The real question i am concerned with, linking the titular themes is: 1. Can a welfare state be organised that does not impose so many constraints on liberty, in the name of equality, that those who fund it will eventually revolt against it?

I am aware of Rawls system which has much to say on liberty and equality. However i wondered whether, firstly, anybody could point any other interesting theoretical perspectives which are relevant to the question. Secondly, i wonder, can anybody think of any pertinent examples in the real world? This last question i imagine doesn't really have any interesting answers. The Scandavian countries are an obvious reply. Still, if anybody knows of any interesting aspects to them, that would be great.

  • It sounds like it is a fact that the rich eventually do revolt. Doesn't that presuppose a certain image of humanity or society that you're not making explicit? Or, asked differently: Why is "Yes, a welfare state where the better-offs realized that they are responsible for the lesser-well-offs" not a possible answer to your question?
    – iphigenie
    Dec 18 '13 at 14:20
  • it is a question i came across in a module i am currently studying. I entirely agree with that an implicit assumption about attitudes is making made, or needs discussing in any given answer. Like every body knows proper socialism would be everywhere in the world if everybody was up for it. More realistically, assuming people are self-interested, it follows that people vote in democracies for welfare states that benefit them the most. Thus the Swedish system was resilient during the 90s because the middle class benefit a lot.
    – user5025
    Dec 18 '13 at 14:28
  • so i agree, assuming humans are self-interested, in terms of material accumulation, a tipping point will always be reached, whereby the poverty of those at the bottom is reinforced again, and redistribution levels fall
    – user5025
    Dec 18 '13 at 14:30
  • @user5025 "Like every body knows proper socialism would be everywhere in the world if everybody was up for it." You err. Socialism cannot be a lasting way to organize society.
    – Ingo
    Dec 18 '13 at 14:31
  • what is your reason?
    – user5025
    Dec 18 '13 at 14:35

First of all, it is very important to separate the practical question from the theoretical one. This is because there are many more questions that are raised when meshing both together. In real life, as is often the case, it is never always a case of either/or. For not only have societies varying conceptions of liberty, welfare and equality, people's expectations of them differ as well.

That is not to say, of course, that the answer is moot. The question you raise is as contentious as the politics that often use and simplify these concepts. For instance, it is not clear that funding welfarist programs, such as social security or healthcare or free education, would lead to a 'revolt'. The general population may actually want these things because they are good for society - good in general in that there is a broad consensus that these programs are good to keep.

G.A. Cohen is a Marxist analytic philosopher who have tried to answer the question of welfare and market economics. In 'Why not socialism', he gives a brief outline of why both are not incompatible. You might want to check his other books which addresses this in more detail.

Michael Walzer, Michael Sandel (from the communitarian school), Derek Parfit, are some philosophers who have tried to answer these questions, in one way or another. You might want to check out the Blackwell Anthology to Contemporary Political Philosophy to get a more comprehensive answer.

What is important to note is that there are no simple answers to the question of political philosophy or politics in general. Regarding real world examples, the Scandinavian countries and Canada, are often known to be welfarist, providing largely free education and healthcare, while having only moderate taxes (see OECD datasets) and liberal democracies.

Keep in mind however, when discussing about welfare programs, that there further questions. For instance:

  • To what extent should welfare be provided to citizens?
  • What are the economic trade-offs?
  • Do welfare programs prevent people from taking initiatives? (often accused by neoliberals)
  • Do countries have enough resources to provide generous welfare to their citizens?

If you would like to answer these questions you cannot simply look to real world countries, because there are often historic reasons that affect the political consciousness of a country. These include whether the country has recently suffered from wars or economic depression, or internal political changes on that affect who or which party is in power.


A welfare state, once installed, is actually very stable with regard to revolts. I know of no movement which would advocate removal of the welfare state that had but a tiny followership. There are movements with some influence that want to abolish certain programs or just generally lower taxes, but even in those cases, a revolt is not in sight. They can be happy if they get to some political influence at all.

The reason for this is that the policy of well developed welfare states is a continued stream of compromises. For example, if there is a proposal to give unto group A, there will be complaints from group B and in effect group B gets some compensation. After several years of such a policy, the way taxed money takes from tax payer to the pockets of welfare receivers is totally obscured. Everybody has some claim on money from the state. And thus, the name "welfare" becomes more and more a misnomer.

When we look at a very well developed welfare state, like Germany, we'll find that dozens of programmes exist, but they are by no means only directed towards the poorest, the ones that cannot make a living on their own. To be sure, the very poor do actually receive welfare. But the lions share goes to programmes that actually include and benefit everyone. For example: Kindergeld (monthly payments for each kid, until the kid has finished an education), tax subsidies for this and that, pensions, free (as in beer) education, and so on.

The german system rests not only on hefty taxation but also on mandatory payments. For instance, health insurance, pension insurance, insurance for the case that one gets in need of permanent care (all those insurances are "public", i.e. politics says how much you have to pay, and what you get out), a duty for getting public Radio & Television running, and so on.

Despite of this, there is not a trace of revolt. Because everyone knows (or at least believes) that he benefits from the system. For example, with a revolt the claims against the public pensions insurance would be lost. Understandably, people having such claims don't want to loose them. But since you cannot work in germany without building up such claims, almost everyone has them.

In general, it is the case that the majority depends, in some form or another, on paymenst and services provided by the government or government controlled public institutions.

So, the political struggle is not like: people, come on, we would be better off if we didn't channel all that money through a huge bureaucracy. It is rather the struggle of certain groups to get more out of the system. For example, this years election was won by a party (CDU) that proposed to pay more pension for women that gave birth to a child before 1990 so as to make their claims equal to those who gave birth after 1990, when an earlier proposal made into law then said that mothers got to get "pension points" (claims) for the time they couldn't work due to giving birth. But the earlier law did not extend to the past, it was only "from now on". OTOH, the social democratic party SPD that forms a coalition with the CDU and thus will co-govern Germany for the next 4 years proposed to pay pensions from 63 on (when before, the age was raised from 65 to 67 on demografic grounds). (Needless to say, it is known that many of the supporters and members of SPD are well into their 50-ties ...).

Of course, those proposals are praised as another victory of "social justice", and are well supported among people. Nobody thinks of the costs, or who is actually going to pay for that. The political parties managed to make people belief that there will be "more money from the state". And because group A (the mothers) got their share, it was only just to also give group B (the well into the 50-ties) theirs.

Meanwhile, the public delusion reaches ever higher grades. As you know, a well known argument against abolishing the state is "But who will build the roads?". Building and maintenance of public infrastructure is indeed one of the best arguments for the state. Now, the situation in Germany is, that despite the state (on all levels) earns 500+ billion EUR annually, they actually didn't maintain the roads and bridges, so that now when it is unavoidable lest you risk breakdown of bridges etc., the costs are even higher. Despite this, politicians say: "We don't have enough money to do it." And people even believe it! Now the idea is to make foreign car drivers pay road toll to bring in the money for road maintenance, and this proposal is absolutly popular. It's just crazy. Never mind that toll for trucks was installed only a few years ago, and raised at least once since, with the same reasoning: "The trucks destroy the roads, therefore, they need to pay their share for maintenance." Never mind that public infrastructure paid through taxes is one of the fundamental reason a state with the power to tax must exists in the first place. They just get away with it. People really believe that a few foreigners will bring in the costs. Nobody asks: Where is all that money you took on the grounds that public infrastructure must be provided by the state?


The welfare state, meaning 'faring well' is also how it is known in Spain - estado del beinestar, literally the 'state of well-being'; its also known as folkhemmet in Sweden, that is the home of the people, and sozialstaat in Germany. As the names show they signify well-being and social support. Instead of the state being above the people, it becomes their home. It is the latest incarnation of an old idea - the Roman Empire provided corn dole and Zakat (provision for the poor) is one of the five pillars of Islam.

The sociologist T E Marshall characterised the welfare State as a distinctive combination of democracy, welfare & capitalism. Its characterised by equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth & public responsibility for poverty.

The welfare state should not be identified simply with its last goal - public responsibility of poverty. But with the key idea of faring well, that is flourishing for all its citizens. Given this one hardly expects a revolt by elite or privilaged classes - in the sense of a complete overturning of this state of faring well; and nor by the non-privilaged.

What one can expect instead is management of various benefits: How much goes where by what means and to benefit whom and towards what ends.

In this view, infra-structure projects like roads and bridges are welfare, and so are scientific missions like the Large Hadron Collider. As well as bailing out Banks.

One can say that the aim of the welfare state is about enhancing & protecting liberty, rather than restricting it.

However, this aim can be and will be subject to abuse; and the system has to be robust enough to adapt to that, as well as rooting out the most egregarious abuses. And this abuse can happen by all economic actors.


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