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«Contents Introduction Exclusion, Democracy and Justice Choice and Welfare Conclusion References CASEpaper 75 Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion ...»

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Individual Choice and Social Exclusion

Julian Le Grand



Exclusion, Democracy and Justice

Choice and Welfare



CASEpaper 75 Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion

December 2003 London School of Economics

Houghton Street

London WC2A 2AE

CASE enquiries – tel: 020 7955 6679 i Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion The ESRC Research Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) was established in October 1997 with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. It is located within the Suntory and Toyota International Centres for Economics and Related Disciplines (STICERD) at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and benefits from support from STICERD. It is directed by Howard Glennerster, John Hills, Kathleen Kiernan, Julian Le Grand, Anne Power and Carol Propper.

Our Discussion Paper series is available free of charge. We also produce summaries of our research in CASEbriefs, and reports from various conferences and activities in CASEreports. To subscribe to the CASEpaper series, or for further information on the work of the Centre and our seminar series, please

contact the Centre Administrator, Jane Dickson, on:

Telephone: UK+20 7955 6679 Fax: UK+20 7955 6951 Email: j.dickson@lse.ac.uk Web site: http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/case  Julian Le Grand All rights reserved. Short sections of text, not to exceed two paragraphs, may be quoted without explicit permission provided that full credit, including  notice, is given to the source.

ii Editorial Note Julian Le Grand is the Richard Titmuss Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and aco-director of the ESRC Research Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion.

Abstract Why is social exclusion a problem? What about ‘voluntary’ social exclusion – when an individual chooses to exclude him or herself from the wider society?

Brain Barry has addressed these questions in a recent CASE book, arguing that social exclusion, voluntary or involuntary, offends against social justice and social solidarity. This paper contends that Barry’s arguments are weak for voluntary social exclusion and argues that, perhaps surprisingly, a better case can be made for treating voluntary social exclusion as a problem on welfarist grounds.

JEL number: I30 Key words: social exclusion, poverty, choice

–  –  –

Why is social exclusion a problem? Why should we care about an individual ‘who does not participate in key activities of the society in which he or she lives’ – one definition of the socially excluded (Burchardt, Le Grand and Piachaud, 2002, p.30)? Does our concern arise from some kind of simple utilitarian or welfarist calculus: the excluded are miserable, and therefore we need to include them in society so as raise their welfare and thereby promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number? But what if the socially excluded are not in fact miserable? After all, not everyone necessarily wishes to participate in the ‘key activities of society’, whatever these may be. In particular, what if an individual or a group of individuals have voluntarily chosen to exclude themselves? What of the recluse who prefers solitude to human company, the religious sect that values its exclusivity, the young men on a run down public housing estate who prefer to join a criminal gang rather than go to university?

At the other end of the social scale, what of the rich who lock themselves away in gated communities? All of these individuals and groups may not be participating in the key activities of society; but do they all constitute a social problem? If so, is it the same kind of social problem as those who are socially excluded for reasons beyond their control, and what kind of problem is that?

Brian Barry has addressed some of these questions in a recent contribution to a CASE study of social exclusion (Barry, 2002). There he related social exclusion to the issues of justice and democracy. But the questions are also of even more general concern. The problem of the relationship between choice, poverty and social exclusion has bedevilled academic political and popular debate on the issue for (literally) millennia. As far back as the Roman Empire politicians and policy-makers have wanted to distinguish between the ‘undeserving poor’ (those poor from choice) from the ‘deserving’ poor (those who are poor through no fault of their own). With the current resurgence of belief in individual agency and responsibility (Deacon and Mann, 1999), the political interest in attaching notions of responsibilities to rights, and the contributions of Amartya Sen (1994, 1995) and others emphasising the importance of the distribution of ‘capabilities’ rather than actual incomes, the debate concerning the importance of choice and its relationship to distributional outcomes has re-ignited.

So in this paper I want to pursue the general question as to the relationship between individual choice and social exclusion, and in doing so to shed light on the question as to why social exclusion is a problem worthy of concern. I begin with Barry’s arguments as to why social exclusion is wrong from the points of view of justice and democracy, and relate these to the question of choice. I conclude that, whatever their merits as arguments for labelling involuntary social exclusion as a problem, they do not provide a strong case for treating voluntary social exclusion as one. I then demonstrate that, perhaps surprisingly, a better case can be made on welfarist grounds for viewing some forms of voluntary social exclusion as a proper subject of social concern, especially that with long-term implications for individuals’ futures. There is a brief concluding section.

Exclusion, Democracy and Justice

Brian Barry begins his discussion of why social exclusion is undesirable with a definition of social exclusion originally put forward by the present author, as follows: ‘An individual is socially excluded if (a) he or she is geographically resident in a society, (b) he or she cannot participate in the normal activities of citizens in that society, and (c) he or she would like to so participate, but is prevented from doing so by factors beyond his or her control’ (Burchardt, Le Grand and Piachaud, 1999, p.229). Under this interpretation, voluntary social exclusion is excluded (so to speak), because of condition (c). Barry accepts this definition; but he also points out that it is important to distinguish conceptually between voluntary and involuntary social exclusion, and draws out the implications for both types of social exclusion in his subsequent argument.

Barry puts forward two reasons why social exclusion is wrong. The first is because exclusion dilutes social solidarity – defined by Barry as a sense of fellow feeling that extends beyond people with whom one is in personal contact.

Social exclusionary processes do this because they prevent the excluded from sharing in the commonality of experience that is the foundation of social solidarity. And this in turn is a bad thing, partly because social solidarity is ‘intrinsically valuable’, and partly because an absence of social solidarity creates a problem for democratic politics. It is intrinsically valuable because ‘human lives tend to go better in a society whose members share some kind of existence’. It affects democratic politics, because in democratic societies, majority interests dominate. In a society without social solidarity, there is no reason to suppose those interests will coincide with those of the socially excluded; indeed, depending on the reason for the exclusion, the interests of the majority and the excluded are likely to diverge. Hence democratic procedures will result in majorities having both the means and – due to the absence of solidarity - the inclination to oppress socially excluded minorities.

Barry (2002, p.24). Actually, this sounds more like a consequentialist justification for social solidarity (and a utilitarian one at that) than an ‘intrinsic’ one; but let that pass.

However, in Barry’s view, social exclusion is not only wrong because it violates social solidarity and thereby harms democracy. It is also unjust. The injustice arises because social exclusion can create inequality of opportunity, especially with respect to education and work. Obviously, the poverty associated with most forms of social exclusion creates educational barriers: hunger and malnutrition, crowded conditions at home, family pressures to go out and earn money, all make it difficult for children in poor families to make the most of their educational opportunities. But also the social homogeneity of socially excluded communities creates educational problems of its own. So, for instance, children going to local schools with a large number of pupils from socially deprived neighbourhoods will, other things being equal, perform less well than if they had attended schools with a critical mass of middle class pupils.

The problem is not only one of education. To live in social isolation or to live in a socially isolated group cuts the individual concerned off from the networks that are often key to obtaining jobs. Barry quotes William Julius Wilson on inner city isolation, which ‘makes it much difficult for those who are looking for jobs to be tied into the job network’: a phenomenon that, as Barry points out, is not confined to the inner city. Further, the lack of job opportunities itself depresses educational aspirations, thus contributing further to inequalities in educational opportunity.

Barry also argues that a further aspect of injustice created by social exclusion concerns political opportunities and hence the workings of democracy. As with education, the deprivation associated with social exclusion can impede people’s ability to engage in political activities. And, as with jobs, the absence of contacts with social networks significantly impedes both their knowledge of, and their participation in, politics outside election times. All of this damages democracy.

This emphasis on social justice as equality of opportunity is very welcome to those of us who have argued for some time that social injustice or inequity was best interpreted in terms of inequalities in opportunities or choice sets.

However, its use in the context of the justification for treating social exclusion as a problem does itself create a difficulty for voluntary social exclusion for it implies that those who voluntarily exclude themselves are not a social problem.

Thus the individual who makes a conscious, properly informed decision not to go to university or to take up a training opportunity, and in consequence ends up unemployed and living on a rundown public housing estate, may be socially Wilson (1987, p.60), quoted in Barry (2002, p.20).

Le Grand (1984, 1991), Arneson (1989), Cohen (1989).

excluded. But his or her exclusion is not socially problematic because, as a consequence of his or her own choices, it is not unjust.

Barry is aware of this issue, and indeed draws attention to it (Barry, 2002, p.23).

He argues that it does not apply to the second pillar of his justificatory edifice:

the appeal to social solidarity. For solidarity is clearly violated by social exclusion; whether the exclusion is voluntary or involuntary is irrelevant.

However, it has to be said that, even here, the possibility of individual choice presents a problem. For if some individuals have voluntarily decided to exclude themselves from society, any move to include them is going to be against their expressed will. Hence such moves are likely to involve a measure of coercion;

and that is unlikely to foster feelings in the people concerned of social solidarity.

So the possibility that individuals may choose to exclude themselves from normal society creates problems for Barry’s two justifications for the overall undesirability of social exclusion. Voluntary social exclusion is not unjust or inequitable, because it arises from choice. And, although voluntary exclusion may indeed violate social solidarity, any attempt to correct the situation is likely to create resentment and thereby dilute solidarity yet further.

Choice and Welfare

So if Barry’s arguments for the undesirability of social exclusion based on the concerns of social justice and social solidarity do not apply to voluntary exclusion, can any justification for regarding exclusion by choice as problematic be found elsewhere? One possibility is a ‘welfarist’ one: that is, the impact of social exclusion on the welfare of individuals. Now it might at first seem curious to consider welfarism as a possible source of such justification; for individuals who choose to exclude themselves are presumably doing it because they want to. Hence their welfare is raised by voluntary social exclusion; and so it would appear that such exclusion cannot be a problem from a welfarist perspective.

However, there are a number of situations where these arguments might not hold, and indeed where the opposite case could be made. The most obvious of these is what we might term ‘externalities’: when the act of voluntary social exclusion, although increasing the chooser’s own welfare, damages other people’s welfare. An example would be young men joining a gang that engaged in crime, vandalism or other anti-social activities. Another might be the wealthy locking themselves away in gated estates, thereby physically depriving others of what could be communal facilities and creating resentment in the rest of the community. Indeed Barry’s appeal to the ‘intrinsic’ value of social solidarity could also be justified on externality grounds: if social solidarity contributes to everyone’s welfare, then for some people to opt out diminishes that welfare.

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