According to many politicians, removing benefits is necessary to compel the unemployed to work even if their children suffer as a consequence. What’s the origin of this idea?
There’s actually a rationality here that’s rooted in the bifurcated view of human nature that emerged in Anglo-American culture in tandem with the birth of a new political economy in the late 18th century.
In that setting, a free market society consisted of two ‘races:’ property owners and laborers. While the first embodied the high moral character of Enlightenment rationality, the latter, also known simply as ‘the poor’ because they had to work to survive, were designed not as moral actors but as people who were motivated only by base instincts. They could do little more than ‘think through the body.’
Then, as now, these two views of humanity—one noble and elevated, and the other biologized and crassly sexualized—conveniently supported a harsh set of social policies that aimed to abolish government assistance to the ‘undeserving’ poor, while preserving and enhancing the privileges accorded to their ‘deserving’ betters.
Karl Polanyi traced the origins of these ideas to the anti-welfare zealotry of Joseph Townsend—an 18th-century English clergyman—and Thomas Robert Malthus, one of the founders of classical economics. Both advocated for an end to ‘poor relief’ in favor of exposing the unemployed to the harsh disciplines of the market.