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As the debate about the future of social security grows ever more fractious, we need to go back to the beginning and ask the most basic question of all: what is welfare for?

From the advent of state welfare more than a century ago the answer has been that it is for those for whom the market cannot provide. Thus, collective responsibility was invoked to offer pensions to the elderly and disability grants to the infirm. The market, it was assumed, would see to everybody else. Some among the able-bodied might lose work for a time; for that, short-term unemployment insurance evolved. The assumption was that they would sooner or later find another job...

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