I've been puzzled for some time as to why neo-republican political theory hasn't (as far as I'm aware) had much to say about social security policy except at the most general level (e.g. along the lines of 'republicanism provides a sounder theoretical basis than liberalism'). To anyone familiar with early modern political discourse, the very idea of 'welfare dependency' should set off sparks of recognition- after all, the main criterion for citizenship for republicans was not being dependent. And if the target of neorepublican theory is people being placed in a position of subjection to arbitrary will, current conditionality and sanctions policy looks pretty relevant. I argue that something like the republican concept of freedom as status, with dependency as its opposite term, helps us understand how we got here. (An alternative title for this piece might be 'From status to contract and back again'.)

At the core of the idea of dependency, for 18th century republicans and 21st century welfare reformers, is an idea of 'impaired agency' (a term I've borrowed from Robert Pippin and am probably using in ways he never intended). Its use today is deeply ideological, but it gets traction from real-world changes in labour markets and family structure in the late 20th century which left many people without access to the main form of ascribed independent status, waged labour. I also suggest that the discourse of 'welfare dependency' thrives on tensions in our political ideas. If that's the case, political theory may be able to help in identifying the sources of tension, if not in resolving issues.

Governments insist their welfare reform policies are designed to ‘end dependency’. But what does ‘dependency’ mean, beyond naming something people don’t like? Why don’t governments say they are aiming to reduce out of work benefit ‘receipt’ rather than ‘dependency’? Why is the term dependency applied to some types of government support (out of work benefits) and not others (pensions)?

I'm going to argue that we can throw some light on these questions by looking at how the term 'dependency' (and its equivalents in other languages) was used by political thinkers in the early modern era. Bear with me: the reason I think this may help is that in earlier centuries people talked about dependency a lot and in a manner largely free of euphemism. (I'm by no means the first to suggest this, by the way- see the paper by Fraser and Gordon in 'Further Reading') It is worth paying attention to what these thinkers said, and work in the history of political discourse over recent years has improved our understanding of what they were saying (or has cleared away some modern assumptions which have prevented us understanding them). I am thinking in particular of Quentin Skinner and Phillip Pettit's work on the 'republican' concept of freedom, which as Skinner has noted can take as its opposite term 'dependency'. (See Stuart White here 0n the contemporary relevance of republican theory.)

What follows is a thumbnail sketch of an early modern (roughly 1640- 1800) discourse of dependency: I then turn to whether the contemporary discourse of welfare dependency is indebted in any interesting ways to the earlier discourse (it is), and then look at reasons why we should see the former as something more than an outburst of archaistic ideology.

Some caveats about this reconstruction of the early modern discourse . Not everyone throughout the period would have agreed with all of the points here- in particular, ideas as to who counted as 'dependent' varied between time and place. To keep the word count down, I've ignored the important subject of how a vocabulary of dependency was applied to relations of patronage and clientage among elite groups. I've also passed over the way in which socialists such as Marx and Jaurès adapted the vocabulary of dependency to describe relations between classes as opposed to individuals, another important part of the history. I ignore the surviving legal term of art 'dependent labour'. The 'classical' discourse of dependency described here is something of an ideal type, but I don't think the reconstruction is arbitrary. I've grouped the material under five themes: status, agency, security, need, and corruption


When Adam Smith or Rousseau or the participants in the celebrated Putney debates on the electoral franchise talked about dependency, they and their audiences had a clear sense of what was meant- although there was room for disagreement over who was meant. Dependency was a status. That status encompassed a wide range of social groups- classically, all women (with exceptions sometimes for female heads of propertied households, mostly widows), peasants under quasi-feudal tenures, journeyman artisans, apprentices, servants (a major part of the workforce which included most agricultural labourers), anybody in receipt of alms or public assistance and waged workers (although as the late Robert Castel showed in a brilliant book, the status of the latter hovered between dependency and outsider status throughout the pre-industrial period).*

The reason ‘dependency’ became a key term in the political vocabulary of the 17th and 18th centuries was that it contrasted with the status of free citizens endowed with full political rights: dependents couldn't vote or hold public office. When the distribution of political rights came into question, as at Putney and during the French revolution, the line between dependency and independence became a disputed issue. Disagreement usually centred on who was on which side of the line rather than on the existence of the line (for example, at Putney, 'forty shilling freeholders' vs. everyone who wasn't a woman, a servant or in receipt of alms). As far as I am aware it was only in the 1790s - in the constitutional debates of the first French republic- that the very existence of dependency as a social category came into question.


The defining feature of the status of dependency was a limited capacity for self-determination. Dependency usually meant being subordinated to other agents: an individual (husband, master, employer, landlord), an institution (such as a charitable foundation) or, as with the Poor Laws, a community. (It could also be used to refer to everyone who was at risk of not being able to provide for themselves, whether or not they were tied to personal or institutional dependency: dependency on the state existed in the form of government's duty to ensure food supplies during times of shortage.) Dependency was a condition which, in Condorcet’s words ‘makes it impossible to believe that an individual is subject to his own will’. This was why political exclusion was seen as following from dependency with something close to logical necessity.

In many cases, dependency was a temporary or (it was to be hoped) transitional status. Apprentices were dependent on masters but could hope to become masters themselves one day, servants were often young, unmarried people aiming to fund a future independent life with the wages they would receive at the end of their period of service. These aspirations were often to remain unfulfilled: many would rejoin the ranks of those condemned to a lifetime of dependency or worse. And worse there was, for those who were neither independent (i.e. property owners) nor dependent on a master, landlord or employer risked being relegated to the margins of society where distinctions between precarious economic activity, unemployment, vagabondage and criminality were ill-defined (Castel).


That there could be worse options than dependency was due to the greater security offered by a confirmed, if subordinate, social position, both for the employed and for the indigent entitled to local social assistance. Servants could usually count on being fed. Kant wrote of the dependent that they were ‘under the direction and protection of other people ’ (my emphasis). Thus the concept of dependency involved at times an element of social protection which could be seen as compensating for domination- although any obligations on the part of the dominant party in no way compromised the relationship of subordination.


The status of dependency as regarded adult men was seen as arising from social inequalities in power and resources, although it is worth noting that if many writers, including Rousseau and Kant, saw female dependency as inscribed in the order of nature, there were other voices which rejected this view and traced their dependency to purely social causes, including Mary Wollstonecraft and Condorcet. In particular, dependency among the poor was understood as due to lack of access to subsistence goods: if the poor were dependent, it was because otherwise they would starve. ‘If man could find an easy and secure subsistence everywhere, it would be impossible for one man to subject (asservir) another’ wrote Voltaire. This situation was not necessarily seen as unjust to the extent that it was explained by natural scarcity. Only some thinkers- an influential minority that included Smith, Condorcet and Thomas Paine - thought that the living standards of the poor were ever likely to rise above subsistence level on a long-term basis.


Dependency was regarded as undesirable. 'It is not inequality which is the real misfortune, but dependency' said Voltaire: for Rousseau, it was 'the worst thing that could happen to one' (for men, of course). But dependency was widely seen as undesirable not just to individuals but to society as a whole, as it was regarded as leading to corruption. Dependency on men, wrote Rousseau, ‘engenders all [vices] and leads to the mutual depravation [stet] of master and slave ’. 'Nothing tends so much to corrupt and enervate and debase the mind as dependency, and nothing gives such noble and generous notions of probity as freedom and independency.' writes Smith. Moral condemnation of dependency overflowed on to those in a state of dependency and was contingent less on their actions than on their social identities.

Thus to be in a state of dependency was, as long as that state endured, to be the bearer of an impaired or incomplete agency (I borrow the term 'impaired agency' from the philosopher Robert Pippin- see below). This was a matter both of domination by others and of being in the eyes of others subject to internal limitations to agency – the ‘enervation’ to which Smith refers. Indeed it is hard to see dependency in the classical sense as being strictly an external or internal concept: the two aspects seem inextricably linked, in a manner which is a long way from the Kantian idea of a core of personal autonomy independent of external influences. The irrationality almost universally attributed to the lower orders throughout this period - even by their sympathisers such as Condorcet - is indicative of the extent to which quite basic human capacities were seen as grounded in social relations and capable of being undermined by dependency.

What has any of this to do with 'welfare dependency'? To summarise the sketch of classical discourse above is more or less to answer the question: dependency was a status of impaired or incomplete agency, arising from lack of independent access to subsistence goods, leading to reliance on the protection of and personal subordination to others and subject to a moral condemnation of the situation which overflowed on to its victims. The contemporary discourse of welfare dependency maps almost perfectly on to the classical discourse.

But why are people using a concept which originates in a world of peasants, artisans, journeymen and sturdy beggars to talk about the contemporary welfare state? An answer emerges from considering a different question: where did the many forms of dependency that dominated early modern societies go? What has changed since the age of pre-industrial modernity is that the range of situations which can be labelled as dependency has come to be progressively restricted, either because those situations became statistically rarer or because they changed in fundamental ways. Already in The Wealth of Nations Smith sees the expansion of independent commodity production as displacing dependency relations. At a political level, Condorcet wrote in 1793 'Social relations which presuppose such a humiliation cannot continue among us, and should soon take another form ': he was being premature but was proved right in the long run. The context was the draft constitution for the first French republic, and specifically its provision for universal manhood suffrage.

In an extraordinary reversal, waged labour, the lowest of dependent statuses up to the 19th century, became the dominant form of independence in the 20th century via (inter alia) the mechanisms of rising real wages, employment law, labour market regulation, collective representation and, let's not forget, social security. In a process which sometimes overlapped with and at times conflicted with the rising status of workers, the dependency of women on men was eroded through legal reform, employment and, again, social security (in the form of family benefits). Domestic service virtually disappeared, priced out of existence by rising real wages and rejected by dependency-averse workers once other options were available. Agriculture, the locus for so many different forms of dependency over the course of history, came to account for an almost negligible share of the labour force. The long-drawn out process of democratisation was inextricably linked to these changes, supported by and furthering them in turn. Universal citizenship turned on the overcoming of dependency relations, as Condorcet had recognised in 1793. (This is of course an outrageously casual evocation of immense and complex social changes.)

This reduction in the range of application of dependency was not due to any fundamental change in meaning. Nor was it just that domination had shifted from personal relations to more impersonal forms. If workers and later women ceased to be referred to as dependent this was primarily because their circumstances had changed in such a way as to make the term inapplicable for the great majority. Recipients of social assistance were not in this position. The Spectator, in 1909, stated the case in terms that would have been recognisable to the debaters at Putney two and half centuries earlier, as they are today: 'Disguise it as we may, a man who is dependent upon the community and not upon his own individual efforts is not a free man, but is in a condition of State servitude. However much he may claim them, he does not and cannot, enjoy the full privileges of citizen.'

Does the contemporary idea of ‘welfare dependency’ represent a survival from an earlier age or a new response to the expansion of social security in the last decades of the 20th century? Both and neither. The major forces which led to the restriction of dependency over the 19th and 20th centuries were the rise in the status of wage labour and the gradual displacement of the male breadwinner model of the family. Both of these forces met with major challenges from the 1970s on (somewhat earlier in the U.S.), and these challenges provided the occasion for a revival of a language of dependency that had never completely disappeared.

Dividing things rather artificially into labour market and family factors, on the labour market side were the return of mass unemployment in the 1980s, the expansion of inactive benefits for mainly older, male workers, the increasing difficulties for a significant minority of young workers seeking to establish themselves and worsening prospects for anyone facing any sort of employment disadvantage (disability, low qualifications, discrimination): in short, the long-term failure of labour markets to ensure a position for everyone and the resulting inability for large numbers to access the main form of independent status.On the family side, if the dual-earner couple increasingly became the normative family type, too little was done to facilitate the economic independence of mothers raising children on their own in a labour market that was less accessible to the disadvantaged and a society in which the option of childcare provided by relatives was less available. In the UK, the problems faced by single parents overlapped with those of mothers in low-waged households, unable to afford childcare and often subject to punitive benefit-withdrawal rates if they worked, leading to the paradox of the survival of the male breadwinner model among the families that most needed a second wage-packet. (The latter problem explains the current UK government's attempt to extend the language of 'welfare dependency' for the first time to households with employment.)

Social security systems, which had to sought to overcome the inherited association between social protection and dependency by giving workers effective ownership of benefit entitlements through contributory insurance, adapted to increased demand by expanding non-contributory means-tested coverage and restricting access to contributory benefits, to varying extents in different countries. The result was much greater reliance on benefits where entitlement conditions were a matter of government discretion and where receipt could be made conditional on client behaviour.

The revival of dependency as an ascribed social status in the late 20th century is therefore something more than an ideological phenomenon or a calculated insult to those in less fortunate social positions. It is possible, while rejecting the vocabulary of ‘dependency’, to recognise that the concept was being deployed in a manner consistent with classical usage, precisely because new social situations had emerged which fitted the inherited concept’s criteria of application.

This may sound like a legitimation of the language of 'welfare dependency': in fact I think that the ambiguities on which the rhetoric of dependency relies put any rehabilitation out of the question. This is not just a matter of the arbitrariness with which that rhetoric is deployed (pensioners are almost never described as dependent). I have argued that the idea of an impaired or incomplete agency is central to the classical idea of dependency, and that the limits on agency were seen as both external and internal. The assumption that dependency in an external sense is evidence of some sort of impaired agency in an internal sense is also (as is often noted) a feature of the contemporary discourse of ‘welfare dependency’. We are not so far from Enlightenment reformers lamenting the irrationality of peasants and the urban poor.

Consider the (false) claim that mothers ‘on welfare’ in the United States had smaller vocabularies than toddlers in middle class households, a crazy story which travelled far and wide on both sides of the Atlantic and among right and left in the last decade. There could hardly be a better exemplification of the congruence between externally- and internally- driven impairment of agency in the discourse of welfare dependency. As the linguist Geoff Nunberg concluded (having demolished the claim): ‘It's easier to ignore people's voices when you've decided they couldn't possibly have one.’ The example is extreme, but the current welfare dependency discourse in the UK encompasses some similarly extreme claims, regarding families where nobody has worked for generations and, astonishingly, infant brain development.

The discourse of 'welfare dependency' is ideological through and through, an attempt to forge an imagined social identity out of anecdote, misleading statistics and semantic slippage. But there is a case for thinking that it gets some of its undeniable traction from tensions in our framework of political ideas, which is more indebted to the pre-industrial era than is often realised. If that were the case it would be something to be concerned about even if we thought the concept of dependency was misplaced. The sort of tension I am thinking of (or maybe for the time being just waving at) is related to considerations set out by Robert Pippin in a striking, compressed argument: 'that the meaning of agency, being the subject of one’s own life, is not properly understood as a timeless metaphysical issue, that the line between agents and impaired agents and nonagents is one that communities draw in all sorts of ways over various periods, that it is better understood as a social status, the reality of which depends on the establishment of a mutual recognitive status.' ( The entire introduction to Pippin's book can be read here. The passage in question is on page 24.) As Pippin notes, this is not (necessarily) a relativist position: communities draw the line between agency and impaired agency - between independence and dependency, in my terms- in different ways, but they can be mistaken (objectively) in where they draw that line.

The echoes of a classical discourse of dependency in so much of what we hear about social security should remind us that the (relative) independence which most people in western societies enjoy is the (relatively) recent outcome of a long and difficult historical development in which democracy, employment and family law, regulation of labour markets and social security itself have all played key roles. As we move definitively into a post-industrial era in which, for many people, new and not-so-new forms of social precariousness threaten the independence our societies had come to take for granted, we may need to become more critically aware of our relation to pre-industrial ways of thinking and to take seriously the importance that thinkers such as Rousseau, Smith and Condorcet attached to dependency: not to mystify contemporary social problems by dressing them up in early modern garb but to place them in a longer historical perspective. In that sort of long view, the claims to be 'ending dependency' of contemporary governments may well sound like the debased, mean-spirited echo of an earlier egalitarian tradition in which ending dependency had a quite different resonance.

*The ultimate dependent status was of course chattel slavery, but slavery demands separate treatment because unlike less absolute forms of dependency it was widely (but far from universally) seen as illegitimate, as a violation of natural law. It is true however that writers of this period often use 'slavery' rhetorically to refer to situations of dependency, and if chattel slavery officially didn't exist as a legal status in most European countries, situations which would now be classed as slavery did, in the form of bonded labour (for example in Scottish coal mines, as Adam Smith noted) and serfdom (east of the Elbe and in Denmark).

Further Reading

' 'Dependency' demystified: inscriptions of power in a keyword of the welfare state' by Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon in Social Politics 1 (1994) is a wide-ranging account in the spirit of Raymond Williams's Keywords, published at the time of the intense debates on welfare dependency around Bill Clinton's reforms. Family, dependence and the origins of the welfare state: Britain and France 1914-45 by Susan Pedersen (Cambridge 1993) explores the tensions between independence for women and for male workers in the inter-war period.

Liberty before liberalism (Cambridge 1997) by Quentin Skinner is a short account of the contrast between republican (or neo-Roman) understanding of freedom and liberal 'negative liberty'. His paper 'A third concept of liberty' can be read here.

The historical centrality of waged labour and its shifting social status are themes which seem to me to be more developed in France than in the UK. See Robert Castel. Les métamorphoses de la question sociale (Paris 1995); translated as From manual workers to wage laborers: transformations of the social question (New Brunswick/London 2003) and Pierre Rosanvallon La nouvelle question sociale (Paris 1995), translated as The new social question (Princeton 2000)