If this chaos does not make us rethink our idea of the good society, whatever will?

<span>Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

‘Out of intermittent labour spring our gravest woes. It produces in the labourer intermittent energy; the off-days become habitual; with indolence comes intemperance; with uncertainty of employment comes recklessness about the future; from these result pauperism and the whole series of mental and physical infirmities that are the creatures of pauperism.”

So wrote Charles Stewart Loch, professor of economic science and statistics at King’s College, London, and secretary of the Charity Organisation Society, in his 1883 book How to Help Cases of Distress. A great believer in the distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, Loch saw “intermittent labour” – casual work – as the curse of the late Victorian economy, the consequence of which was the “demoralisation” of the worker, his disengagement from a moral framework and a regression to his innate tendency to “indolence”, “intemperance” and “recklessness” and eventually to pauperism.

It was a belief rooted in the “Poor Laws” vision of the world. The 1834 Poor Law required claimants of poor relief to be incarcerated in a workhouse and those capable of work subject to hard labour. In the early 20th century, incarceration was replaced by means-tested assistance (which was much cheaper) but the stigma of applying for relief, and the sense that the poor had to be forced to work, was retained.

The idea of poverty as the product of individual moral failure has become re-embedded in political debate

A century and a half after Loch, not only has “intermittent labour”, which we now euphemistically call the “flexible labour market”, become a feature again of the economy but the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, and the idea of poverty as the product of individual moral failure, has become re-embedded in political debate.

Next month marks the 80th anniversary of perhaps the most important report on the question of how to tackle poverty and unemployment – Social Insurance and Allied Services, better known as the Beveridge report. An economist and Liberal politician, William Beveridge set out to confront what he saw as the “Five Great Evils” that plagued society: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Drawing on much contemporary debate, Beveridge argued for state intervention to create full employment, social security for the unemployed, a national health service, universal secondary school education and a national programme of social housebuilding. The report set the framework for the postwar welfare state.

For all the significance of the Beveridge report, however, it was still in many ways rooted in the old Poor Law view of labour and poverty. The very labelling of joblessness as “idleness” revealed the degree to which Beveridge harked back to the old Victorian moralist vision. What he desired was to rationalise the labour market to make best use of the workforce. He was as opposed to collective bargaining and “restrictive” trade union practices as he was to unemployment and to “intermittent labour”.

Beveridge set out to create a social security system that helped contain what was regarded as “social dependency” – the failure of self-reliance – at minimal public cost. “Beveridge’s attack on idleness,” the public policy academic Noel Whiteside observes, “was essentially a moral crusade against wasted human capacity that undermined his desire to synchronise personal wellbeing with economic efficiency.” The moral view of poverty maintained a ghostly presence not just in the Beveridge report but in the postwar welfare state, too.

From the 1980s, the Keynesian consensus on which Beveridge’s vision of economic rationality was built broke apart. The labour market was deregulated, public services privatised, union resistance broken and the welfare state degraded. In this new era, the market, not the state, would ensure the rational use of labour.

A new economic era it may have been, but the old idea of poverty as a moral rather than a political issue, the consequence of individual behaviour rather than of society policy, gained greater purchase. From New Labour’s crusade against “problem families” to George Osborne’s condemnation of “skivers… sleeping off a life on benefits”, the division between the deserving and undeserving poor, which had never fully disappeared, has been resurrected.

Free market libertarians often fail to see that flourishing requires a community within which to flourish

What has been missing in much of this history of public policy is the sense of “human flourishing”, of the idea that the role of the state should be not simply to rationalise resources, coerce the poor and keep public assistance to the minimum, but to enable people to live full and flourishing lives.

The idea of “human flourishing” is deeply embedded within philosophy and psychology but much less so within politics. It is not that the concept is ignored in politics. Much political discourse is an implicit debate about how best to ensure flourishing. And there have been moments, such as in the immediate postwar years, when the question seemed much more urgent and the answers appeared more graspable.

But the issue of flourishing has rarely been explicitly discussed and, when it has been, it has all too often been in a distorted or constrained fashion. Communitarians, for instance, such as the US philosopher Michael Sandel, often put great store on the idea and on the importance of communities in nurturing such flourishing. But their view of communities is often narrow and exclusive and their understanding of liberties restricted. Free market libertarians sometimes talk of flourishing, which they view in terms of greater individual freedom, but often fail to see that flourishing requires a community within which to flourish and that labour is more than a commodity to be exploited.

The significance of the idea of human flourishing is that it allows us to link the individual to the social, as well as forcing us to think about both material improvements and the social bonds that give meaning and significance to our lives. It can also force us to rethink policy priorities. Many of the neglected areas of contemporary public policy – a proper system of state-funded childcare, a well-resourced public transport system, a decent framework for social care for the elderly – are central to any conception of flourishing.

The current moment of political chaos and disintegration may seem an inauspicious point at which to inspire a debate about flourishing. It may also be, however, the ideal moment in which to reorient the very framework within which we think about public policy. Eighty years after the Beveridge report, it is time we did.

• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist