Earlier this week Andrew Gamble did a seminar at Manchester on his new book, Can the Welfare State Survive? It’s hardlly a spoiler to say he answers, yes, it can and must.
The book starts with some observations on the historical origins of the welfare state, and the various motives for its creation – the moral imperative, the practical need for a healthy workforce, the pragmatism of capitalism averting more radical political responses. Then it separates the challenges to the existing welfare state into four categories: affordability and the political unwillingness to pay taxes; the forces of globalisation affecting the tax base and business decisions about where to employ people; the ageing population making growing demands on the welfare state; and what he calls ‘new social risks’, which includes structural social and economic changes such as women’s changed expectations about work and family life, new patterns of working, the transition to services and intangibles and so on.
Despite this array of challenges, the book argues that the welfare state will adapt and survive because if it does not, then capitalism won’t and can’t survive. I too have great respect for the ability of capitalist democracies to adapt, and to ensure there are institutions to benefit the majority of people, often in just the nick of time to avoid revolution. Yet the book – not surprisingly for such a short one – does not engage fully with the problem that the welfare state we have does not actually do a good job, and yet it is hard to see a political path from the dysfunction of today to a better model of insurance against aggregate risks tomorrow. Today’s structures are built around the breadwinner, the traditional family, long periods of conventional employment in a company that will be around for a long time to deliver many of the policies of the welfare state. Nor is there any sign of this changing. The latest pensions and apprenticeships policies are to be delivered by companies. The new welfare state will have to be shaped around individuals taking a myriad of different paths through life. Otherwise even the people it is supposed to be protecting will find other ways, and support for paying for the ‘welfare state’ will decline further.
Can The Welfare State Survive? presents a nice overview of the issues, nevertheless, and I do agree that the moral and practical cases for it remain strong. The challenges to the welfare state are political, and paradoxically are posed more by its ostensible defenders who do not want anything to change.
This book, by the way, is one of another new series of short, polemical series, competing with my own Perspectives, and one from Palgrave in which my esteemed colleague Adam Ozanne has a new book out, Power and Neoclassical Economics (albeit with a mad price of £45 for 110 pages). There are lots of others. Despite – or rather because of! – the competition, I think this is a healthy phenomenon, a sign of the hunger for ideas and debate.