Here are some statistics presented by the economist Leo Goodstadt in a public lecture this week that I find absolutely shocking.
Hong Kong's social expenditure in 2001 was at the same level as the average of OECD members in 1960. However, since the early 1960s, the OECD average has doubled to 22 per cent of GDP. Most Hong Kong people would consider contemporary OECD spending excessive welfarism. But at 1960s or even 1970s levels, surely that can't be justified for an advanced economy like Hong Kong?
Our main welfare payment, called CSSA, took up 8.2 per cent of total government revenue in 2001. This fell to an astonishing 3.6 per cent in 2011. This is no doubt cause for celebration for free-marketeers and our government officials like John Tsang. But you can see the stark realities of those who live in poverty: expect little or no help from the government.
It's so difficult to have a rational and calm discussion on social welfare policy, just like it is on democratic reform.
It's either all or nothing, in both cases. It's actually worse with welfare. People have been arguing about democracy for at least three decades, whereas we have been pretty much against welfare across the political spectrum, from the start. But even if we don't debate it, we still have many disadvantaged people in Hong Kong, the poor, sick, elderly and severely handicapped who can't take care of themselves. And despite the Confucian imperative, many such families can't do it alone without being dragged into grinding poverty. Who's going to help them? Charities, the kindness of our property tycoons? How many Bill Gates are there in this world?
Despite all the wonderful benefits and achievements of free-market capitalism, the problems of poverty are not something it can solve; it creates them. Social welfare is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It's about how much you should provide - unless you just let the unfortunate rot and die.
For capitalism to remain legitimate and palatable - especially after the great financial crisis, which saw the greatest transfer of wealth to the wealthiest global elites - you need decent social safety nets.
I, for one, would take the pan-democrats far more seriously if they would start taking an overt anti-poverty stance.