The moral economy of austerity: analysing UK welfare reform

Br J Sociol. 2016 Mar;67(1):97-117. doi: 10.1111/1468-4446.12186.


This paper notes the contemporary emergence of 'morality' in both sociological argument and political rhetoric, and analyses its significance in relation to ongoing UK welfare reforms. It revisits the idea of 'moral economy' and identifies two strands in its contemporary application; that all economies depend on an internal moral schema, and that some external moral evaluation is desirable. UK welfare reform is analysed as an example of the former, with reference to three distinct orientations advanced in the work of Freeden (1996), Laclau (2014), and Lockwood (1996). In this light, the paper then considers challenges to the reform agenda, drawn from third sector and other public sources. It outlines the forms of argument present in these challenges, based respectively on rationality, legality, and morality, which together provide a basis for evaluation of the welfare reforms and for an alternative 'moral economy'.

Keywords: Moral economy; ideology; legality; morality; rationality; welfare.

MeSH terms

  • Economics* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Humans
  • Politics
  • Social Justice / economics*
  • Social Welfare / economics*
  • Social Welfare / ethics
  • Social Welfare / legislation & jurisprudence
  • United Kingdom