The welfare state is a common means of governing and managing political economy in which the state takes on the responsibility of guaranteeing basic economic security as well as fundamental services such as healthcare or education to the population (Dickovick & Eastwood, 2019, p. 82). Therefore, by definition, this is a state where individual and social well-being of residents is accounted for to some extent. Gaining popularity as early as the industrial revolution in the late 19th century, welfare states have been a common occurrence as population levels increase and the demand for core services grows. While the principle is based on equitable distribution of resources, welfare states are associated with both democratic/capitalistic societies as well as authoritarian/socialist ones. The welfare state is a profound political policy objective integrated into many political governance systems as a means of supporting the population, economic growth, and citizen satisfaction.
Types of Welfare States
In 1990, a Danish sociologist and leading expert on welfare states Esping-Andersen published a book The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, which essentially classified modern welfare states. These classifications are used as the primary categories of welfare states to this day as they distinctly outline the unique characteristics of each model. There are criticism of Esping-Andersen’s classification as being too specific, or in other cases, excluding prominent examples of welfare states in other regions of the world because it was too difficult or the states were too volatile. The first type identified is liberal or Anglo-Saxon, which is characterized by low level of state spending, largely aimed at fulfilling the needs of the market where capitalism does not. These countries are identified by high levels of inequality, as the system was never meant to redistribute political capital or mediate class struggle. Prominent examples including the U.S., the U.K., Switzerland (Van Voorhis, 2002, p.4).
The second model is the conservative/corporatist (sometimes called Christian-democratic) model, which has a modest redistribution of income and resources based mostly on social contributions rather than taxes. The principle of subsidiarity is present with presence of social insurance opportunities which offer medium decommodification and a high degree of social stratification. The majority of countries in central and southern Europe follow this, such as Germany, France, Spain, and Italy. Finally, there is the Social Democratic/Nordic welfare state that is the most welfare oriented based on principles of universalism. These states have high levels of taxes, but significant government spending goes towards benefits and services (universal healthcare, education, high salaries for social positions such as teachers) and general resident support. Such welfare states strongly limit the reliance of households on the market (Van Voorhis, 2002, p.4). Countries adopting this model include Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands.
Emergence of Welfare States
While many states have differed in their trajectory, the general historical trend since the end of the 19th century was the state moving from a limited economic capacity to one with a major role in the political economy and social management or regulation in society (even if it’s a liberal type of welfare state with few interventions, policies still impact these social welfare functions significantly). Dickovick and Eastwood (2019) offer several theories to the emergence of welfare states. The first is the cultural approach, indicating that shifts in values and norms result in the creation of a social safety net. If formerly other institutions played a role in social support such as churches, in the post-industrial world, people began to recognize social problems and the state’s ability to solve them (Dickovick & Eastwood, 2019, p. 87).
Another approach argues that industrial capitalism leads to emergence of welfare states. Since capitalism has led to significant economic growth, it has created life changing social and economic shifts, with complex divisions of labor and class in the economy. It disrupted other long-standing social institutions such as family, churches, and communities that were common in the close-knit agrarian societies. Therefore, as people went to work and earn under industrial capitalism, the gap had to be filled in by the state. There are sub-theories regarding the purpose of this. Marxism argues that the government is reactionary, as without intervention as a welfare state, large groups of those in poverty due to capitalistic inequality, would eventually overthrow the government. Meanwhile, the other side of the ideological spectrum suggests that that the welfare state represents the growth of socialism itself, a natural progression from capitalism to socialism. A more moderate approach indicates that capitalism produced such significant changes, that the welfare state was created a means of establishing societal order (Dickovick & Eastwood, 2019, p. 88).
Finally, there is the theory of international learning. Given that states operate in a interconnected world, especially with modern globalization, states continuously see the successes and failures of other countries, and take the lessons to their own policies. This can be seen in Asia, where welfare states are rapidly emerging in a matter of a decade, attempting to recreate Europe’s successes based on their cultural needs and available resources. Globalization has increased the influence of social expenditure in non-Western countries, but Asia has weaker tax and labor markets to fund social expenditure as well as culturally have relied on family institutions rather than the government on social support (Potrafke, 2018, p.959). However, because Europe have been experimenting with social welfare for more than a century, it has highlighted many lessons and options, so that these Asian states no longer have to rely on trial and error (Dickovick & Eastwood, 2019, p. 92). While this theory is rational, it is likely that the other theories discussed above also take place which push the countries to adopt the welfare state, even if lagging behind other parts of the world.
The emergence of the welfare state can be attributed to the various rationalist approaches emerging during the Enlightenment, which ultimately led to the formation of many of modern societies and government structures. The rationalist perspective did not necessarily dismiss or remove God, but indicated that many of the things attributed to God actually stem for logic, reason, and natural progress of humanity. The Enlightenment philosophers believed in God and the Bible, even taking on certain lessons from it such as truth and morality. They simply did not view it as divine revelation and that the world was developing on its own based on rational and explainable rules of nature, physics, and other sciences (Martin, 2006).
It can be argued that the Judeo-Christian perspective on the welfare state is mixed. On one hand, it is tremendously beneficial concept that has helped raise millions out of complete poverty, provide aid, healthcare, and food to those in need – following many of the Christian principles of giving and using wealth for charitable aims rather than accumulating it. At the same time, the welfare state ultimately replaced the role of religion and church in the majority of states that have adopted it. People no longer relied on the church, and distanced from the faith, instead focusing on the rationality and policy of the welfare state. The Christian perspective indicates that while there are great benefits such as economic justice, the welfare state is part of highly disturbing consequences in the form of federal bureaucracy, trivialization of liberty, and consumer capitalism (Tinder, 2009).
The welfare state has become the standard of policy in most modern governments. Virtually every government in the world maintains programs for social welfare and support, with some doing it to a greater extent than others, similar to the spectrum of typologies discussed by Esping-Andersen. Each country has different perspectives and approaches to the welfare state, as it strongly depends on both its financing from taxes and market economy to the local culture and needs of individuals. For example, the US government and population would likely never agree to the Nordic type of welfare state. That is because it would require giving up significant wealth and assets in the form of taxation, from personal enrichment to government redistribution, which goes against America’s capitalist and individualistic-centered society. Nevertheless, the welfare state represents the natural and historic transition of political economy and governance from the pre-industrial era to the modern industrial capitalistic society where citizens are inherently politically active and have the capacity to demand certain benefits from their governments.
Dickovick, J. Tyler, and Jonathan Eastwood. 2019. Comparative Politics (3rd ed.). New York, NY.: Oxford University Press Academic US.
Martin, Glenn R. 2006. Prevailing Worldviews of Western Society Since 1500. Marion, IN: Triangle Publishing.
Potrafke, N. (2018). The globalisation–welfare state nexus: Evidence from Asia. The World Economy 42, no. 3, pp.959-974. Web.
Tinder, Glenn. 1987. “Christianity and the Welfare State.” The Review of Politics 49 (4). Cambridge University Press: 549–69.
Van Voorhis, Rebecca. 2002. “Different Types of Welfare States? A Methodological Deconstruction of Comparative Research.” The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare 29, no. 4, pp.3-18. Web.