Associate Professor Xavier Landes: Is the Welfare State in Crisis?
Associate Professor Xavier Landes is part of an online debate on the welfare state (in French) on a French media outlet.
Landes is defending the idea that the welfare state is in crisis for, at least, three sets of reasons: economic, social and political. Economic because most of the welfare states have had a constant increase of their debt since the 1970s-1980s. Such a situation has been reducing their room for manoeuvre for fiscal or monetary policies.
Social because the contract that grounded the Post-war, which was about protecting citizens against social risks, and epitomized by public insurance (health care, pensions and unemployment benefits) has been undermined, in particular in the aftermath of the fall of the communist bloc. As a result, a discourse of personal responsibility is growing at the expense of references to collective solidarity.
And, finally, political since the welfare state is facing a serious crisis of legitimacy, symbolized by the rise of populism. In short, an increasing number of citizens consider that welfare states work for the benefit of some “elites” or privileged groups.
Read the full article by SSE Riga Associate Professor Xavier Landes below and visit Le Drenche portal for reading more about the debate and voting.
Associate Professor Xavier Landes:
The Crises of the Welfare State
The welfare state is experiencing a polymorph crisis. Economic first. Since the 1970s, public finances have been deteriorating due to the successive crises and recessions. De facto, debt holders have a say on public policies and public margin of manoeuvre are more restrained.
Social then. The contemporary welfare state has been thought as a barrier against the tumults and horrors of the 1930s–1940s (Great depression, mass unemployment, poverty, fascism, Nazism, war, Holocaust). One of the lessons of this period has been the necessity of guaranteeing to citizens a protection against the risks of everyday life (unemployment, sickness, old age). This objective has been pursued through public insurance along with another goal, which has been to tame inequalities, principally through taxation, sometimes aggressively (such as a steeply progressive income tax). Scandinavian countries have incarnated this insurance and egalitarian project. The motivation was not simply to level conditions, but to stabilize democracies in order to avoid nationalist surges.
However, this ‘social contract’ has been eroded since the 1980s: less progressive taxation, social insurance in decline (unemployment, health, pensions), etc. Material inequalities have been increasing (cf. the works of Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and others) and killing people as shown by the studies on social determinants of health (Kate Pickett, Michael Marmot, Richard Wilkinson, etc.).
In this context, the crisis of the welfare state takes the form of pressures for individualizing social risks (for instance, through deductibles or co-payments on public health insurance), the discourse of individual responsibility outshining social solidarity (for instance with the discussions about jobseekers). It is tempting to see there an effect of the fall of communism in Europe, which undermined the attraction of the welfare state as a stabilizing factor.
The direct consequence, which grounds the most worrying crisis, is the corrosion of the legitimacy of the welfare state and of its political justification, social democracy. The rise of nationalism and populism can be interpreted as the manifestation of distrust towards a disappointing redistributive and insurance ideal. This represents an opportunity for outsider discourses which opposes the ‘system’ arguing that states favor specific groups (liberal or intellectual elites, migrants, etc.) at the expense of the ‘real people’. This ‘politics of resentment’ (Katherine J. Cramer) illustrates the erosion of the social contract.
No need to idealize a hypothetical ‘golden age’ or to darken more than necessary the picture, but it is important to notice that the welfare state is in crisis, at one of the worst possible moments: while the international scene is becoming more volatile (Russian and Chinese ambitions, nuclear proliferation, etc.) and colossal challenges – climate change and pollution (most notably plastic) – are threatening environmental equilibria, biodiversity and the survival of part of humanity. The welfare state is rooted on insurance mechanisms, in France and elsewhere. It articulates a solidaristic management of social risks, which, unfortunately, is declining.