How To Think About Social Work On “Social Worker’s Day”

Today is apparently “Social Worker’s Day”, which explains why I’ve been seeing a lot of related memes, posts and articles, some snarky, some celebratory. From a public policy viewpoint, what is the right way to think about social workers and social work in general? The answer is: It depends.

The way mainstream politics thinks of social work can be categorised broadly into two perspectives.

1️⃣ The first is the common view, which celebrates the essential role that social workers in civil society play for assisting the poor, unprivileged and downtrodden. Social workers are seen as virtuous individuals for selflessly serving society’s marginalised while expecting very little reward, in a world where greedy corporations and politicians exploit them. People who espouse this view *tend* to hail from the Leftist side of the political spectrum.

2️⃣ The second view disregards or downplays the role of social work, because economics teaches us that wealth production and improvements in standards of living come from entrepreneurial innovation and technological breakthroughs. Seen in that light, social work and charity barely moves the needle, and is the efforts of people who are incapable of making better contributions. This view *tends* to be espoused by people on the economic Right.

The latter view is undeniably true. The unvarnished truth is that no society ever got prosperous by the altruism of social workers or charity drives. People’s lives are dramatically improved for the better when markets are allowed to freely operate, and for-profit entrepreneurs are rewarded, rather than punished. Human progress is the positive byproduct of the pursuit of self-gain, as per Adam Smith’s invisible hand logic.

However, proponents of this view sometimes go too far when they condemn social work. The libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand was probably the best example of such, who referred to social work broadsweepingly as “parasitical”.

❗️ Social work is not necessarily always useless because it is a valuable keyhole solution in many circumstances. For example, in societies like Singapore where prostitution is criminalised, abused sex workers cannot seek the redress of public services for fear of losing their livelihoods. Therefore, civil society groups (such as Project X) surface as an avenue in alleviating the harshness of these problems, by providing sex workers economic and legal relief informally. Social workers elsewhere do the same for immigrants, people in poverty, orphans, etc.

Because they spend time on the ground cultivating relationships with the marginalised, social workers are far more knowledgeable about the unique circumstances of social problems than the broader society. These makes them better equipped in highlighting the dimensions of these problems to the broader public and policymakers, because only they are in the privileged epistemic position of doing so.

For example, we are know that people in poverty exist. But social workers doing work in these areas are more perceptible of WHERE/WHO these people are, HOW they think, WHY they are in such circumstances, and all these are important WHAT questions to addressing these problems.

❎ Note what I am saying here: Social work is not intrinsically valuable — it is valuable against the backdrop of state injustice or structural barriers. The first goal is always to remove those barriers (e.g. decriminalising prostitution). Unfortunately, unjust laws remain entrenched for years. In that status quo, social workers are important.

(Caveat: There is a whole other category of “social work” that does not seek to merely alleviate societal ills, but to take full control of them through the machinations of politics. That is the type of “social work” which is harmful and destructive, which I will not go into here.)

💬 So far, I have provided an economic explanation for why the efforts of civil society are socially beneficial. But here’s the more interesting question. Why do proponents of both views rarely integrate? Why are both views often so categorically separate? IMO the answer lies in partisan politics, as usual.

Folks on the economic Right, have little incentive to acknowledge, let alone celebrate the role that social workers play in the context of unjust laws, even though they may care very much about abolishing these laws. Why? People on the Right aren’t heartless robots. It’s because social workers tend to be predominantly Left-leaning and in favour of policies that conflict with the policy preferences of people on the Right (e.g. expansion of the welfare state, increased immigration, etc).

On the other hand, it is in the interest of those on the Left to downplay and devalue the economic progress of corporations because it fundamentally contradicts their overarching social philosophy that the State, and the compassion of civil society efforts — not for-profit businesses — is the primary deliverer of material progress for the masses.

In conclusion, the right way — if there is one — to think about social work, depends on the background circumstances within which these workers operate. That means looking at the underlying politics, culture, and social institutions. Broadsweeping condemnations or approvals of social work are often baseless, and amounts to nothing more than the musings of partisan hacks batting for their own political team.

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Donovan Choy

Classical liberal. I love the Wu-Tang Clan, Spaghetti Westerns and anything Aly & Fila.