Share |

Review of ‘Universalism versus Selection’ by Richard Titmuss

‘Universalism versus Selection’ was written by Richard Titmuss in the late sixties with the intention of capturing the nature of arguments in the debate between the principle of universal social services and the principle of selective social services in the context of the welfare policies adopted by Britain in the post war period. The author seeks to expand the debate beyond its binary character by elaborating upon the general perception of the need for social services and the very nature of such services and arrive at a conclusion that is not a simplistic endorsement on one principle over the over. The article also tries to highlight the immaturity of the concept which claims welfare to be a burden that can be limited by opting for selection principle.
The article has a singular flow in which the author begins with the rationale for welfare policies and concludes with his assessment of the debate. In the initial paragraphs the article talks about the rationale for implementing welfare policies with a Universalist perspective in Britain. It presents a two-fold explanation for the development of universalism and social rights. At this point, the article ventures to investigate the very nature of social services, in whose delivery the debate of universalism versus selection is embedded. An analytical framework is presented to help the reader fathom the nature of social services and welfare policies, with their attendant complexities. Next, the article talks about the oversimplified nature of choices in the universalism versus selection debate. To negate this oversimplification and expand the scope of the debate, the author investigates into the falsely held notions of social services and subsequently highlights what in his opinion are the real challenges in welfare policy, as opposed to the simple choice of one principle over the other. At various points in the article, the author takes recourse of practical examples to better illustrate and support his theoretical propositions.
There are two key arguments which the author presents in the article. The first of these is – the concept of welfare is a not simple, with many complexities in the conceptualization and implementation of social services and hence it is naïve to boil down the problem of welfare to an ideological choice between universalism and selection. This argument is well substantiated by raising some questions that are central to the understanding of the nature & functioning of social policies and the huge diversity of the kind of benefits of social services. The argument is well made and the reader is provided a vivid picture of the enormity of the concept of welfare. Further, instances of thousands of definitions of means-tested poverty and financial hardships being used in Britain are cited to illustrate the level of sophistication in the operation of welfare system. In the second key argument the article showcases welfare policies as a compensation to its customers for the ‘disservices’ caused to them by the society as opposed to the model portraying welfare providing benefits to its customers, which are a burden on the society. The articles highlights several such disservices which some people had to bear as a cost of the progress of others. Little is left to the imagination of reader as to what the article is referring to when it talks about ‘disservices’ – many social phenomena are cited in the article which demonstrate how disservice has come about to a section of the people. Continuing on the theme of ‘disservices’ the article tries to pin down the causal agents for it for the purpose of extracting the cost of redress, which is construed as welfare by many, welfare from the causal agents or agencies. The author goes on to say that there is a multiplicity of causal agents or agencies and that they are too diffuse make it impossible to conduct such and exercise. Some empirical evidence to substantiate this claim is lacking.
Both the key arguments are in line with the overarching effort of the article to highlight the complexity of the welfare concept and the ingenuousness of looking at welfare providing benefits to its customers. The article also cites the work of other authors such as Beveridge, Newsom and Plowden which adds extra credibility to the claims made in it. The key arguments (especially the one portraying welfare as a necessarily a universal compensation for the disservices in the light of unidentifiable causal agents of disservice) allows the reader make a seamless transition to arrive at the intention of the entirety of the article – that of expansion of the notion of welfare beyond the binary opposition between universalism and selection. Without this logical chain of arguments which ultimately lead to the implicit intention of the article, the reader would have only understood the expansion of concept of welfare (to include both universalism and selection) without grasping the necessity or justification for such an expansion.
The article concludes by noting that the challenge isn’t to pick either universalism over selection or vice-versa. Rather, the challenge is ‘to identify the infrastructure for universalist services needed in order to provide a framework of values and opportunity bases within and around which can be developed socially acceptable selective services aiming to discriminate positively, with minimum of stigma, in favour of those whose needs are greatest.’[1] The article as a whole is well presented with a singular flow, where the reader doesn’t have to refer to previous sections while reading on, although there is no hint of the ultimate point that is made by the author before the very end of the article. This may well have been by design in order to avoid developing a bias in the reader towards the final conclusion and allow the reader to weigh the merit of the article purely based on the strength of the arguments made in support of the conclusion. The language of the article is exquisite, keeps the reader engrossed in the article and precisely delivers to the reader what was intended by the author, without any scope for misinterpretation. It is a good article which stimulates the mind of the reader to go beyond the prevailing (in the sixties) notions of welfare and provides an alternate understanding.