An Interview with James Bartholomew

Famous journalist and author James G. Bartholomew.

Famous journalist and author James G. Bartholomew.

James Bartholomew is a British journalist and author currently based in London. His famous book The Welfare State We’re In deals with the welfare states of the globe and how they are changing human lifestyle and behavior. He details how world civilization is changing as a result of the rise of the welfare state. The Dartmouth Review sat down with Bartholomew to better understand his work, and to understand how it pertains to Dartmouth’s own age of toxic “viewpoint moralization” and harmful politically correct culture.

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): Why is the welfare state so destructive and how does it lead to bad results?

James Bartholomew (JB): How it’s destructive and why it gets to be destructive are slightly different questions. How it’s destructive is usually because it doesn’t allow for various things such as people’s behaviors changing if you change the incentives. For example, if you decided that you don’t like people being poor when they are unemployed and they should be paid more money, and you give them twice as much money as they’re being paid at the moment, there’s an assumption that people will not change their behavior. People are (supposedly) unemployed because they can’t get a job. Everybody wants to be employed. They certainly say they do. The assumption is that nothing will change except the money they get. But actually you’re changing the incentives dramatically, and you will inevitably get more unemployment as has happened in country after country around the world since 1919. It’s been going on since then. People are very slow to recognize that if you change the incentives you will change the behavior. That is the most common thing that goes wrong. Why you get to that stage there is a democratic push continuously towards more free government provisions. People get elected by saying I’m going to give you free education, free healthcare, a generous pension when you’re old, everything you want for free. That’s very tempting as a voter when there’s no cost mentioned, but then the government screws up and does it badly. All sorts of wrong incentives are created. In a nutshell, that’s what goes wrong.

TDR: Once we’re in a welfare state, what’s the best way in the short-run to dismantle it?

JB: I don’t know if it’s possible to dismantle it. I would love to dismantle it. If you can succeed in dismantling it in your career, I’d watch with admiration, but I think it’s almost impossible to dismantle it because of the democratic incentives. If you take all the 26 or 27 most advanced countries, every single one of them has a welfare state. There is none that does not have a welfare state. The idea that you can escape it is, sadly, probably a fantasy. The deal is this: the right accepts that there has to be a welfare state. The left accepts that it has to stop being so stupid and stop screwing things up so much. There are things you can do in that regard and things that have been done. The reason I wrote the book (The Welfare State We’re In) was that there must be some things we can do to make it better. We can’t get rid of it, but we can make it better. And so the idea was to travel around the world and look at different countries and what they’ve done and examples of how to do it better, which is what I did. There are many examples of things being done better. In Germany, for example, they were going on 5 million unemployed, and that was a major figure for Germany. Complete failure. And so they appointed a commission called the Hartz Commission, which made recommendations and said, “Actually, if you allow people to have jobs where they aren’t taxed so much, where they don’t have so many big social contributions, where they actually make money, they’ve got a stronger incentive to work.” Lo and behold, they did. At the same time, they were told they ought to work. This revolutionized their unemployment level from being one of the highest in Europe to one of the lowest in the world. Reform can work. It’s really not easy. Getting consent from the people is really not easy. It’s a hard labor that goes on here. I’ve known people involved in this. It’s difficult.

TDR: It doesn’t sound appealing to the people to say they’ll be prosperous in the long-run, but with some short-term sacrifices.

JB: There comes a point in most democracies where people say, “This is ridiculous.” We’ve got too many people unemployed. A lot of them are cheating. We’re getting fed up with this. It happened in America in 1997 when Clinton signed the act allowing more reform of welfare, especially of single mothers. This moment of national realization happens. When you’re in a democracy, you have to work with a democracy. You have to persuade people. One of the best things that Charles Murray ever said was “You will get meaningful reform not when stingy people win, but when generous people stop killing themselves.” That’s the key to it. You got to get generous people to stop killing themselves, to be real about human nature, how things really work.

TDR: Many think of America being more individualist. Do you think that’s true, and do you think that’s affected America’s welfare state?

JB: I think it did. I think it’s diminishing as time goes by. I think America has a unique heritage of revolution and independence and striving out in a completely new place and that created a story for rugged individualism and self-reliance which was the hallmark of what it was to be an American. For many years, for many decades, but now it’s diminishing. The puppy story tells us that this is no longer such a place of rugged individualism, of such courage. This is a place for puppies. This is a kind of Europeanization of America where the spirit of rugged individualism is being diminished in my lifetime. I came over to America when I was quite young, in the 1970’s. The spirit of rugged individualism was still very strong then and I’ve gradually observed from afar a diminishing of this kind of attitude. It used to be taken for granted that free enterprise was a great thing and I feel that that assumption is now not accepted everywhere. It used to be accepted in America. I think America’s changing, and I think it’s the force of circumstances, the force of democracy tends to push all countries towards the same end. Just like every country ends up having Starbucks. There’s something about it. It’s cheap, it’s comfortable and it makes sense. Every country has pizza now. It’s an Italian dish from Naples, and now it’s everywhere. We all react to the same pressures. We all become more middle-class, richer. We all have ambitions that make the world a better place. We all have democracy and then we all press towards a welfare state and then we all end up with welfare states that start doing harm. We have to look at this in a large historical context. We’ve only had modern welfare states since the mid-19th century, at the earliest. In the context of world history, that is tiny, so it’s natural that we make a lot of mistakes. I think we will learn. I’m not wholly optimistic because there’s a tendency to bump up against the feeling. You give people more benefits, you make things more generous and them the costs begin to spiral, the cheating begins to spiral and you think, “This is terrible,” and then the debt begins to spiral, the taxes begin to spiral, all these things go wrong. Then you reach a level where you say something has to be done. Then a government gets elected that does cut back. It then goes down 5-10 percent. And then another guy comes along that makes things more generous. People then have forgotten what’s happened before because they have a tendency to believe things can be better. They think all it takes is a bit more money and a little more bumping against the top. The only chance of resisting that is by really recognizing that phenomenon. We’re going to stop that from happening at all. For example in Poland, it is unconstitutional for the national debt to rise above 60%, and in Singapore there must be no national deficit in spending. It’s against the constitution. If such a deficit happens there, lawmakers must write a letter apologizing to the president and detailing how it’s going to put things right. You can try and institutionalize the wisdom and try and make it more permanent. You cannot make people remember forever ,but you can make them remember a bit longer.

TDR: There’s this emphasis on the idea that Trump is inherently racist, or that he’s just something too racist to even talk about. It’s unbelievable how much the left hates him.

JB: I think a lot of all this comes down to the belief that they signal their own virtue, by having certain viewpoints. They say to themselves, “Hi, I vote Democrat, therefore I am a good person.” I wrote an article about virtue signaling, about saying, “Everyone wants to be a good person, I showed I’m a good person because I vote Democrat and I want good things to happen to lots of people who are minorities, women, disabled anything else like that. I demonstrate that to myself, to other people.” It’s all about virtue, I am virtuous, and therefore anyone who disagrees with me, by definition is not virtuous. And so it is almost the moralization of a viewpoint. There is the virtuous viewpoint and there is the evil viewpoint. It all in the end comes down to human vanity.

TDR: Do you have any insight as to the pressures that made this phenomenon happen, when it’s never happened before, suddenly happening in the 21st century?

JB: Why? Probably a lot of factors. Maybe the welfare state even has something to do with this. I mean, I’ve got to be cautious I don’t want to be ascribing everything to the welfare state, but maybe it does have something to do with this. Maybe because the caring for each other has become more and more a matter of the state’s activity rather than individuals’ activity, or people grouping together. In Britain we had groups called Friendly Societies, where people would help each other, and I think there’s an American equivalent. When you do not have government providing stuff for everybody, then people have to help each other, and real virtue consists of helping each other. There’s a difference between people talking virtue, and being virtuous. In East End London for example, which I’ve read a lot about, there used to be a mutual system of  help, and people would meet relatives in the street a number of times a day. They would be living near their grandmother. There would be mutual dependence. Their real personal wealth would be evaluated continuously every day, as it is in every small community where people are mutually dependent. Whereas, when you have an atomized society when everyone is dependent upon the state, how can people be virtuous? Where is the pressure on them to be virtuous? People want to be virtuous, but they only do it by views. I also think about staying together for the sake of the children. When I was young you used to hear “They stayed together for the sake of the children.” It was a common phrase, but you don’t hear that very much any more, because people think, “Do what you like.” Something has changed in our society. This phrase has been repeated several times, “moralization of viewpoint.” And I think it works. Maybe it has something to do with the loss of religion, too. Europe’s full of examples of when people had to believe the right thing or they would be killed. If people had the wrong beliefs, even silent beliefs, terrible things would happen. Maybe the loss of religion is part of this, but I’m struggling I’m not sure I totally understand why this is happening.

TDR: I’m nervous about the implications of this.

JB: What might happen is that if you continue with this, you’ll reach a crisis. It seems to me that in America in particular, the polarization between people  of different viewpoints is starting to become so strong that that’s a danger. I talk to a guy called Larry Reed, who writes about welfare. He’s on the right. He tells me that he used to be invited by left-wingers to conferences. They would invite him to conferences to give a talk, and they would listen politely. Then the stage was reached where he would be invited but not to talk, and then he wasn’t invited at all. This withdrawing of people into their separate bunkers where people can keep convincing themselves that they’re right and the other people are wrong is terrible. We should keep on talking to each other, even if we get really annoyed by what the other says.

TDR: Do you think we’re more polarized than we were 20-30 years ago? Or do you think that we’ve changed the way we treat the polarization?

JB: I’m not American so I hesitate to say anything about the history of American culture, but in Britain, certainly. There’s very few people in Britain who are genuinely far-left now. Corbyn is the leader of the Labor Party, but there’s very few people who believe in nationalization of everything, or in penal taxes, and there used to be a lot in the 1970s who believed in those things. The difference is that we were in many ways more extreme in the 1970s, than we are now, but people were quite polite towards each other. Yeah, I think there’s a change there. In a way I feel, I mean that was after the war, and I think that people had a different perspective after the war. They had things in better perspective after the war. My mother was in London during the Blitz, there were bombs dropping all around. My father’s best friend was killed in France by the Germans. When you have that perspective, the idea that there might be more welfare or less, or taxes are a little bit higher or lower really doesn’t seem that important in comparison. They had a sense of perspective on what’s important in life. And a stoicism that seems almost absent today. Among younger people, the willingness to take pain is non-existent. We knew during the Communist years that there were really terrible things going on in the Communist states. I remember the exact moment when terrible things happened. When JFK was shot, I remember exactly where I was. Compared to the complaints of today, for instance, whether somebody’s disrespected me because of my views, it seems so petty, trivial, and self-indulgent in comparison.

TDR: Do you think that this development of PC culture is because we have created so many resources, we have created to a large extent peace in our time?

JB: In a way, there’s the human nature, I think you’re right. There’s an element in human nature that wants to have something to worry about. Now that we’ve got it so easy we have to look for things to worry about. One of the things that I looked at in my research  was the usage of the word poverty, if you look at how often people use the word poverty, I tracked how many times Chaucer used the word poverty, and how Shakespeare used poverty, and how it was used in Parliament towards the end of the 19th century, and how it was used more recently. And as real poverty, in terms of people starving to death and that poverty, has diminished, the use of the word poverty has skyrocketed.

TDR: Why is that?

JB: It’s for this reason, the better you have it, the more you feel that you can afford to bother about things that are not quite right, not quite ideal, it’s terrible. When you are struggling to survive, the fact that your coat is not quite the right color really doesn’t  bother you, but when you are rich, you say “Oh, I can’t stand that color.” That self-indulgence comes from better circumstances.