What do people want from a welfare system?

All industrialised societies feature some kind of welfare system: institutions of the state that transfer material resources to certain categories of people or people who find themselves in certain kinds of situation. Non-industrialised societies have systems of social transfers too, albeit sometimes more informal and not organised by the state. People seem to think this is a good thing, or at least necessary. This raises the question: what do the public think a good welfare system would be like? How generous do they want it to be, and how would they like it to distribute its resources?

Polls in European nations consistently find most people expressing strong support for the welfare state. But there is a problem with this: when asked, a lot of people express support for tax cuts too. And for lots of other things, things that probably can’t all be achieved at the same time. This has led to one view in political science that most people’s policy preferences are basically incoherent (and hence, not much use in setting public policy). There is another interpretation, however.

Imagine you ask me whether I would like more generous benefits for people with disabilities, and I say yes; and you ask me if I would like tax cuts, and I say yes to that too. This might seem incoherent. But really, you should interpret my response to the first question as being other things being equal (i.e. if this move could be made without perturbing anything else) then I would favour more generous benefits for people with disability; and other things being equal I would favour tax cuts. Well doh. Of course if you could have lower taxes and everything else remain just as good, that would be nice. If you ask me about tax cuts without telling me about what would have to be discontinued to allow for them, you are implying they could be made with no loss to other social goods. But favouring tax cuts that cause no loss to other social goods is a totally different position than favouring tax cuts at the expense of something else. We should not confuse the two (and hence, by the way, you should distrust polls who say that say 107% or whatever of the British public want tax cuts; 107% of them also want better hospitals too). There is nothing incoherent about favouring other-things-being-equal tax cuts, but also preferring spending on benefits to be maintained in the event that the two goals conflict.

In other words, just asking people baldly about one thing, like tax cuts, doesn’t really tell you about the most interesting question, which is: given that different social goods, all of which we might want, are in conflict, how do you – the public – want them to be traded off against one another? How much more tax would you pay for higher benefits, or how much more poverty would you tolerate in order for taxes to be lower?

A popular method for studying how people make policy trade-offs is the conjoint survey. The researcher thinks of all the possible dimensions a policy could vary on. Let’s imagine our policy is a meal. It could vary on the dimension of cost (with levels: $1, $10 $50, etc.); deliciousness (1-10); style (French, Chinese , Italian, Ethiopian); nutritional value; carbon footprint; and so on. Now, we randomly generate all the possible meals within this multiverse, using all the combinations of levels of each attribute. Then we repeatedly present randomly chosen pairs of these policies, and the respondent says which one they think is better.

Because of the random generation, some of the policies are unicorns: the utterly delicious meal that costs $1 and has minimal carbon footprint. And some are donkeys: the $100 disgusting meal. But when you give enough choices to enough participants, you begin to be able to estimate the underlying valuation rules that are driving the process of choice. In effect, you are doing multiple regression: you are estimating the other-things-being equal effect on the probability of a policy getting chosen when its deliciousness is 6 rather than 5, or its cost $20 rather than $10. Valuation rules allow you to delineate preferences about trade-offs, by comparing the strength of a dispreference on one dimension with the strength of a preference on another. For example, people might be prepared to pay $3 for each increment of deliciousness. The trade-offs can be different for different groups of respondents: maybe those on low incomes will only pay $1 for each increment of deliciousness, meaning that in life they end up with cheaper and less delicious meals.

In a new study, Joe Chrisp, Elliott Johnson, Matthew Johnson and I used a conjoint survey to ask what 800 UK-resident adults want out of the welfare system. We made all of our welfare systems somewhat simple (a uniform weekly payment with one level for 18-65 year olds and a higher level for 65+). We then varied four kinds of dimensions:

1) Generosity: How big are the payments?

2) Funding: What rates of personal income tax should people pay to fund it? And would there be other taxes like wealth or carbon taxes?

3) Conditionality: Who would get it? What would they have to do to demonstrate or maintain entitlement?

4) Consequences: What would be the effect of the policy on societal outcomes, specifically, the rate of poverty, the degree of inequality, and the level of physical and mental health?

People in fact made very coherent-looking valuations, at least on average. And, yes, other things being equal, they wanted income taxes to be lower rather than higher. But the strongest driver of choice was the effect on poverty: people want the welfare system to reduce poverty, and they like it when it reduces poverty a lot (figure 1).

Figure 1. Estimated marginal effects on the probability of policy choice of rates of income tax (top); and effect on poverty (bottom). The dots are central estimates and the lines, 95% confidence intervals.

In the figure, a value to the left of the vertical line means that having that feature made people less likely to choose the policy, all else equal; and a value to the right of the vertical lines means having that feature more likely to choose the policy. This is compared to a reference level, which in this case is the current UK income tax rates for the upper graph, and the current rate of poverty for the lower one. So, the more a welfare system reduces poverty, the more likely respondents are to choose it; the more it increases poverty, the less likely are to choose it; and the effect is graded – the bigger the reduction in poverty, the better.

There were other features that also affected preferences. People like the idea of funding welfare from a wealth tax or a corporate or individual carbon tax, relative to the government borrowing more money. And they quite liked the welfare system to improve physical and mental health, and reduce inequality – or at least, not to make these things worse. However, none of these was as strong as the desire to see poverty reduced.

We also varied who would get the benefit (citizens, residents, permanement residents), and what the conditions would be (have to be unemployed, means testing….). None of these design features made much difference. This is something of a surprise since a big theme in the recent literature on public preference over welfare systems is the idea of deservingness: people don’t want welfare payments to go to the wrong kind of people, where wrong is conceived as slackers, free-riders or foreigners, and this saps, or can be deployed in order to sap, their support for welfare institutions. The way I read our results, these deservingness concerns are mostly pretty weak in the grand scale of things. People want a welfare system to reduce poverty in the best value-for-money way; they don’t care too much about the design choices of the institution so long as it does this.

The findings shown in figure 1 allow us to pit a given income tax rise against a given effect on poverty. For example, would people by prepared to pay ten more percentage points in order to halve the poverty rate? You work this out simply by summing the coefficients, negative for the tax rise, positive for the poverty cut, and seeing if the result is greater than zero. This exercise reveals a zone of possible acceptability, a range of income tax rises that people would find acceptable for a sufficiently large cut in poverty (figure 2).

Figure 2. Zones of acceptabilty and unacceptability for combinations of income tax rises and poverty change. The area shown in red would on average be unacceptable, and that shown in yellow would be acceptable. The status quo is shown in white.

These findings are quite noteworthy. Really substantial income tax rises – ten percentage points or more – would be acceptable on our average to our respondents, as long as they delivered a big enough decrease in poverty. British political parties currenrly work on the consensus that any talk of income tax rises is politically unfeasible. The Labour Party is currently and rapidly distancing itself from any hint of tax rises of any kind, including wealth tax, which our results and other research suggests would be popular. When the Liberal Democrats proposed a 1% increase in the basic rate of income tax in 2017, it was viewed as politically risky. Our results suggest they could have been an order of magnitude bolder and it could have been popular.

A worry you might well be having at this point is: well yes, this was all true of the particular sample you studied, but maybe they were particularly left-wing; it wouldn’t play out that way in the population more broadly. In fact, we already went some way to mitigate this by weighting our sample to make it representative of voting behaviour at the 2019 General Election. Also, and more interestingly, people of different sub-groups (left/right, young/old) differed only rather modestly in their valuations. Figure 3 shows figure 2 again but respectively for Conservative and Labour voters in 2019. You might think that we would see that Conservative voters want lower tax at any cost, while Labour voters want redistribution at any price. Not at all: both groups have a trade-off frontier, it just looks a bit different, with Labout voters valuing the poverty reductions a bit higher relative to the tax rates than Conservative voters do. But both groups have an area of possible acceptability of income tax rises, and these areas overlap. Ten percentage points on income tax to halve poverty, for example, would be acceptable even to Conservative voters, and therefore a fortiori to other groups.

Perhaps these results are not surprising. We already know that there is strong support for a social safety net, and that people care about the outcomes of the worst off. Our findings just show people accept that it has to be paid for. So really the pressing question is: how have politicians come to believe that tax rises are completely politically impossible in contemporary Britain, when this and other research suggests that this is not the case? For example, a review in The Guardian of Daniel Chandler’s recent book Free and Equal, which proposes a moderate Universal Basic Income and tax rises to find it, basically said: nice idea, but who’s going to vote for that in the Red Wall? (The Red Wall refers to electoral districts in the Midlands and North of England thought of as something of a bellwether. ). Yet, both our present study and our previous research in the Red Wall give the same answer: most people. Chandler’s proposals are exactly in the zone that commands broad assent in the Red Wall, and even amongst people who have recently voted Conservative.

Without wanting to go too dark on you, I have to remind you of the evidence that the opinions of the average voter don’t actually matter very much in politics as it stands (at least in the USA). What parties propose is influenced by the views of the rich and by organized business, and pretty much unresponsive to the views of everyone else. Interestingly, this narrow sectional interest gets mythologised and re-presented as ‘the views of the person in the street’; but this is mainly a kind of ‘proletariat-washing’. A small group of people who have a lot of power and influence don’t want to reduce poverty by raising taxes. The Labour party, by choosing not to propose doing so, is courting this group. What gets passed as wooing the public is really wooing the elite. They might have judged, and perhaps rightly, that wooing this group successfully is necessary to win power, but let’s not confuse this with following public preference. The median British voter may well favour something much more transformational.

How can I explain this to you?

One of the big problems of the social and human sciences is the number of different kinds of explanations there are for what people do. We invoke a great range of things when we talk about why people do what they do: rational choice, conscious or unconscious motivations, meanings, norms, culture, values, social roles, social pressure, structural disadvantage…not to mention brains, hormones, genes, and evolution. Are these like the fundamental forces in physics? Or can some of them be unified with some of the others? Why are there so many? It is not even clear what the exhaustive list is; which elements on it could or should be rephrased in terms of the others; which ones we can eliminate, and which ones we really need.

It’s bad enough for those of us who do this for a living. What do the general public make of these different constructs? Which ones sound interchangeable to them and which seem importantly different? The explanation-types are sometimes grouped into some higher-order categories, such as biological vs. social. But how many of these higher groupings should there be, and what should be their membership?

In a recent paper, Karthik Panchanathan, Willem Frankenhuis and I how people understand different types of explanations; specifically, UK adults who were not professional researchers. We gave participants an explanation for why some people do something. For example, in a certain town, a large number of murders are committed every year. Researchers have ascertained that the explanation is….and then one of 12 explanations. Having done this, we then presented the participants with 11 other explanations and asked them: how similar is this new explanation for the behaviour to the one you already have? Thus, in an exploratory way, we were mapping out people’s representations of the extent to which an explanation is the same as or different from another.

The basic result is shown in figure 1. The closer two explanations are to one another on the figure, the more similar they were seen as being. We used a technique called cluster analysis to ask how many discrete groupings it is statistically optimal to divide the graph into. The answer was three (though it depends a bit on the parameter values used). There was one grouping (hormones, genes and evolution) that definitely stood apart from all the rest. These are obviously exemplars of what people have in mind when they speak of ‘biological explanations’. The remainder of the explanations was more of a lump, but when it did divide, it fell into one group that was more about things originating in the individual actor’s head (choice, motivation, meaning, psychological traits); and another that was more to do with the expectations, pressures, and obligations that come from the way the wider social group is structured (culture, social roles, social pressure, opportunity); in other words, forces that came into the actor from outside, from society.

Figure 1. Network representation of how similar participants viewed different explanations as being. A shorter distance between two explanations means they were viewed as more similar, a longer distance that they were viewed as more dissimilar. The key is: HORmones; GENes; EVOlution; a psychological TRAit; MOTivation; CHOice; MEAning; CULture; social ROLe; social PREssure; CHIldhood experience; and OPPortunity.

What we recovered, perhaps reassuringly, was a set of distinctions that is widely used in philosophy and social science. Our participants saw some explanations as biological, based on sub-personal processes that are not generally amenable to reflection or conscious volition. These were perceived as a different kind of thing from intentional psychological explanations, based on mental processes that the person might be said to have some voluntary say in or psychological awareness of, and be responsible for. These in turn were perceived as somewhat different from social-structural explanations, which are all about how the organisation and actions of a wider network of people (society) constrains, or at least strongly incentivises, individuals to act in certain ways. In other words, we found that our participants roughly saw explanations as falling into the domains of neuroscience; economics; or sociology.

So far, so good. However, it got a bit murkier when we investigated perceptions of compatibility. Philosophers have been keen to point out that although reductionist neuroscience explanations, intentional psychological explanations, and social-structural explanations are explanations of different styles and different levels, they are in principle compatible with one another. They will be, once we have polished off the small task of knowing everything about the world, completely inter-translatable. Every behavi0ur that has an intentional explanation has, in principle, a reductionist neurobiological explanation too. When you privilege one or the other, you are taking a different stance, not making a competing claim about what kind of entity the behaviour is (it’s a perspectival decision, not an ontological commitment). In other words, when you give a neuroscience explanation of a decision, and I give an intentional psychological one, it is not like a dispute between someone who says that Karl Popper was a human, and someone who says that Karl Popper was a horse. Both our accounts can be equally valid, just looking at the behaviour through a different lens.

In our study, we asked a different group of people how compatible all the different types of explanation were, where, we told participants that compatible means both explanations can be true at the same time. The degree of rated compatibility was almost perfectly predicted by how similar the explanations had been rated by the people in the first sample (figure 2). In other words, explanations, for our participants, can only be true at the same time to the extent that they are similar (a norm explanation and a culture explanation for the same thing can both be true; a norm explanation and a hormonal explanation cannot). This is not really normatively right. An explanation for a fatal car accident can be given in terms of the physics (such and such masses, such and such velocities, such and such forces), and also in terms of the intentional actions (the driver’s negligence, the pedestrian’s carelessness, the mechanic’s malevolence). These explanations would be quite dissimilar, but perfectly compatible.

Figure 2. The compatibility of two explanations (rated by one group of people) plotted against the similarity of those two explanations (rated by a separate group).

Our respondents’ incompatibilism, if it turns out to be typical of a wider group of people, could be problematic for science. No more so than in the case of ‘biological’ explanations for human behaviour. These being seen as the most dissimilar from intentional or social-structural explanations, they ended up being seen as rather incompatible with those others. In other words, if you say that XX’s violent outbursts are due to levels of a particular hormone, people perceive you as asserting that it must not be the case that XX is motivated by a genuine sense of moral anger; or that XX has been forced into their position by a lifetime of discrimination. Really, all three things could be simultaneously true, and could be important, but that may not be what people infer. Thus it seems worth stating – again and again, even if to you this feels obvious – that studying the neurobiological or evolutionary bases of something does not mean that the intentional level is irrelevant, or that social factors cannot explain how whatever it is came to be the case. We scientists usually see these different levels as all parts (more accurately, views) of the same puzzle; but certain audiences – many, perhaps – might see giving an explanation at a different level as more like claiming that the jigsaw puzzle is actually a chess set.

What is going on when researchers choose one kind of explanation rather than another? For example, what is at stake when we say ‘depression is a biological condition’? If what I have said about explanations being in-principle inter-translatable is true, then depression is a biological condition, but no more so than supporting Red Star FC, or having insufficient money to pay the rent, are biological. Depression is also a psychological condition, and also a social-structural one. Everything is an everything condition. In other words, ‘depression is a biological condition’ ought to assert precisely nothing at all, since explaining biologically is no more than a stance, a stance that can be taken about anything that happens to humans. The subset ‘biological’ conditions is the whole set, and perfectly overlapping with the set of psychological and social ones.

Yet, when people say ‘depression is biological’, they often seem to think they have asserted something, and indeed are taken to have done so. What is that thing?

When you choose to advance one type of explanation rather than the other, you haven’t logically ruled anything in or out, but you have created a different set of implicatures. You are making salient a particular way of potentially intervening on the world; and down-grading other possible ways of intervening. This comes from the basic pragmatics of human communication. Explanations, under the norms of human communication, should be not just true, but also relevant. In other words, when I explain an outcome to you, I should through my choice of words point you to the kind of things you could modify that would make a difference to that outcome. (Causal talk is all about identifying the things that could usefully make a difference to an outcome, not all of the things that contributed to its happening. When I explain why your house burned down on Wednesday, ‘there was oxygen in the atmosphere on Wednesday’ is a bad explanation, whereas ‘someone there was smoking on Wednesday’ is a good one. )

So, when I say ‘depression is a biological disorder’, I am taken to mean: if you want to do something about this depression thing, then it is biological interventions like drugs that you should be considering. And thus, by implication, depression is not something you can best deal with by talking, or providing social support, or increasing the minimum wage. Choosing an explanatory framing is, in effect, a way of seizing the commanding heights of a debate to make sure the search for remedies goes the way you favour. This is why Big Pharma spent so many millions over the years lobbying for psychiatric illnesses to be seen as ‘biological disorders’ and ‘diseases of the brain’ (all those findings and books about that you read in the 1980s and 1990s – they were basically Big Pharma communications, sometimes by proxy). This sets the stage for thinking more meds is the primary way of thinking about the suffering in society. We found some evidence consistent with this in our study: when we provided a ‘biological’ explanation for a behaviour, participants spontaneously inferred that it would be hard to change that behaviour, and that drug-style interventions were more likely to be the way to do it successfully.

The hostility of social scientists to ‘biological’ explanations is somewhat legendary (in fact, like a lot of legends, it’s common knowledge in some vague sense but a bit difficult to really pin down). When social scientists say ‘X [X being morality, literature, gender roles, or whatever] cannot be explained by mere biology!’, what they mean to say is not: ‘I deny that the creatures doing X are embodied biological creatures causally dependent on their nervous systems, arms, and feet to do it.’ What they are saying is something much more like: ‘I am worried that if you frame X in terms of biology, the debate will miss the important ways in which social-structural facts, or deliberate reasoning processes, have actually made the key difference to how X has come out.’ And perhaps: ‘I am particularly worried that couching X in biological terms will lead all kinds of people to assume that X must always be as it is, and could not be re-imagined in healthier ways.’ Hence, as sociologist Bernard Lahire recently put it: ‘to get too close to biology in the social sciences is to risk being accused of naturalising the current social world, of being conservative.’ In effect what social scientists are saying is not, the biology stuff is not true, but that it is not the most relevant stuff we could be talking about.

A very similar point applies to the argument between rational-choice approaches and social-structural ones. You know the old quip: economics is all about how people make choices, and sociology is all about how they have no choices to make. Essentially, critics of rational-choice economics are not saying: ‘I deny that X came about because lots of people did one thing rather than something else they could have done, and this is causally due to their agency and relative valuations of the various courses open to them’. They are saying something more like ‘I am worried that by focussing on the choice processes of the individuals involved, we will neglect the broader social configurations and institutions that are responsible for the fact that the options they had to choose between were all bad ones’; or, ‘I am particularly worried that by invoking the language of choice, the only interventions we will end up thinking about are information-giving and silly nudges, not reforming society so people have better opportunities in the first place’ (for a big debate on this topic, see here).

What to do? Fortunately, the implicature that a adopting biological framing means the appropriate level of intervention is pharmacological is a defeasible one (on defeasible and non-implicatures, see here). That is, it will be assumed to be true, unless the contrary is specified. You can, without contradiction, say: ‘depression is a biological condition, but it turns out that the best way to reduce its prevalence is to improve the social safety net, because it is brought on by poverty and isolation’. As it turns out, you not only can say this; you need to.