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Remodelling the moral order in the Netherlands.


The moral order is an old-fashioned term to describe some aspects of social cohesion. It refers to commitments, whether mutual or not, for support, help an solidarity. This dimension of society is always there but, bypassing a few exemptions such as Etzioni (1988), is hardly studied by contemporary social scientists. Looking more closely to this dimension of society is more imperative, since the economic recession at the end of the 1970s has affected this order and the position of a large number of individuals to a significant degree. Usually the consequences of the recession are described in terms of highly standardized economic variables such as the decline of per capita output inflation or unemployment, or caught in social terms such as poverty, immigration and crime. In this article I will focus on the moral order in The Netherlands and highlight a different type of relationship: that of the moral revitalization of a society, in an attempt to recover the economy. To many, thi may be an obvious relationship. We should remember, however, that the relationship between economics and culture, to put it in more general terms, no only constitutes an under-researched area (see Gudeman, 1986), but also that th moral response to recession differs from society to society. Since the process under consideration is an ongoing one, the description used here is restricted to the form it took in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the first section of this article I will outline briefly the general moral problem the recession produced Next, the response to the problem will be described in more detail for three selected categories. Finally, I shall make a few comments on the way the moral order is managed.

Economic Recession and Moral Degeneration

The economic recession, which affected the Dutch economy from the end of the 1970s, produced some changes which had profound effects on the society at large One of the most important consequences was the increase of unemployment to levels unprecedented in post-war Holland. Several mechanisms led to the high unemployment level, of which two are worth mentioning. First, there was a process, simultaneously, of both the concentration and the closing down of firms. The number of available jobs declined, which led to a massive outflow of labourers in which those who were not performing well, due to their physical or psychological condition, and migrants, were over-represented. Second, the numbe of jobs also declined due to technological innovation, a process which was strongly encouraged by the Dutch government (De Neubourg, 1992). It was believe that the adoption of new technologies was crucial to arresting the deterioratin international competitiveness and hence for the recovery of the economy. Once economic growth was restored, the demand for labour would expand. So, in this view, high unemployment, although disastrous for the individual and for society would be a temporary phenomenon.

Another consequence of the recession was the attempt to reduce the budget deficit of the state. To describe what kind of measures were taken to balance the budget is outside the scope of this article. For the purpose of the argument, suffice to say that one area where cuts were made was (and is) the social security system. This system consists of two parts: one which insures people with a labour past, and includes arrangements for people who have stoppe working because of high age and/or sickness, or have been rejected for work as medically or psychologically unfit. This part of the system is handled by the private sector and is financed out of compulsory contributions from the employers and employees. The other part of the system is a matter of state support, financed out of taxes, and is known as bijstand (social assistance and support). Part of the bijstand is related to the labour market. Youngsters who have no labour past at all, and other unemployed people who lost or depleted their insurance rights, for example, may apply for bijstand. This arrangement i abbreviated as RWW. The part not related to the labour market involves people who are exempt from work, such as mothers who prefer to raise their children. The market and non-market related elements of state support are legally founded as the Algemene Bijstandswet (ABW). Unless stated otherwise, in the following I am referring to the ABW when discussing the position of different categories of people.

In general, the social security system was intended to be a safety net: every person legally residing in The Netherlands without income, either due to unemployment, sickness or divorce, is entitled to a benefit. If the claim is based on a recent labour past, the level of the benefit is related to the last earned income. If a recent labour past is missing, the claimant is entitled to minimum income. The level of the minimum income should enable the recipients to have a decent life. The concept of a "decent life" was established during the 1960s, a period of prosperity. The fact that this idea was set as the lower limit of the Dutch welfare state was a matter of pride rather than distress. Society should take care of the socially weak properly and, in fact, does so. Its formal institutionalization was interpreted as solidarity, between those working and able to support themselves and those having the misfortune not to b able to participate in society, for whatever reason. The establishment of the ABW was considered a major landmark in the development of Dutch moral society.

The reverse side of this arrangement was the (moral) obligation for anybody depending on social security to do the utmost to find an appropriate job. The determination of an "appropriate job" was left to the discretion of the persons in question. The willingness to accept a job is still a powerful condition for claiming a benefit. Altogether, it was widely felt that there was a morally hig level of social security and in a decent society this was not a matter of charity but a historically and culturally acquired (citizen's) right. The exercise of this right was encouraged. There was no pressure whatsoever to accept a job or to look for a job rather than to raise children. Everyone who claimed to be without the bare means of subsistence was considered as almost a victim of society, and taken care of. This attitude was also considered to be a form of decency.

Table I reflects the growth of the population depending on insurance or state social security during the 1980s. The WAO is an insurance designed for working people who are rejected as medically or psychologically unfit. The categories i the table, being a national charge, are the RWW and the ABW.

As a result of the increased unemployment the social security system became financially heavily taxed. For a long time the government was reluctant to reform the system. There were several reasons for this. Dutch Social Democrats, who claim to have accomplished this level of civilization, together with elements of the Christian Democrats, were strongly opposed to any cuts. Another reason to postpone reform of the social security system was, no doubt, the general expectation that when the economy recovers, the unemployed will be absorbed by the expanding economy and hence contribute to state revenue. In the meantime, the share of the dependent population increased, predominantly becaus the system was used by the private sector to get rid of the less productive workers and thus increase labour productivity, but also as a result of natural increment of the population, the immigration of ethnic minorities, and the increase in the number of people living singly. At the beginning of the 1990s, the ratio of the number of working persons to the number of claimants was 100:85.
Table I. Claimants Depending on Insurance or Social Security Benefits

Growth of selected categories of claimants, 1980-1991, x 1,000 persons

                                       1980       1985       1990       1991

Total market related claimants(a)     1,119      1,612      1,729      1,750

WAO                                     500        563        621        643

Unemployed                              233        646        575        561
RWW(b)                                   83        397        352        323

Total ABW(c)                            117        183        176        176
single mothers                           71        112        105        105
single women                             26         37         45         48

a Annual average
b Households
c Living at home, |is less than~ 65 years old and excluding RWW. Numbers at the
end of the year.

Source: Statistisch Jaarboek (1993, pp. 131/313).

By the middle of the 1980s, economic prospects were favourable. Growth was positive, although erratic, inflation was close to zero, labour productivity wa internationally high due to, among other things, the expulsion of the low skilled, the aged and those in the WAO; the deterioration of international competitiveness was arrested and trade unions were co-operative. In spite of this modest optimism, the number of unemployed remains more or less stable. Although the government had managed to reduce the budget deficit, frustrations started to accumulate. Tax rates, as well as compulsory contributions, are relatively high in The Netherlands. Unless the size of the dependent population is reduced, there is no prospect of lowering the gap between gross and net income. The working population, and especially the well-to-do sections, were complaining about this. This reflected both an eroding solidarity with the dependent population and a weakening of the electoral base of the Social Democratic party, not to mention the position of the trade unions. The proposed solution was to increase the degree of labour participation, especially of wome and migrants, which is low compared with other Western European countries. It was thus expected that the outflow would simultaneously relieve the social security system and contribute to the tax income. A high level of unemployment was disastrous for both the working population (high compulsory rates to be contributed) and political parties (electoral loss, budget deficit). On top of that, a number of issues related to unemployment emerged, which demanded additional expenditures. Without trying to be exhaustive, we may mention the stagnating unemployment policy which induced a continuous stream of projects fo the unemployed. Second, there was an increase of registered (petty) crime which was linked to unemployed youngsters, especially of migrant origins. Third, it was noticed that areas of old cities, mostly inhabited by unemployed, were subject to rapid physical depredation and called for special urban regeneration programmes. Finally, there was the threat of a social split which might divide society into "haves and have nots", if this situation lasts long. It was feared that when that became a structural feature, it would aggravate most of the existing problems and undermine the cohesion of society.

Gradually, a public discussion on the public spirit of citizens started, which is still going on. The general feeling can be summarized as that people lack involvement with government and society. This fact of "civil indifference" is hardly disputed. The major reason advanced for this regretted phenomenon was th fact that over the past decades the Dutch have been losing bonds and ties. Families were disintegrating in favour of people living singly, a process calle individualizing. Their mentality has changed: they were focused on themselves alone, have become sly and lack responsibility. Society has become too permissive, which has resulted in a moral degeneration and this was not only concentrated in the dependent population, but also reflected in its increased size. The financing of this through premiums and taxes is considered intolerable. The general feeling was that the moral order of society was at stake. This situation should be restored by re-establishing a proper public spirit. In due course the responsibility of individuals or groups of individual was emphasized rather than their rights. This reflects a major shift in the public discussion. In particular, those depending on social security came under the suspicion that they take advantage of the system.

As this shift marks an important turn in political morality, one may wonder how it came about. During the recession it was predominantly the Social Democrats who were defending the socially weak against the attack from the parties at the centre of the political spectrum. They were in a convenient position to do so, not only because they were ideologically equipped for this role, but also because they constituted the parliamentary opposition. The 1980s can be characterized as a battle between the "non-nonsense government" and the "compassionate" Social Democratic opposition. The election of 1989 changed this picture. Social Democracy moved into government as a coalition partner, and all of a sudden they had to get rid of the image of being "political softies". They came under pressure to demonstrate that they were perfectly capable of dealing with social problems. At least this was one of the considerations that the part leader insisted on from the office of Minister of Finance. Shortly after their entrance into the administration, the most important spokesman of the party appeared to share the ideas of their coalition partner which they had previousl rejected. The change in the public climate was strikingly labelled as the emergence of a new orthodoxy (Oude Engberink, 1992, p. 35). It is this politica marriage between Social and Christian Democracy which accounts for the remarkable consensus, after 1989, with regard to the reduction of the budget deficit, by cutting down the level of welfare of the dependent population.

Before proceeding, I would like to introduce the concept of norm images which captures the headline of my argument. The concept was originally used by the Dutch anthropologist H. Hoetink in a number of studies of race relations in the Caribbean. There he was interested in the appreciation of physical appearance, hence the term somatic norm image which he defines as: "The complex of physical (somatic) characteristics which are accepted by a group as its norm and ideal" (Hoetink, 1971, p. 120). This concept can be modified and expanded into a cultural norm image to describe a behaviour which might be both real and desirable. Cultural norm images are often implicit images about children, partners, the unemployed or citizens. They are by definition normative since they express the collective views prevailing in cultures or subcultures. These images are not static, however. They may change over time, and they usually do. But the idea I wish to convey is that there are cultural norm images at any point in time which people try to realize and use as a criterion in judgements. A cultural norm image is a conception of man as he/she is or should be. Thus th whole discussion on the public spirit of citizens can be captured as an attempt either to establish a new political or cultural norm image, or to restore old variations of it.

The Politics of Frustration

In this section I will briefly outline the changes of the position of the unemployed, the modern poor and migrants. These three categories of claimants are singled out because they carry the blame for being responsible for the high expenditure with which the social security system is burdened. Worse, the alleged moral degeneration is concentrated on these categories. In each case I will attempt to pinpoint the underlying norm image.

The Unemployed

In order to "control" the size of unemployment, two measures were introduced. The first was to revise the definition of being unemployed. While the initial definition was based on 15 hours unemployment per week, in 1983 it was decided to extend the number of hours to 20. This administrative operation was accompanied by exempting people above the age of 57 from five years of registration at the labour exchange. The assessment was that their prospect in the labour market was bleak, not only because of their relatively high age, but also due to their generally low level of formal education. Registration as unemployed as well as job mediation will have little effect. They remain entitled to financial benefit without the obligation to look for, or accept, a job.

After 1983, the level of unemployment remained at an alarming level. How could this be accounted for? There were two related approaches to this question of stagnant unemployment, an institutional and a cultural view. According to the first view, the level of financial benefit was too high compared with the net earned (minimum) wage. Therefore, the unemployed were devoid of the incentive t look actively for a job. What had to be done, according to the adherents of thi position, was to get the incentive right by lowering the level of the benefit, However, it was recognized that the jobs generated in the economy were, to a significant degree, part-time jobs and, moreover, required a relatively high level of education which the majority of the unemployed could not meet. So ther was no point in lowering the standard of living of the dependent population. Even so, the centre-right cabinets which were in power during the 1980s managed to make some cuts, thus saving on government expenditure. These cuts were "modest" compared with, for example, England. Friend and foe agreed that, as long as there was no acceptable alternative for them, a "decent" level of welfare for the socially weak should be provided. This position presupposes tha every unemployed person was desperately looking for a job. He responds adequately to economic incentives (alone) and whatever other trade offs were made, financial considerations will overrule. If he appears to be passive, that could be explained by external constraints such as the absence of proper jobs o high educational requirements which he is unable to meet.

The cultural view was launched already in 1984 by the Dutch Minister of Finance at that time and was part of the general mood of moral degeneration. He claimed that the unemployed prefer to have a cup of coffee with auntie Trudy rather tha look for a job. They were work-shy due to a lack of a work ethic and were profiting from the (too) high level of social benefits, subsidies and other facilities supplied by the government. Instead of using the social security system as a jumping sheet, they have turned it into a hammock. People ought to work and ff they are out of work, they should look for a job intensively. Work is preferred not only because of the income earned, but more particularly because work provides economic independence, fully fledged social participation and respectability in society. That is to say, work should also be striven for because of the moral value attached to it.

There is a difference and a similarity between the two positions outlined. In the institutional view the emphasis is on the rights of the citizen, i.e. the unemployed. In the cultural view, however, obligations are stressed. At the heart of both positions there is a common conception of man. In the first perspective it is presupposed that people are trying to maximize their income b trading in free time. In the cultural view, the unemployed are suspected of having a different attitude, and therefore they are prescribed to do so. Many o the training facilities offered by the government are geared to a change in attitudes and motivation of the unemployed. To paraphrase Hegel, if the cultura norm image does not fit the behaviour of the unemployed, so much the worse for the unemployed. They should live up to expectations or at least demonstrate the are willing to do so.

A few years after the allegation of the Minister, a report produced by order of the Ministry of Social Affairs countered the accusations (Kloosterman, 1987). According to that report, most unemployed were actively looking for a job irrespective of the duration of unemployment, low level of formal education and the aspired level of income. They appeared to have a highly developed work ethic. In other words, the allegation was far from true. This answer, however, was not convincing to its audience. Since the economy was performing well, the feeling became widespread and persistent that something must be wrong with the unemployed. As an extension of this feeling, criticism was also directed at the social security law executive agencies. These were too permissive and should be more strict in controlling claimants. In this social climate, the efforts of th unemployed, rather than those of the politicians, came into focus.

In 1989, new sociological findings, again commissioned by the Ministry of Socia Affairs, were reported (Kroft, 1989). According to this research, six behavioural types of the unemployed could be discerned. These were divided into four cultures of unemployment. That is to say, the behavioural categories were seen as a response to unemployment. The "cultures" consisted of people who:

(1) conformed to the dominant work ethic and stuck to the obligation to work in the legal labour market (about 50 per cent);

(2) were fatalistic because they lack any prospect of finding a job in either the black or legal labour market (15 per cent);

(3) were autonomous (26 per cent) because they accept mass unemployment but kee themselves busy with unpaid work; and

(4) were individualistic since they go their own way. They are indifferent to legal rules and calculating in their orientation.

Although the size of the last category was 15 per cent, it was singled out as the characteristic of the unemployed. In both the political and the public debate, there emerged a striking consensus that the unemployed were predominantly calculating and even illegally operating persons. This became a general suspicion which served increasingly as an undisputed assumption in the public discussion.

The Modern Poor

As already mentioned, the Dutch social security was (and still is) based on the normative concept that every dependent should be able to make a decent living. In response to the cuts in both the level of the benefit and the package of other facilities provided for (mainly subsidies for housing, medical aid and recreation), the question was raised whether this condition was met. A nationwide survey in the early 1980s indicated that the living conditions of those with minimum incomes were deteriorating (Oude Engberink, 1984). The major indicator of this was the development of problematic household debts: debts which tend to cumulate and which were beyond the control of the recipients. These people were labelled as the modern poor. Further research revealed that these constraints had behavioural consequences for the modern poor (Engbersen and Van der Veen, 1987). They tend to adjust themselves to a lower level of welfare by purchasing as cheaply as possible and buying, where possible, second hand goods, thus expending a lot of time in search of the best value opportunities; they reduce luxury, reduce their social contacts and cut their expenditures; they try to concentrate on the rent and nourishment for children and consolidate the television, refrigerator and telephone; they postpone payment of other financial obligations. In spite of these strategies and the support of relatives, most poor people found themselves in increasing social isolation.

These findings indicated that the social security system was failing to guarantee the recipients a decent living. In the mid-1980s, a special project was started to provide the poor with help. Such help included the rationalization of debts, counselling for budgeting and financial management fo the household level. Yet, the increased share of women in the ABW, and the subsequent financial burden on the state, overruled the general compassion for the poor. Even though nobody wishes to reduce the facilities for the poor, the idea gained ground that most people supported by the social security system abuse it. Not every claimant is poor, and some, if not most of them, display conspicuous consumption. That should be prevented for the sake of those who are really poor and need support.

Thus the suspicion is nowadays widespread that many single mothers and other women arrange a fake, administrative divorce. On the basis of this arrangement it is possible for a couple to have two incomes, either because both partners are claimants or by combining one benefit with income from work. At present there is a firm belief that fraud is widespread and the social security system is leaking financially. Acknowledging that the ABW leaves open a number of possibilities for fraud, the emphasis is on those people who are "no good". The lack a sense of proper morality. The major tool to combat suspected fraud is th linking of different computer databases in order to match the available data about clients and single out inconsistencies. Other tools in combating fraud consist of increasing control when applications are made for a benefit, and des and field investigation by the social security administration.

The underlying norm image consists of the idea that people, especially financially dependent people, should appreciate solidarity and not abuse it by lying to, or deceiving, the administration. The feeling is that people do divorce rashly because of the presence of a financial safety net. If two person deride to separate, the consequences should be paid for by them and not by society at large. If people are suffering from financial constraints they shoul reschedule their priorities and look for a job or cut their coat according to their cloth. Another presupposition is that they, like the unemployed, will respond sensitively, that is to say, rationally, to financial incentives and constraints.


Until the 1980s, migrants were seen as people who were temporarily in The Netherlands. Their desire to live according to their culture and customs was to a large extent facilitated. Special welfare institutions were established to cope with their problems, which were mainly located in the field of labour, housing, culture and drugs. Following the recession, this position changed dramatically. It was officially recognized that the different migrant communities were not in transit, but on their way to become permanent residents in The Netherlands. Their social integration became the main policy target in the 1980s. Their position in Dutch society was worrying, however. It appears that the proportion of unemployed migrants varies from a quarter to a half, two or three times the number of "white" unemployed. The re-entry in the labour market is hampered by the low educational level of the majority of the migrants the relatively high age of most migrants with a labour past, and last but not least, by racial discrimination at the point of both hiring and firing.

To overcome the obstacles mentioned, integration policy was concentrated on education and employment for migrants. Government agencies, as well as the special welfare institutions for migrants, directed their efforts to this end. The results were far from convincing. In part, this was due to the type of jobs generated which demanded a high level of formal training. Partly, the disappointing outflow was accounted for by persistent, albeit subtle, racial discrimination. So migrants remain dependent and part of the financial burden o the state. In public discussion people started to voice their resentment at this. Migrants were cossetted (doodgeknuffeld, "hugged to death", as has become the expression) by the government, have unwarranted privileges, are abusing the facilities available and, therefore, should be dealt with in a strict manner. I they want to stay permanently in The Netherlands, they should become fully-fledged citizens of this country. This opinion was enforced by the fact that there was a net immigration, mainly consisting of relatives of residing migrants and political refugees, which, together with a relative high birth rate, accelerated the growth of the migrant population. By the end of the 1980s the government recognized that the integration of migrants through the labour market was in deadlock. It requested the Scientific Counsel for Government Policy (WRR) for some recommendations.

The recommendations of the WRR were, by and large, a reflection of the feelings prevailing in society (WRR, 1989). It endorsed the view that the most important mechanisms of social integration should be the labour market and education, but took the position that government policy got stuck in targets. To overcome this stagnation it made a number of recommendations of which those concerning the labour market and education are relevant here. With regard to the labour market the idea was that the migrant population should be reflected proportionally in all sections of society, including the working population. To this end, affirmative action was rejected and the "Canadian model" proposed instead. According to this model, both employers and employees should set a target to increase the number of migrants in the labour force. In contrast to the idea of affirmative action, the target should be at the discretion of the firm. Publication of the achievements was obligatory, however.

The major recommendation to relieve the unemployment problem, however, referred to the supply side of the labour market, and more specifically to the migrants themselves. In the field of education, special facilities were proposed to reduce the number of drop-outs and to increase the flow of migrants into higher levels of education. The novelty of the recommendations consisted of committing migrants, irrespective of their age, to learn the Dutch language and of trainin or courses which would redirect their orientation towards Dutch society. The idea behind this recommendation was that they should participate fully in Dutch society. Knowledge of language and customs as well as social and cultural skill were crucial in achieving this. Both the migrant communities and the welfare institutions are partly held responsible for achieving this end. These recommendations came down to a part resocialization of migrants. Their attitude their language and culture require changes which would enable them to participate fully in Dutch society and hence reduce the number of claimants. Th blame for not having achieved this to a satisfactory degree was passed on to th migrants.

Restoring the Moral Order

The fact that the socially weak have become the main target of criticism reflected a shift of policy. As far as the unemployed are concerned, there continues to be an abundant supply of facilities designed for retraining and upgrading. At the same time, it is admitted that these people have been too lon without a job. Therefore attention is also paid to arrangements which will familiarize them with work discipline, while at the same time providing them with work experience. The arrangements may be tied to vocational training or se up for persons who are temporarily in the market. The executing agencies were instructed to be more strict in their control of claimants, and apply cuts and other sanctions when the unemployed appeared to be unconvincing in their attemp to find a job. With regard to the modern poor, the earlier compassion is slowly disappearing. There is less room for "luxury" and extra expenditure, which includes expenditure on migrants who, for a long time, managed to finance famil obligations overseas with the help of the government administration. The policy to combat fraud has been intensified. More personnel to these ends, closer control, the linking of databases of different administrations and harsher punishments are at present the major goals. Migrants fall into these categories since they constitute a significant proportion of both the unemployed and the ABW-claimants. Their position has not been affected much because the government concentrates on reducing immigration in order to control the size of the problem. But for them, too, the requirements to be accepted as equal citizens are raised.

It should be clear by now that there exists a clear-cut, causal relationship between budget policy and moral change. When the attempts of the government and the established part of society are frustrated, a process is set in motion in which categories of people are stigmatized in moral terms, the consequences of the alleged immorality are blown up and subsequently the persons involved are socially prosecuted. This is the general way in which crime, unemployment, divorce, scholarships, WAO and sickness, for example, have been dealt with up until the early 1990s. It appears to be an unofficial and unrecognized, albeit extremely successful, instrument of financial policy. In all cases the debate can be captured in terms of the institutional or the cultural, and more specifically whether the system (the labour market, the ABW law and the executing agencies, Dutch society) or the people are bad. In all cases the initial answer was rooted in a firm belief in people and later on abandoned in favour of a belief in institutions. It might be argued that systems become outdated as does morality, and that, therefore, the blame is to be placed on both sides. The point to direct attention towards, however, is why the morality is revitalized during a period of financial distress. It is suggested that before the recession there were no unemployed persons preferring to have coffee with their aunt, there were no claimants who were making fraudulent claims and that migrants, all of a sudden, derided to stay financially dependent. To put i another way, it is very likely that the diversity in morality, which is there beyond any doubt, was also present before the recession; it was only defined as a problem at the moment when government policy failed to achieve its targets.

A few aspects of the process need to be highlighted. The first relates to the underlying norm image which operates as a mechanism of social selection. Access to the achievements of society is allowed when people model themselves to the prevailing norm image. If they do not, they are condemned and relegated to lowe levels of welfare. This points to a cultural element, a moral selection, which creeps into the social stratification of society. The selection itself is justified by arguing that the social security system should be kept manageable, that is to say, that the expenditure should be covered, one way or another, for the sake of those who really need support. Even if this reasoning is taken for granted, one may argue that the justification presupposes the presence of a single cultural norm image which comes down to the proposition that people shar the same physical, cultural and psychological properties and strive with the same means for the same goals. There is reason to believe, however, that, especially in the lower sections of society, there is a diversity of (sub)cultural orientations which might be both cause and consequence of the social selection. In contrast, mentality, value orientation and morality seem t be more homogeneous in the higher echelons. So it is highly likely that the advertised norm image reflects the subculture of the well-to-do people rather than those in the lower sections of society. The reverse side of the moral selection is a moral self-selection, an idea which I have elaborated elsewhere (Gowricharn, 1992, pp. 108-11). Not everybody embraces the prevailing norm image, even if they are aware of the consequences it could have. This is obviou in the case of recidivists in crime. But cultural self-selection involves also people who have a different (sub)cultural background and stick to it for whatever reason. It is worthwhile emphasizing that cultural selection and self-selection takes place in every part of society, as well as in the labour market and in dealing with government agencies.

There is also the implicit idea grounded in the dominant cultural norm image that people are intrinsically rational, that is to say, they are single or highly individualized and hence extremely mobile, not hampered by bonds, affections, physical disabilities or a lack of information, and always on the road to maximize income or improve their career. They respond extremely sensitively to financial incentives, are canny and able to make complicated calculations, which is, by the way, a basic assumption of their way of life. This is the rational market behaviour which Etzioni (1988, p. 2) called the neo-classical paradigm. It refers to an advertisement of a way of life which is deeply rooted in Western culture and constitutes to a large extent the self image of "Western man". Here we have to do with a double morality. As long as higher income categories, especially business people, behave according to the advertisement, for example by breaking tax regulations, which is not uncommon i The Netherlands, their actions are taken for granted. The moment, however, the financially-dependent people appear to behave according to the advertised cultural image, moral condemnation is disproportionally harsh. Moreover, the question can be raised as to whether all individuals in the dependent populatio can rise up to this image. Those who are socially or physically unable or unwilling to do so, fall overboard. This applies especially to aged people and those of migrant origin, since the latter are much less individualized and familiar with Dutch society. Even if all institutions work perfectly, one may wonder whether cultural, social, economic and physical selection will not produce categories of financially dependent people.

Finally, I would like to raise the issue of the role of research in shaping the public agenda during the process of stigmatization. It is a charming traditiona feature of Dutch culture not to blame victims and this property also marks social research in The Netherlands. As a result, in most reports there is a strong tendency to excuse "victims of society", whether they be unemployed, single mothers or migrants. This tendency is so strong that a well known Dutch sociologist has labelled it as "victimology" (Van Dorn, 1985, p. 75). Most research, however, is conducted by order of, or financed by, the state. The definition of the problem, the techniques of research as well as the expected outcomes, are thus influenced, if not determined, by government officials. So the outcome of social research becomes an instrument in the shaping of the public agenda, while at the same time, this research tends to be defensive because of its overriding victimological tendencies. This feature of Dutch social research is slightly affected by the change in public morality, but it still marks the attitude of the researchers. The net outcome of these two tendencies is that researchers participate in the public debate, trying to influence the agenda. Research is far from a neutral affair; it legitimizes, to a significant degree, both the agenda and the arguments used.

Concluding Remarks

Attempts to change attitude or morality are not rare. In many countries, especially in the developing world, political nationalism appeals to the commitment of citizens. The revival of religious movements also tends to revitalize old moral values in society. In both examples, the change is geared to establish or restructure a political order. In contrast, the moral changes advocated in The Netherlands are instrumental to financial policy rather than t a proven degeneration of the moral order. At the heart of this approach there i a hidden claim of universality, "natural" conceptions of man and finance, which conceals the particular features of the Dutch experience. For the public discussion outlined, three related aspects are relevant.

The first aspect involves the form of management of the moral order. The Dutch style of public management is not based on confrontation and power politics as, for example, was the case during the Thatcher regime in Britain. Strikes, physical violence and similar forms of conflict are relatively absent in Dutch society. In The Netherlands, employers, trade unions and government, rather tha evoking a conflict, tend to compromise (Lijphart, 1977). The relative absence o force, however, is effectively compensated by the use of moral instruments in the process of social engineering. By eroding the moral base of the claims or b stigmatizing the opponent, public support is mobilized in favour of its own position. It is this public support which makes possible, first, that political decisions in The Netherlands are, by and large, based on consensus, and second, that moral arguments preempt the use of force.

The second aspect relates to the categories in which the discussion is framed. As said before, these consist of a short-term cost-benefit approach. This perspective is enforced by goals of the European Community. Different economic magnitudes, such as tax and wage rates, should become equal across the Communit and this equalization should apply also for the level of the social benefits an the budget deficit. By lowering the floor of the welfare state or dismantling several kinds of care-arrangements, however, the Dutch are giving up their position to belong to the avant garde in the world when it comes to institutionalized care and social security. Together with the Scandinavian countries, The Netherlands has the reputation of being one of the few places in the world which can (still) be labelled as a paradise on earth for everyone. This achievement can be considered as a major indicator of a high level of civilization. It is no wonder that the Clinton-administration is approaching Th Netherlands as a model to reform health care in the USA. Such trade-offs betwee the level of civilization, or social and medical care, and budget deficit is strikingly missing in the public discussion. The preoccupation with fiscal policy excludes a broader perspective on what is at stake in the longer term.

The third aspect refers to the rationalization of the cuts. The main argument i that the budget should balance. While there may be agreement on this point, it is also true that the expenditure on some items is increasing while that on other items are decreasing. To some extent, these developments are beyond the control of politicians. It can be defended, however, that the change in the level of state expenditure reflects a choice made by politicians. That is to say, the argument that the budget should balance cannot be launched as a universal necessity since it expresses shifting priorities in the political arena. However, the argument remains powerful because of its claims of universality which conceals the fact that the general (economic) concepts used are specific for nations or cultures, both when it comes to their application and to their legitimization, as Tieleman (1991) has emphasized recently. As lon as this ideology of universality remains powerful, it will be relatively easy t relate budget policy to moral change, entailing both condemnation and revitalization, and hence to reduce the level of welfare of socially weak people. In that case The Netherlands might become a paradise lost.


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Author:Gowricharn, Ruben
Publication:International Journal of Social Economics
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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