Neo-liberals are worrying about the poor nowadays. Britain’s Conservative prime minister David Cameron proposes a massive increase in university tuition fees, already raised by his Labour predecessor, Tony Blair (1). This public-spirited measure is designed to ensure that all taxpayers do not have to foot the bill for the higher education of predominantly middle-class “customers”. The state saves money and the poor will get scholarships to cover the fees. In France, the socialist columnist Jacques Julliard said three years ago that “a grant is a subsidy to the rich who send their children to university” (2). So charging high tuition fees is really an egalitarian move.
The scale of public deficits provides an excuse for extending this argument to all social benefits, challenging their universal application. The French rightwing former minister Luc Ferry has often said: “Above a certain level [of income], people simply do not notice the [family] allowances they are drawing. It is a complete waste of public money”. The former Socialist prime minister, Laurent Fabius, agreed (3). Alain Minc, adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy and a close friend of the Socialist leader Martine Aubry, was concerned, after his father “spent a fortnight in hospital receiving the very latest treatment”, that “the French public had spent €100,000 on medical care for a 102-year-old man. … We must look into ways of recovering the cost of medical care for the very old from the beneficiaries. This issue should be addressed in the Socialist programme” (4). The Economistregretted that Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, had shied away from further attacks on the principle of universalism in the welfare system: he might have targeted the “costly perks dispensed to pensioners regardless of their wealth” (5).
Having introduced less progressive taxation, neo-liberals are apparently worried about the “fairness” of its redistribution. The next stage is a foregone conclusion – the US is already there. In political systems where the middle and upper classes are in control, cutting public and social services is easy as soon as the privileged no longer have access to them. It is argued that these benefits encourage a culture of dependence and fraud, so the number of claimants are reduced and endless conditions imposed. What means-testing really means is that universal benefits will be phased out.
Translated by Barbara Wilson
(1) Cameron now wants to increase university tuition fees from £3,290 to £9,000 a year; Blair already put them up from £1,125 to £3,000 in 2004.
(2) LCI, French news channel, 7 July 2007.
(3) Respectively in Le Figaro, Paris, 18 November 2010, and on Europe 1, 4 November 2010.
(4) On “Parlons Net”, France Info, 7 May 2010.
(5) The Economist, London, 23 October 2010.