Why it pays to ponder social choices

Why it pays to ponder social choices
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

The adage that the means we use are ends in the making applies to social policy as well. The European welfare state, and its North American variants, rightly sought to protect the industrious worker from the caprice of capitalism.

But what began as a modest means of tempering the excesses of the market economy became an end - a popular belief in a culture of entitlement - that now influences the psychology of work itself.

This has arrived at a point where many of those societies are finding it difficult to compete with economies fired by a vibrant work ethic and a sense of personal responsibility.

Welfare dependency obscures the reality that, even in prosperous societies, politics is often the politics of scarcity. That is, trade-offs have to be made between competing needs because no set of wants can be satisfied entirely without affecting the remit of other equally legitimate needs.

This harsh truth applies to all countries, but it has special relevance to Singapore, a city-state whose near-absence of natural resources places a premium on fiscal prudence.

Earlier this week, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam outlined some of the complexities of fashioning a social policy for Singapore that would be equitable without becoming egalitarian to the extent that it saps self-reliance and community initiative.

Among the key areas where Singapore would have to strike a balance are the twin goals of self-reliance and collective responsibility; ensuring that taxes protect inter-generational equity; and the desire for a strong civic society that can co-exist with the selective need for an activist state.

The fundamental point is that social policy can have an unintended effect on social culture by creating attitudes and manufacturing demands that cannot be reversed easily in a democracy.

Citizens need to ponder this point carefully. No matter how far the so-called new normal expands the political space for welfarist demands on the state, Singaporeans must realise that those who have been there and done that - among them Sweden, Denmark and Britain - are retracing their steps.

The dour reality at the end of the day is that wealth must be created before it can be redistributed. Also, the redistribution will be self-defeating if it destroys the desire to strive hard.

The broadening of the meritocratic base that is in progress is necessary, but Singapore cannot afford to forgo its tested record of depending on merit to allocate rewards and create an economically vibrant society in which the talented have a stake.

Social culture must continue to reflect the inescapable realities of human nature as it really is, not as it hypothetically could, or should, be.

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