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Children killed in pursuit of welfare benefits

Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal, Summer 2013.

Polyamorist Michael Philpott killed his children in pursuit of welfare benefits.


The revelations set off a furious debate about the indiscriminate nature of state welfare. The Daily Mail, for example, led with a headline about Philpott that has since become notorious: VILE PRODUCT OF WELFARE UK. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, a Tory, remarked, rather mildly in the circumstances, that the case raised questions about the propriety of subsidizing the lifestyles of Philpott and of people who lived as he did.

Angry responses followed from defenders of the welfare system. The Labour Party accused the chancellor of using a “tragic” case for low political ends. A well-known liberal journalist, Owen Jones, observed that only 190 cases were known in which people dependent on benefits had ten or more children, adding that Philpott’s example told us no more about welfare recipients than the case of Harold Shipman, a doctor who murdered as many as 200 of his elderly patients, told us about the medical profession. Unusually, Jones—who believes in the social causation of almost everything—blamed the children’s deaths entirely on Philpott, calling him a “monster.” A curious ideological reversal had taken place: those who normally made individuals accountable for their conduct blamed society (in the form of the welfare state) for the crime; those who normally blamed society blamed the individual.

A couple of observations may help to clarify matters. The first is that the welfare system as currently constituted was almost certainly a necessary condition for much of Philpott’s conduct, though, of course, not a sufficient one. Philpott was able-bodied and capable of work. Even before the arson case made him infamous, he had appeared twice on television programs—first requesting larger public housing for his family, and then being told that the TV show had found three jobs for him. He showed up for none. By then, the generous benefit system had rendered work economically illogical; his children had become his milch cows. But while the state had made his conduct possible—and profitable—it did not require it. The great majority of people on welfare do not behave as he did, as Jones rightly noted.

Second, [...] the extreme frivolity of the English criminal-justice system facilitated his conduct at least as much as the welfare system did. [...]
If the criminal-justice system had worked properly, Philpott would never have been at liberty to father, let alone kill, his children. A sentence of 50 years’ imprisonment for his first brutal crime would not have been unfair or disproportionate; and even if he had been released from prison earlier, it should have been on the understanding that if he ever so much as laid a finger on anyone again, he would spend the rest of his life behind bars. Instead, he learned that nearly killing someone was of little account in the eyes of the law—an impression strengthened by the passage of time, as the memory of his three years in prison became foreshortened and as repeated acts of violence on his part met with slaps on the wrist.

[Third,] Philpott lived in a part of society in which sexual mores had loosened, without the desire for exclusive sexual possession having diminished—rather the reverse. This poisonous combination, a virtual invitation to violence, has been encouraged by social and fiscal reforms over the past decades, reforms that resulted not from pressure from below but from demands from above (at least if intellectuals and the political class are considered “above”). Moreover, the reforms—for example, discouraging marriage as a protective institution against man’s feral nature—were generally promoted by those who also favored the indefinite expansion of the welfare state and judicial leniency.

Philpott is not a typical product of these developments but their apotheosis: and apotheoses have their heuristic value. Not the welfare system alone, not judicial leniency alone, and not the jealousy consequent upon the sexual revolution alone produced Philpott; but all went into the witches’ brew from which he emerged. And he emerged from it not as something resembling an automatic and inevitable chemical reaction but rather as a human being reacting consciously to his environment and circumstances. When Owen Jones called Philpott a monster, he was perfectly correct, and monsters there will always be, simply because of inherent human variation; but he was a monster who met a congenial system in which monsters could flourish (if you can call how he lived flourishing).

The Philpott debate in Britain, however, has focused narrowly on what, if anything, the case tells us about our welfare system. What is undeniable is that the system was not intended to make lifestyles such as Philpott’s possible (even if not inevitable). Its purpose was to offer a safety net for people who could not help themselves and to extend a helping hand to those who, through no fault of their own, fell on hard times, until they could become independent again.

The argument that the case told us nothing about the welfare system implied that, give or take a Philpott or two, everything else about it was working well. This is preposterous, for exploitation and fraud are not the mere by-products of the system; they are its essence. At the height of the last (supposed) economic boom, in 2006, 2.9 million Britons of working age were allegedly too ill to work and were claiming sickness benefits. When the financial crisis broke in 2008, the government decided to investigate these claims. When it announced its intention, a third of the sick miraculously felt better straightaway and stopped making claims. Once the investigations began, only one in eight claimants turned out to be incapacitated to such an extent that he could not work.

It would therefore be a conservative guess that three-quarters of the claimants are medically capable of work, either full-time or part-time. But when subsidies are removed, real hardship often results because the subsidies have become essential to people’s lives and because, in removing them, mistakes inevitably will occur. We can be certain that those mistakes will receive a lot of publicity.

An important question is how and why such a situation could develop in the first place. Once again, the demand did not well up from below. Cui bono? Not the children of Michael Philpott, that’s for sure.

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