Having each other's backs: UBS and social trust

Where are the natural allies for those of us engaged in promoting a Social Guarantee as central to a healthy recovery? Having unhitched - or rather ripped - ourselves from Europe through the travesty of Brexit (if civil servants are disgracefully barred from using the word we should make sure it remains firmly in play) we are left paddling a leaky canoe somewhere in mid-Atlantic. Pathetic delusions about a renewed global role don’t help.

The government hankers dismally for a US trade deal, hoping that the Americans will back our pretensions to be a first rank power. So how might closer ties to the US affect the prospects for a Social Guarantee? I’d be the first to cheer if we could trade our current heads of government. Leaving aside personalities, the Biden administration is so far showing remarkably progressive leadership, notably on climate change but also on issues such as labour rights and social infrastructure. Nevertheless longstanding fears about creeping Americanisation and its implications for our standards of public service may now be more justified than ever. The pressure is towards deregulation (see the freeport experiment for a likely example of more or less unchecked porkbarrelling) and an insistence on individualism, with rights to all kinds of things from holding guns to one’s own version of the truth. Robert Putnam, the doyen of social capital, has pointed out that narcissism there has hugely increased in recent decades. This is hardly unique to the US, but its prevalence undermines what for me makes up a genuine society: acceptance of mutual obligations, the pooling of risks and rewards and the recognition that many social goods can only be achieved though collective action. The locus classicus is health; the US expenditure is almost twice as much as any other OECD country, for worse results, because they are so ideologically opposed to collective, publicly-underwritten provision.

These are all arguments for the kinds of universal basic services which we are now grouping under the Social Guarantee rubric. They bring the kinds of benefit which can only be achieved by collective action. Determining such common goods is not simple, or stress-free. It is right that we analyse the actual or likely distribution of benefits across different social groups. On intergenerational equity, for example, the debate over whether the boomers (I’m one) have scooped the pool leaving slim pickings for younger generations is a genuine one. But it is crucial that the framework for the debate is a social one, not one that looks to meet a series of individual claims.

Minouche Shafik’s new book, What We Owe Each Other, makes a crystalline case for a new social contract. She considers each phase in the life course separately, but within an overall framework which depends on mutual confidence and reliance. The arguments are underpinned by technical analysis, but ultimately by a kind of moral statement of the kind of society we want, one where we have each other’s backs.

Tom Schuller is a member of The Social Guarantee Taskforce