Vices and Virtues of the Welfare State

by Henry on October 17, 2005

I see via one of John H’s other incarnations that Mark Bauerlein is under the charming misconception that it’s a bad idea for aspiring sociologists to work on “the debilitating effects of the European welfare state” if they want to get their dissertations accepted. It’s always a good idea to, like, familiarize yourself with debates among prominent sociologists and other social scientists before making these grand pronouncements. But at least Bauerlein’s error gives me an excuse to link to this work in progress by Margarita Estevez-Abe and Glyn Morgan, which argues against the European welfare state because of its institutional inflexibilities. Morgan and Estevez-Abe say, correctly, that certain European welfare states have some very dubious features, perpetuating gender inequality among other things. They argue instead for a normative standard based on a capacity for a wide-ranging individuality, which in turn requires a strong degree of institutional flexibility. That is, institutions should be able to accommodate a wide variety of lifestyle and career choices, rather than assuming, say, that women should confine themselves to the home and motherhood.

Even in this early form, it’s a very interesting paper that makes some good trenchant criticisms of European welfare states (and perhaps of the German model in particular). Non-Europeans forget that many European welfare systems were forged, for better or worse, by conservatives. Still, I reckon that there are some important weaknesses in the argument. First, Morgan and Estevez-Abe seem to be hinting that they think that the Anglo-American model is normatively superior to its European equivalent on their preferred grounds (flexibility and the ability to support a wide range of individual choices). At the moment, the paper doesn’t seem to me to come close to laying out the kind of evidence that would make this claim stick. While the US welfare state may have less gender bias of a certain sort than its European equivalent, that’s because it’s equally scanty for both sexes. At the very least, I think they have their work cut out if they want to claim that female welfare recipients (or former welfare recipients) in the US have more opportunities to realise their individuality than their European equivalents (perhaps their argument points less towards a comparison of the benefits and disadvantages of European and American style welfare capitalism, than towards an immanent critique of some of the problems of the former). Second, and not entirely unrelated, an obvious rejoinder to their argument is that maximizing individual choice in practice sometimes requires structural rigidities. Which is to say that individuals might well prefer a European-style welfare state, even if it defines them in ways that limit their possibilities in one direction, because it may strengthen their bargaining position in interactions with other non-state actors through foreclosing other limiting possibilities that they otherwise might have to accept.

Finally, the intent of institutions’ framers doesn’t necessarily tell us how institutions are applied. Even if the creators of an institution have sought to reinforce and perpetuate gender imbalances through certain kinds of institutions, these institutions may well be subverted in practice.* The obvious example is France’s very generous support of working mothers through creches and other publicly available facilities, which, even though it was originally rooted in a quite dubious maternalist set of policy goals, helps French women to balance work and family life far better than their American (or, for that matter, German) sisters. But still, a very interesting paper (and one which I hope to follow up Real Soon with a review of Morgan’s book on the EU).

Update: link changed so that it points to a more recent version of the paper.

  • An argument which I’m stealing wholesale from Jonah Levy, “Vice into Virtue?: Progressive Politics and Welfare Reform in Western Europe,” Politics and Society 27 (2), 1999: 239-273.

{ 26 comments }

1

Dale 10.17.05 at 8:51 pm

Habermas set up a left wing critique of both the capitalist economy and the social welfare state back around 1980. Both are sources of social pathologies as well as sources of wealth and social equality. Problems with capitalism can be partly resolved via social democracy. Problems with the welfare state can be partly resolved via public particpation and shaping of programs.

2

otto 10.17.05 at 9:01 pm

“Mark Bauerlein is under the charming misconception that it’s a bad idea for aspiring sociologists to work on “the debilitating effects of the European welfare state” if they want to get their dissertations accepted. It’s always a good idea to, like, familiarize yourself with debates … before making these grand pronouncements. But at least Bauerlein’s error gives me an excuse to link to this work in progress by Glyn Morgan and Margarita Estevez-Abe, which argues against the European welfare state because of its institutional inflexibilities… certain European welfare states have some very dubious features, perpetuating gender inequality.”

Well, I dont think you use as evidence against Bauerlein academic work which criticises European welfare states from the liberal left i.e. for perpetuating gender inequality – just as you couldn’t with reference to an article which said that organised feminism was neglecting the working class struggle. Can we think of a more right-wingish example of current criticism of the European welfare state, excluding pure economics (i.e. increased unemployment etc)?

[I look foward to your review of Morgan. I need to read that book Real Soon.]

3

a 10.18.05 at 12:21 am

“The obvious example is France’s very generous support of working mothers through creches and other publicly available facilities, which, even though it was originally rooted in a quite dubious maternalist set of policy goals…”

My understanding is that the generous support was rooted in the French desire to improve the birth rate. Is this what is dubious? Or is in some other “maternalist” goal?

O.w. I agree with what is said. The European state reduces risk (of unemployment, of disease which won’t be treated,…), and thus even though it constains choice in some respects, it permits more choice and allows more liberty in more important ways.

4

Ed 10.18.05 at 5:01 am

Which is to say that individuals might well prefer a European-style welfare state, even if it defines them in ways that limit their possibilities in one direction, because it may strengthen their bargaining position in interactions with other non-state actors through foreclosing other limiting possibilities that they otherwise might have to accept.

That sentence gets a 1 out of 10 for clarity. “Defines them in ways” I could probably work out from the preceding sentence (though I shouldn’t have to) but “interactions” without examples, let alone “non-state actors” without examples and “other limiting possibilities” without examples renders this whole confabulation nearly meaningless. What are you talking about, specifically?

5

Henry 10.18.05 at 8:46 am

Otto – the paper by Streeck etc gives a critique of the German welfare state along lines that many conservatives could agree with. And the Estevez-Abe and Morgan paper is, I think, something that a classical liberal (i.e. pro-free markets person) could very easily find themselves agreeing with – the argument for individuality is one that really is consonant with some forms of libertarianism (although I imagine that Estevez-Abe and Morgan are ultimately bringing their argument in a direction that libertarians would be less happy to sign onto).

a – French maternalism has dubious antecedents imo because it stems from an ideology of women as the mothers of the nation if my memory serves me – this can easily be read to constrain women’s choices. But as Levy says, this doesn’t mean that vice can’t be turned into virtue.

ed – let me unpack what I was saying through an example. If I remember correctly, the Swedish state offers generous parental leave – as long as both the mother and father are willing to take it up (the leave offered if only one parent takes it up is much less generous). Now in one sense that is a strike against Estevez-Abe and Morgan’s notion of individuality; it is trying to push fathers into occupying a more active role in the home, whether they might like it or not. But in another, many fathers might actually find that it increases their available choice set. Say I am a father who wants to spend more time at home with my kid – but am worried that my boss at work won’t take me seriously and will pass me over for promotion if I do, because I am not demonstrating the requisite commitment to the firm. If there is a law like the Swedish one, it offers me an excellent rationale to do what I wanted to do anyway; it thus increases my bargaining strength vis-a-vis my employer. This is a fairly basic implication of bargaining theory which Schelling develops at length – my bargaining strength may be increased in certain situations if my hands are tied by some external factor.

6

a 10.18.05 at 9:09 am

“…because it stems from an ideology of women as the mothers of the nation…” How is that? Women clearly have to be the birth-mothers of the nation (until the day that science allows otherwise), but day-care means that women are working and not mothering (in the sense of tending to their children).

7

ed 10.18.05 at 9:17 am

Thanks for the clarification, Henry.

8

harry b 10.18.05 at 9:26 am

Well, not exactly (responding to a). It means that caring for small children is split between women who are their mothers and women for whom it is paid work. I’d hazard that when it comes to caring for pre-school age children the alienation of care from parents actually increases the gendered character of that caring (personally I know a bunch of stay-at-home dads, but I know no-one who sends their kids to be cared for by men in daycare centers).

Anyway I think I agree with Henry about all this, but I’m not sure because the authors’ notion of ‘individuality’ is extremely vague. On one reading it is covered by Rawls’s conception of persons as free and equal — in particular the idea that they have the capacity for a conception of the good (which is a much richer idea than they seem to realise) and also that they see themselves as self-authenticating sources of claims on society. Whatever individuality is, furthermore, if it really matters, I see no reason at all why we would want the social resources supporting it to ensure only that everyone has “adequate” scope for realizing it. Why not go for maximin?

The authors would be unhappy with Henry’s comments, furthermore, because they criticise Rawls for not giving useful guidance on choice among certain kinds of institutions. They want a theory to be more determinate. I actually think his view is more determinate than they suggest, but not down to the level of detail they’d like; but nor can their theory be (without a lot more contextual consideration than they do).

9

Dan K 10.18.05 at 9:31 am

A brief comment on the Swedish parental leave. It allows for a maximum of 480 paid days of leave, 390 which are paid as a fraction of the salary of the parent in question (80 % up to a fixed sum, somewhere between €25k and €30k). 330 of the 390 days can be used by one parent, the rest must be used by the other. The final 90 days are paid €8 a day. There are talks about forcing the parents to share parental leave more equally, mainly motivated by Henry’s argument in #5, but nothing is decided yet.

10

Robin 10.18.05 at 9:40 am

As I recall, parts of Bo Rothstein’s book Just Institutions Matter also examined how welfare states could constrain liberty (understood in libertarian choice set size metrics) before going on to discuss how a welfare state could be structured to expand this set.

11

cm 10.18.05 at 10:52 am

robin: I guess as long as poverty does not restrict liberty everything is fine.

12

mark 10.18.05 at 11:34 am

It’s always nice to be charming, but I’d rather be right.

The comment in Tierney’s article was originally slightly more modulated, but I think in his final version an element blunts some of the criticism here. The article was focused upon young people trying to enter the profession, not people already with jobs or tenure. The grad students’ or post-docs’ perspective on the intellectual/ideological slant of disciplines is quite different from that of their elders’. The stakes are higher, and they weigh the odds more closely, especially in a tight market.

If a discipline leans mildly to one side, the difference will magnify for people in less secure positions. If among the established faculty we see a decisive, but not overwhelming lean in one direction–say, in favor of government action to address inequality–the lean will grow as you move farther down the institutional ladder. The minority opinion they may encounter, but adopting it looks unwise. Over time, the imbalance worsens.

As for the tilt of sociology toward government action to address inequality, I take that from the self-decriptions of sociology departments, remarks by social scientists (such as Roger Bowen, head of the AAUP), and anedotal evidence. Maybe I overestimate it.

13

Robin 10.18.05 at 12:57 pm

Cm, the book was a defense of expansive welfare states a la Scandinavia. It acknowledged a limit on the existing model and then went on to show that they’re not inherent to it. In fact, many reforms were made within an expansive model–that is, to suggest there is not necessarily a trade-off.

14

a 10.18.05 at 1:15 pm

“It means that caring for small children is split between women who are their mothers and women for whom it is paid work. I’d hazard that when it comes to caring for pre-school age children the alienation of care from parents actually increases the gendered character of that caring (personally I know a bunch of stay-at-home dads, but I know no-one who sends their kids to be cared for by men in daycare centers).”

Yes, well we were talking about the historical reasons behind day-care in France. If you think it was put in place because legislators wanted to ensure that women still took care of children (but not their children! and paid!), then you’re welcome to that belief. For the moment I am still waiting for some disreputable, sexist idea behind day-care in France embedded in some “dubious maternalist set of policy goals.”

Just generally – and this is what brought my remarks on what is a minor part of Henry’s argument – it seems to me that, more and more, one cannot praise anything French, without putting in some negative aside, which I guess is meant to show that one is not some wild-eyed cheese-eating surrender monkey.

15

Henry 10.18.05 at 1:30 pm

a – the reason why the maternalist argument is dubious is that it claimed in its original form that having children was a kind of national duty, strongly discouraged women from entering the workforce, and was frequently anti-suffrage. Nothing to do with anti-French prejudice.

16

kimberly 10.18.05 at 2:14 pm

A comment on French child care by someone who has studied its development — the origins of many French family policies lie not in maternalism, but pro-natalism. The aim was to encourage families to have children, and then provide facilities to protect infant health (such as creches). Interestingly, this produced a fairly pragmatic attitude towards mothers’ employment, even early in the 20th century. Rather than try to send women home, policy-makers recognized that women often had to work, and then tried to make sure their children were well-taken care of. Arguably, this policy also reflected the interests of employers in keeping women in factory work (and thus undercutting male salaries, union solidarity, etc.).

A comment about liberal market economies and welfare regimes — as Henry has intimated, many of the advantages of these systems accrue to upper-class women, who can hire people to take care of their kids while they are rising up the management ladder, unhindered by stereotypes about women taking long parental leaves and dropping out of paid work. Thus, while attention to the gendered consequences of a particular policy regime is important, it should not come at the expense of a class analysis.

I would also add that the US is increasingly lagging in women’s labor force participation rates, owing to the lack of child care, paid parental leaves etc. In the long-run, I wonder if the continental/Nordic European policies will not pay off for women — and not just the rich and highly educated ones.

17

nic 10.18.05 at 2:27 pm

I find it really odd that this discussion about the welfare state has immediately centered around parental leave and childcare (and the Swedish and French models of these). Parental leave and childcare were never central concerns of the welfare state and they still aren’t in much of Europe, though the situation is changing. Sweden and France really are the exceptions, not the rule, in both of these cases.

18

kimberly 10.18.05 at 2:31 pm

I think that’s not entirely true. Maternity leave was an important component of the development of welfare states in Europe from early on. Paid parental leave is now available everywhere, and child care is becoming increasingly important (although there’s much room for improvement). The European Union also is pushing the member states to develop more child care. You can read about this at the European Employment Strategy website.

http://europa.eu.int/comm/employment_social/employment_strategy/docindic_en.htm

19

harry b 10.18.05 at 2:36 pm

Kimberley’s comments about the class-biased nature of the support given to working women in the US are irrelevant to the analysis if you assume, as the authors do, that justice only requires sufficiency, and you define sufficiency sufficiently sparsely. This is not a criticism of kimberley: I see no warrant for that assumption, and insofaras there is an argument for it in the paper it is weak, and so I find Kimberley’s comments completely relevant to the discussion I want to have. But as soon as justice demands much more than sparsely understood sufficiency the continental models are going to look better.

20

harry b 10.18.05 at 2:37 pm

a — my comments were a response to your second comment, taking it completely out of context from the first, so were irrelevant to your discussion with henry. Sorry. What I say is neverthless true! And certainly no sign of anti-French bias.

21

a 10.18.05 at 2:39 pm

“The reason why the maternalist argument is dubious is that it claimed in its original form that having children was a kind of national duty, strongly discouraged women from entering the workforce”

Henry, I read:

“The obvious example is France’s very generous support of working mothers through creches and other publicly available facilities, which, even though it was originally rooted in a quite dubious maternalist set of policy goals…”

So I’m afraid I still don’t understand how French day-care – which obviously is not meant to discourage women from entering the workforce – is rooted in policies which were meant to discourage women from entering the workforce? Unless this notion of root is just merely some kind of historical succession?

I agree with Kimberly’s analysis that French day-care was pro-natalist rather than maternal. I’m not sure how strong a claim she is trying to make when she says that the policy “reflected the interests of employers in keeping women in factory work.” According to my admittedly limited knowledge of the matter, there were other restrictions on women in factory work (inability to work nights, for instance) and women were given as well family leave which clearly was not in the interest of employers.

22

Henry 10.18.05 at 3:26 pm

a – I’ll bow to Kimberly’s expertise here – she’s the expert. But my understanding that French creche provision had their origins in maternalism comes from an AHR review essay that is at least somewhat sympathetic to the maternalists – the ref. is Seth Koven and Sonya Michel, “Womanly Duties: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, 1880-1920,” _The American Historical Review_ Vol. 95, No. 4 (Oct., 1990), pp. 1076-1108.

23

james 10.18.05 at 3:34 pm

Does anyone else think the (common) system of paid maternity leave, where pay is proportional to wages, is odd?

I can’t think of any other feature of the welfare state that works in this manner (i.e. money is given to people in proportion to how rich they are). Fixed sums payable to all are much more common. You could possibly make similar points about qualification periods and linking the benefit to employment.

24

kimberly 10.18.05 at 4:04 pm

The piece by Koven and Michel acutally makes an ironic point about maternalist influence on the welfare state — that in countries like Britain and the US, maternalism was a stronger social force but failed to get policies enacted for women and children, but where these movements were weaker vis-a-vis much stronger state bureaucracies in Germany and France, more child and family policies and programs were enacted. Susan Pedersen’s book on the origins of family policy in France and the Britain (Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State) makes a similar argument — there were better developed family policies in France where women had less influence over the policies.

On the point by James — public pension systems often pay out more to those with more. The same is true for unemployment compensation. In parts of Western Europe, this was done to crowd out private provision, and to include the middle class in these programs by replacing more of their income at times of unemployment or old-age. The same principle applies to maternity or parental leave.

25

Henry 10.18.05 at 10:46 pm

OK – sounds like I may have simply misinterpreted Koven and Michel (wouldn’t be the first time). Thanks for the clarification.

26

a 10.19.05 at 1:09 am

“Does anyone else think the (common) system of paid maternity leave, where pay is proportional to wages, is odd?”

Just to say what the system in France is (this is from memory…). There is paid maternity leave (to take immediately before and after the birth) and “paid parental leave”. Maternity leave paid by the state is a percentage of salary, but capped at a low level. This is then topped off by one’s company, and this is (in the company where my wife worked, anyway) a percentage of salary. Paid parental leave, good until one’s child is 3, is paid for by the state and is fixed.

So in France anyway the system seems reasonably fair.

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