Thursday, December 08, 2005

Mistake of an evening?

Yesterday I attended a Radio 4 debate in the Old Theatre in which James Bartholomew put forward his argument that the welfare state was a mistake. He was challenged by a panel of four, including Professor Nicholas Barr, Ed Davey MP, Professor Pat Thane and the Kings Fund director, Neil Dickson. The BBC's economics correspondent, Evan Davis, chaired it.

It was scrappy and weak, with statistics being the main form of contention. Nicholas Barr did make a few good points criticising Bartholomew's position in terms of the concept and logic of the welfare state, while Pat Thane offered some historical insight into mutual societies in the late nineteenth century and their lack of coverage.

But I'm afraid that the whole critique was lost to me from the outset. Bartholomew started with figures showing the UK's cancer rates and education figures were below those of France and Germany, using this as evidence that the welfare state was a mistake. Last time I checked though, France and Germany had welfare states too.

Then Ed Davey asked the question of how he could account for rising life expectancy in the absence of a welfare state. Bartholomew refused to accept that argument; when challenged to compare Europe with sub-Saharan Africa he lamely said that he was concerned with comparable countries - yes, those with welfare states.

Little wonder then that two-thirds of the audience disagreed with his thesis.

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