关于社会保障问题的几点思考 – Reflections on the social security issue – English

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The most painful thing in life is waking up from a dream, and finding no road to walk along – Lu Xun “What happened after Nora left?”

1

Although the Chinese social security system is imperfect, unequal, and low, there have been more and more demand for developing and perfecting the system, but progress on this work has been very unsatisfactory. I think resistance probably comes from two sides: one is that the government itself is not active; the second is that the liberalist economic elite (they who advocate economic laissez-faire) oppose the development of a social security system by putting forward the problems of the welfare State. And currently, in the economic field (including economic policy), their voice has considerably important. Social security, in simple terms, consists in the following: after wealth has been distributed a first time, causing a gap between the rich and the poor, it is distributed a second time, to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, and the various social contradictions that it causes. Economic liberalism believes that this is interference of the State (power) in the economy, and that it is the road to serfdom.

This has resulted in a situation where vested interest groups enjoy a National social security system which unfairly brings them a variety of social security benefits, while in contrast, those who most need social security, those at the lower levels of society, are not only at a disadvantage in the primary distribution of wealth, but are also exploited in the second distribution. For example, ordinary workers have to pay a considerable amount each month on social security payments (even a lot of unemployed people have to pay themselves), while public servants who receive a good pay and whose work is relatively stable not only do not need to pay that money, but their retirement pension is twice that of ordinary workers, even more.

As for intellectuals (most of the economic liberal elite belong to that group), they belong to the highest institutions, and although they are required to make social security payments, since their retirement benefits are much higher than those of ordinary workers, they are not willing to research and study theoretical and practical ways of reducing this injustice. They will only express some dissatisfaction on the fact that civil servants are treated better than they are. In other words, the intellectual elite who should be the whistle blowers on behalf of the disadvantaged are actually accomplices to vested interests on that issue. In my opinion, even if they do not take the initiative to defend this injustice, with the difference in status alone, the power of vested interests will not diminish but become more stable (there is always an understanding between the power and intellectual elites to garner more profits, its relationship is shown as such: the intellectual elites first argues a theory, public discussion of the theory gains recognition, then the power elites makes the decision), at least with these social security benefits in the middle as a buffer, the originally sharp contradictions become blurred.

And so, because the poorer workers do not receive sympathy from the intellectual elite, but are instead treated by them as a group that can be sacrificed – which has been proven by the economic practice these years – so they turn to the government, and see how much they can do to solve their difficulties. This does not just provide the government with leverage to publicize its achievement – for example, in just a few years, the government increased the retirement pay seven times (in fact, the last retirement increment for retired civil servants and public institution is much higher) – but also gave some political opportunists the occasion to get on the stage – like in the story of singing red songs.

We say that the resistance to reform is high now, and that one of the of the main sources of opposition is the “Mao Left”, but I think this is only superficial. The growth of the so-called “Mao Left” forces these last years, in a sense, were born of economic laissez-faire. Apart from political opportunists, the majority of ordinary people are not necessarily nostalgic for the Mao era, they are just disappointed by the reforms and opening up – the economic abjection and the low status of politics – and they also need a mode of expression.

Therefore, in this sense, establishing and perfecting a social security system is beneficial not only for national stability, but it can also prevent some from of regression.

2

In China, I don’t know when this started, but the welfare State has become evil, although China has never had a relationship with the welfare state. At first, it became a burden on economic development “(the original social model of enterprises created the problem of high business costs and a decline in competitiveness), and was rejected in the name of “development” (although the old retirement, pension and health benefits were borne by the companies, the companies were mostly state-owned, thus on the surface it seems like companies have no capability to support employees’ benefits, but in reality they overdrew the credit of the state). Now it bears the label of robbing the rich to give to the poor, and is seen as harming the institution of private property.

This institution of private property is considered to be the core element of liberalism, its cornerstone, and is held as sacrosanct. However, as the founding thinker on the institution of private property, John Locke finds that its legitimacy is limited. According to him, private property is legitimate when it meets the needs of the individual, not when it leads to production being wasted. Of course, he also considers that it is justified to store surplus in the form of money. Nevertheless, to him, the legitimacy of private property is not unlimited. Beside, in Locke’s view, a place enclosed and not farmed (or, in today’s words, ‘developed’) “should be considered as deserted, and available to be occupied by any other person” (Treaty on government, 38), though I’m not sure if this is the reason why the government introduce a policy for the return of the land to the government if it is not developed within a certain number of years.

I remember reading a post about Chinese people having a huge banquet in Germany, and how their wastefulness was censored by a German woman, who said: the money is yours, but the resources are public. I believe, this sentence is the best interpretation of the legitimacy of private property according to Locke. I think, we Chinese have almost all had the experience of wasting food, but we’ve been comforted by the thought that we paid with our own money, yet it now appears that, perhaps, it’s because we are too ignorant. And there may be a touch of universality in Mao Zedong’s words that: “waste and corruption are very great crimes”. If we were to complete this sentence today, I’m afraid that even for those who scrutinize governments as their mission and call themselves liberals cannot claim that the sentence is politically correct, the completed sentence should be: “we should make all government workers understand that corruption and waste are very great crimes.” But that is a digression.

Not long ago, in a piece called “a few words on freedom from want”, I mentioned the book “the cost of rights – why freedom depends on tax” by Stephen Holmes and Keith R. Sunstein. According to this book (based on an analysis of the US situation), more money (tax) is spent to protect private property than is spent on social security. And so, it is not difficult for us to think that, if you consider that social security spending is robbing the rich to give to the poor, then for the poor and ordinary people who do not have private property, isn’t the State spending money to protect the private property of rich people a form of robbing the poor to give to the rich? I think, if you need to choose between “robbing the rich to give to the poor” and “robbing the poor to give to the rich”, at lease the first is more humane.

Moreover, if you consider that government expenditure to protect the private property of the rich is legitimate, but the government protecting the lives of the poor is against liberalism, then aren’t you also saying that in the eyes of the tenants of liberalism, the private property of the rich is more important than the lives of the poor? (because, in extreme cases, if you do not not give the necessary protection to the poor, you watch them starve to death or die of illness). I think no true liberal would admit it.

In his essay “From freedom to equality”, James P. Sterba argues that: ” The need for the poor to take something away from the rich to meet their basic living needs takes moral precedence over the freedom of the rich to use their surplus goods and riches for the pursuit of luxury.”

In my opinion, his argument is refreshing. He interprets the contradiction between rich and poor as a conflict of freedoms, and says: “When the rich and poor have conflicts, it is seen as a conflict of freedoms, should we say that the rich should have the freedom to use their surplus goods to satisfy their luxurious life without interference, or should we say that the poor should have the freedom to take from the rich to satisfy their basic needs in life without interference. If we choose one, we must reject the other. Thus, what needs to be decided is which freedom is morally preferable: the freedom of the rich or the freedom of the poor. Thus, Sterba’s conclusion is also quite surprising: “when an autonomous liberal ideal of freedom is to be interpreted properly, it will be orientated towards the benefits of universal rights. Furthermore, the acknowledgement of the right of the general welfare leading to an equal distribution of goods and resources is the characteristic of socialist countries.” (This also illustrates his interpretation of autonomy in Liberalism: when you are not subjected to the interference of others, doing what you want to do). I think Europe, and the Nordic countries especially, are the best example of his views.

In china (and maybe not just in China), many people consider liberalism and socialism as enemies, and those advocating the establishment of a social security system are regarded as leftists, even “Mao leftists”. But I think that James P. Sterba’s conclusions would make people reconsider this issue, and show socialism and liberalism as not diametrically opposed and irreconcilable.

3

I’m afraid there’s nothing more depressing than when we recognize the beauty of freedom but have no ability and courage to pursuit it. However, we find ourselves in the situation of “There’s an eagle, a cat and something else” in Lu Xun’s “What happens after Nora left?”, and furthermore, when we, ourselves “close our wings till they are numb, and forget how to fly”, how can we start pursuing own journey to freedom? I think perhaps some economic guarantee will more or less give us some courage, so that we can get rid of the fear when we wake up, and will not give up our efforts for fear of starving to death. Maybe we can look at it from the social security point of view as to how we could get this economic assurance.

Lu Xun considers that, without economic protection, there can only be two ways after Nora leaves, either she falls, or she comes back. Of course, she could also starve to death, but starving to death is not a way. As Lu Xun said, “freedom is not something that money can buy, but it can be sold for money.” If there is no degree of economic security, then letting people pursue freedom is unfair, because it is undoubtedly letting them fall into poverty. Even the most respected liberal thinkers in the country, F.A Hayek argues: “In order to preserve freedom, some form of security is essential, because only when freedom brings an inevitable risk and the risks are not too big, then most people are willing to take the risk.” (“The road to serfdom”, Chapter 9, Security and Freedom).

For social security, you have to talk about related issues before the reform and opening. One of the main slogans for the legitimacy of the previous socialist system was that in a socialist system, there is no unemployment, and the government will protect people when they fall sick. But in the Chinese case, and maybe not just in China, reality does not exactly match official slogans, because, one, in China, the only people who can enjoy this treatment are active or retired public servants from urban areas, while many citizens and all farmers are excluded; second, due to different ideologies, many people are deprived of this treatment through their divergence of opinion. I have, from the government perspective, repeatedly stressed that the government must establish a comprehensive social security system. Also, as mentioned before, giving a National Social Security System to the country (government), is a means to keep power locked in a cage. Today, I want to stress this point again, appealing and urging the country (the government) to establish a comprehensive (for all citizens), not politically biased social security system. Not only for national welfare, but also to constraint the government’s power. Moreover, it is not the so-called road to serfdom, but also helps citizens obtain freely available economical security. I think saying that it is “the road to freedom” is not excessive.

Unfortunately, most of China’s liberal elites have rallied against those kinds of measures that are beneficial to citizens and encouraging to freedom. Instead,the government has kept going towards neither fair nor benevolent acts from the powerful that create “double standard retirement policies”. This cannot but cast doubt on the position of so-called “liberals”.

4

There is another recurring position among the critics of social security improvement. This position says that high social security benefits will encourage laziness, and lead to the decline of social creativity and competitiveness. In their view, making people live under pressure gives citizens the motivation and desire to work in order to create wealth. I believe this consideration is undoubtedly justified, and it is difficult to reject it by empirical methods, but I am afraid that it is difficult to prove it.

However, if we have confidence in the human race, maybe we would have another conclusion. Hendrik Van Look, when talking about the Netherlands during the medieval period and the phenomenon of sending “weak, frail, idle, clumsy children to the convent” as refugees, he said that apart from a handful of them, the rest “have never forgotten that their body have certain obligations created in accordance with the image of God.” I think that people are different from animals, it is precisely because people pursue a spiritual life that they need to be recognized by others. Everyone have pride, dignity, sense of honor and shame.

Some people say, hobbies are the best teachers. I also want to add that interest is the best driving force behind creativity because when individuals work hard towards their interest, they are free, and freedom allows individuals to abandon distractions, broadening the extent allowing to bring their skills and wisdom to full play.

Looking at how Europe manages to maintain its position as a world leaders in literature, arts, ideas, science and technologies, the burden of the welfare state did not cause them to fall into what we call “supporting the idle”, resulting in a recession. Of course, they lost competitiveness in the area of labor intensity. In contrast, other than having an advantage in the low labor intensity fields, becoming the world’s factory, without any social security it can be said that we make no contribution to the higher-level field. The heavy burden that life has forced on us not only fails to inspire our creativity, instead, we fall into they cycle of dawn dusk, no smiles, absence of watching the blue sky and white clouds, green mountains and clear waters, and the proliferation of fakes, shoddy life and mutual malice. We would never get out of a life where the road are paved with the bones of the poor who froze to death while behind the vermilion gates of the rich, meat and wine go to waste.

I think, if there is some certainty of social security, the attitude of doing anything to survive will be greatly reduced. Therefore, our fear of starvation will also weaken. Of course, we cannot put all our hopes in the development of a social security system, but at least through examining the actual situation of two welfare society China and Europe, we are able to review our habitual thought process, knowledge and understanding.

5

There is still another point to consider. People in this world will inevitably encounter some sort of disaster or failure. Those who were strong yesterday may become weak today, and will hope that powerful social forces will protect them from their lives turning into complete tragedy. In China, stories of people falling back into poverty because of illness are not uncommon. Today, I would like to think of two other accident factors.

The first incident is this: On the 27th July, at 9 in the morning, at Wu Chang district court, court number 10, the verdict of an extraordinary compensation for infringement case: falling Zhang Bin sued Wu Chang district Xin Xiang village’s four building with 29 homes after becoming a level 9 disabled person due to falling objects. Nearly 20 individuals came responding to the defendant. There was no similar precedent in the Wu Chang district court, and five tables had to be added in the court so that there was enough place to sit. The trial judge read the 28 pages long verdict for 10 minutes: the verdict was that the 22 residents and householsd have to each compensate Zhang Bing with RMB 3270. In regards to this absurb verdict, I think it was last year, when the “Tort Liability Act” was just passed, I wrote an article titled “Punishing the whole clan to which a criminal has committed an offence belongs, private settlements, then where’s fairness and justice?” I won’t say more here to criticize the law. Setting aside trials of such cases and the absurdity of the legislation itself, I want to examine some thoughts from the point of view of social security. If our country had a comprehensive national social security system, then the victim could avoid falling into extreme social distress situation due to accidental injuries. Is there a possibility that even if the victim can find no one to take the responsibility, there is no need to let innocent people bear the burden they could not bear in the first place? In other words this absurd idea that everyone has to take the blame caused by a mistake done by one person has lost its place in society, becoming obsolete.

The second thing is the famous ‘Yao Jiaxin homicide case’. Regarding this case, I don’t have any way to defend him, and I don’t think he has any grounds to be defended, because not killing people is the ultimate bottom line. I have written several articles on the case, and my attitude is very clear. I just want to express some of my thoughts on the social security question through this incident and arguments of those defending Yao Xiajin. Their argument is that current Chinese traffic laws encourage the ‘killing is better than hurting’ mentality, and thus it’s a ‘murder through evil laws’. From my personal judgement, if you only criticise from this angle, you could suspect the laws of any country to be ‘evil’. But the reason they’re saying this is that the compensation due to the family of a dead person is a fixed amount to be paid once. Whereas the compensation due to a personal seriously injured or disabled is hard to estimate, as there may be high medical costs and living expenses. In other words, this argument does not really allow us to say that traffic laws are ‘evil laws’, or that the term is justified.

However, there’s many drivers who believe that ‘killing is better than injuring’, or fear that they will have to pay enormous compensations to the injured person. Obviously, this problem can’t be solved exclusively by reviewing traffic laws. Not only does it require to educate people in thinking that ‘thou shalt not kill’, but other systems should be there to support. On the one hand, the criminal code can punish such vicious killers, on the other hand, improving the social security system will reduce the fears of both parties – both the perpetrator and the victim. Just think, if there was a complete social security system, how many people would think ‘killing is better than hurting’ after a traffic accident, or even feel complete despair? 而所谓“农民难缠”的说法还能有多少蛊惑性呢?

The problem does not end there. I discovered that many of the netizens who defend Yao Jiaxin as a ‘killer through evil laws’ are also fierce critics of the welfare state. They’re very eloquent on either issue, but hold contradictory or conflicting views when it comes to both. Unfortunately, it’s common to see netizens hold such conflicting views.

Finally, I wanted to say something which may not align with most people’s views on social security systems, but I think that it’s precisely through the development of a universal social security system that we will get rid of bondage to power.

Source: 1510, 10 August, 2012

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About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact [email protected]