer of the demand is the State.
Virtually everyone in New Zealand believes that demand rights are intrinsic to justice itself.
A just society is one which meets the "legitimate" need-demands of its citizens. Endless debates revolve around the minutiae of the issue: namely, which demand rights are legitimate and which are not. Is a free education in a government school a legitimate (demand) right such that every parent has a right to require others pay for their child's education, enforceable through the state's taxation mechanism? Since 1870 New Zealand has answered affirmatively.
Is free health care in a government hospital a legitimate (demand) right for every citizen enforceable through the taxation and redistribution system? New Zealand has answered affirmatively since 1935. Is it a legitimate demand right that everyone can stop working at a specified age and require others to support them financially--a demand also enforced through the tax system? New Zealand believes so. To almost every citizen in this country these things are beyond dispute and question.
But the basis of these shared convictions is rarely, if ever discussed. They are virtually asserted to be self-evident.
The endless debates, then, are not about demand rights per se. These are universally acknowledged. The debates are between ideologues and the pragmatists. The ideologues will not rest until demand rights have created a perfect egalitarian utopia where everyone has exactly the same life terms and conditions, actionable and enforceable through the taxation system. For the ideologues, every human need constitutes an injustice which society is obligated to remove. Every human desire constitutes in principle a demand and obligation upon society as a whole. Every human need represents a demand right in principle.
The pragmatists take the view that demand rights have to be restricted to the affordable. The pragmatists would theoretically acknowledge demand rights but would argue that society can only do what it can afford to do. That is, there are actual limits to how much demanding is enforceable and tolerable. Too much demand destroys incentive.
The incessant argument between ideologues and pragmatists is over whether justice must trump practicalities or whether practicalities must temper the application of justice. There is no conclusion to this debate. Hence its incessant, go-nowhere characteristic.
For the Christian there is no such thing as a demand right. Not only do demand rights enforceable through the tax system not exist in the Kingdom of God, they themselves represent nothing more than theft and envy. One cannot successfully construct a doctrine of rights upon a foundation of lawbreaking. In the Scriptures, the thief does not have a demand right to my property. It matter not at all whether the thief would walk into my house and expropriate my assets, or whether he would get the state to enforce his demand. Both constitute theft.
By the same token Christians have an ethical obligation before God to be charitable to others in need. The word charitable comes from the Greek, and it refers to the extending of grace or mercy. Grace and mercy can never be compelled: to be grace and mercy they must be freely given. Thus, the Christian commonwealth refuses to recognise demand rights, giving them no credence whatsoever. But it champions grace, and mercy, and compassion to the needy: family to family, neighbour to neighbour, community to community--with no other compulsion than the convictions of heart and conscience.
The social welfare state is an attempt to replicate the Kingdom of God and the Christian commonwealth by another means: the means of law and compulsion. Its fruits are bitterness, anger, resentment, and coldness of heart. It's also why we have tiresome harangues about beneficiary bashing and claims of injustice. A pox on the entire house!