Knaves and pawns: behaviour and the welfare state.

Author:Welshman, John


One earlier antecedent of the current debate about market-based incentives and motivation was the 'choice' agenda, which was particularly prominent under the Labour Governments between 1997 and 2010. One of its main architects, Julian Le Grand, argued that assumptions governing human motivation and agency were key to the design and implementation of public policy. Policy-makers fashioned policies on the assumption that both those who implemented the policies and those who benefitted from them would behave in certain ways. Le Grand used the metaphors of knights, knaves, pawns, and queens to characterise changing attitudes to questions of motivation and behaviour. He argued, for example, that in the era of the 'classic' welfare state (1945-79), public servants were seen as being motivated mainly by their professional ethic and were concerned with the interests of those they were serving. They worked in the public interest, and were seen as public spirited altruists (or knights). Taxpayers were similarly knightly in their willingness to pay taxes. And individuals in receipt of the benefits of the welfare state were seen as essentially passive, or pawns, content with a universal but fairly basic standard of service.

However after 1979, claimed Le Grand, there were serious assaults on assumptions about motivation and behaviour. It was argued that the behaviour of public officials and professionals could be better understood if they were seen to be self-interested. The idea that knightly behaviour characterised those who paid for welfare was also challenged. Finally it was seen as undesirable that the users of services were treated as passive recipients--rather the consumer should be king. The logic was that the most obvious mechanism of service delivery was the market (Le Grand, 1997).

Le Grand admitted that his analysis might well be too simplistic a means of capturing the complexity of the realities of human motivation and agency. There were many kinds of knight and knave, and individuals were not simply pawns or queens. Moreover, he made a distinction between attitudes and the actual delivery of policy, conceding the post-war history of social security was peppered with the development of different forms of checks and balances to control the behaviour of people termed the work-shy, scroungers, and loafers. He noted that there was a constant tension between the assumption that welfare recipients were essentially passive--pawns--and the assumption that they had some capacity for agency--knaves--and would respond to the incentives with which they were faced. Nevertheless, Le Grand argued it was not implausible to describe the bundle of assumptions concerning human behaviour that characterised the democratic socialist welfare state as one 'designed to be financed and operated by knights for the benefit of pawns' (Le Grand, 2003, 2-11).

Although it has been argued that the views of key thinkers, such as Richard Titmuss, were more complex than Le Grand acknowledged, the highly influential knights, knaves, pawns, and queens model has been subject to remarkably little critical scrutiny so far (for further discussion, see Welshman, 2004; Deacon, 2004; Needham, 2008). This article ranges more broadly and uses the debate over what was termed 'transmitted deprivation' to considers how far this characterisation of attitudes to questions of behaviour really reflects the 1945-79 period. In June 1972, Sir Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Social Services, referred in a speech to a 'cycle of deprivation', and a Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS)--Social Science Research Council (SSRC) Working Party on Transmitted Deprivation was established. The large-scale Research Programme that was organised through the Working Party from 1974 was to span eight years. It cost around [pounds sterling]750,000 (at 1970s values), and by 1982 had generated some 19 research studies, 14 literature reviews, and 4 feasibility projects (Welshman, 2005; Welshman, 2012). Given its focus on poverty, welfare, health, and housing; the insights it provides into attitudes towards behaviour and agency on the part of policy-makers and researchers; and the close fit between the chronologies of the speech, the Research Programme, and Le Grand's chosen period, the debate over transmitted deprivation provides one vehicle through which to test Le Grand's metaphors and periodisation.

The causes of poverty and deprivation

In the space available, there are five points worth making about the 1970s debate over transmitted deprivation. First, unsurprisingly there were a variety of views expressed about the causes of poverty and deprivation. In his 'cycle' speech, which was in itself an early assault...

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