By “welfare state,” I mean considerably more than specific programs for low-income citizens (including housing, education, health, and subsistence) for which we often use the term “safety net;” there’s also Social Security, Medicare, unemployment benefits, various child support programs and a bunch of activities at the state and local level. Underpinning those programs is the idea that the State should be responsible for the welfare of its citizens; including things like public health and safety and the active management of the economy to produce jobs and stability. Examples in our current world include not only the Federal Reserve responsibilities for inflation and unemployment, but COVID and other public health management, OSHA, and building codes. This wasn’t always the case.
There are three concepts emerging from the Enlightenment of the 18C and the French Revolution of 1789 that led elites to move the State in this direction. The first is the idea of human-driven progress, the second is the idea of State as embodying and crystallizing all components of society (i.e., the “nation”), and the third is the idea that (these days) goes under the rubric of “social justice.”
Traditional European societies were marked by a belief that everyone was in their God-given rank and station in life. What we call social mobility was very rare; nor could there be much expectation of broad improvement in standards of living or of life in general (prior to the 2d Coming). Later, emerging modernity saw changes in science and technology fostered an increased confidence that life could improve and this expectation exploded across Europe in the French Revolution and the rapid industrialization of the early 19C.
What we call government or the “State” also emerged in Europe in the 15-18C as rational techniques were applied to the principal monarchical functions (war-making and fund-raising), the size of political units expanded and greater thought was given to foster national wealth. In the 19C, increasing numbers increasingly identified themselves as part of a “nation,” and came to believe that this ethnic/cultural grouping should be aligned with the political structure, thus leading to the idea of the “nation-state.”
While charity at the community level and from a religious perspective has pre-historical roots, the increasing coherence of societies, combined with increased democratization and geographical mobility associated with industrialization, led to beliefs that this type of responsibility was better addressed by larger political groupings and that some degree and scope of benefits for all were the mark of an advanced society.
Additional factors included the
- bureaucratization of functions,
- the desire of elites to avoid revolution by easing the harshest aspects of life among the masses combined with a recognition that “modern” total warfare required the “buy-in” from the masses who would supply the bulk of the military manpower, and
- the increased knowledge of what we call economics and sociology which made the sufferings of those in need more visible.
National social programs were first adopted by Germany under Bismarck and rapidly spread across Europe, although the scope and pace varied noticeably across the different countries. Further advances were made up to WWII (including the creation of Social Security in the US in the 1930s), but the strands noted above crystallized in the aftermath of WWII.
Government involvement in society had considerably expanded during WWI. The Great Depression heightened sensitivities to the perils facing large swaths of society and the totalization of WWII required the commitment of all citizens and the promise (sometimes explicit) that the “State” would protect them not only through support programs, but (via Keynesian economics) through the overall management of the economy.
The role of the “State” in Europe, always more robust than in the US, became larger. Scandinavian socialism was one example; Soviet communism was (more problematically) another. The intertwined incentives of bureaucratic politics, democratic payoffs, human/civil rights ideologies, and substantially greater wealth in the post-WWII years led to dramatic increases in the range of programs (usually accompanied by increased taxation levels). While there have been retrenchments (Reagan and Thatcher being the most notable), the result has been a wide-spread expectation that the government will take care of things. Indeed, despite concerns from traditional conservatives (now reduced to protecting high-end wealth) and a few others, it is hard to imagine how our “modern” societies would get things done without central government.
At this point the “welfare state” is tightly bound up with the “national security state” and the “regulatory/taxation/information state.” Governments today have achieved a level of centralization of power that Louis XIV, Catherine the Great, and other “absolutists” of the 17-18C could only envy. The hollowing out of intermediate institutions gives us a limited menu of alternatives. I will have some further thoughts along these lines in future postings.
In the meantime, at the level of specific policies, debates go on. Biden’s “social infrastructure” and “mask mandates” may mark a new expansion in the US, but issues of revenue/taxation, conservative oppositionism (i.e. without coherent alternative policies), the changing mix of living standards (diminishment of the “middle class”), and the imminent primacy of climate issues all complicate the picture.
As many advocates point out, providing comprehensive care/support for all citizens fulfills various dreams of justice/mercy and the type of society to which many aspire. Getting there is less an issue of economics than of political economics (i.e., it’s affordable, but we are unwilling to redistribute wealth sufficiently to accomplish the goal). However, few such believers have thought through the issues of individual freedom remaining with a “State” that delivers this degree of support for/intrusion into everyone’s lives.
The Welfare State relies on the existence of a strong “State” and considerable wealth to support its programs; so it doesn’t exist in many parts of the world; even if legal/constitutional provisions nominally enshrine some version of it in their stated goals. It also implies a degree of centralization of social power and a delegation of that power to a central authority that doesn’t often exist in regions with warlords, cronyism, clans, and corporations.
As with every aspect of politics, the implementation of this vision requires trade-offs—both practical and philosophical. The history of the “State” on which I am working can’t predict the future of this issue, but I hope it will clarify some important aspects of how we got here.