The welfare State


The welfare state is not a bogeyman. I am not a socialist though I have a lot of sympathy and lot in common with them. I consider myself a social democrat instead. I remember Premier Ed Schreyer in 1969, who made the same distinction after he led his party of New Democrats to power in the Manitoba provincial election.   A social democrat is a person who understands that the welfare state is essential to democracy, and at least enlightened business leaders have come to realize that.

Frankly I believe that socialism is as outdated as capitalism.  They were old foes that were both wrong. A Social Democrat realizes that government is a useful tool to bring about economic well-being and justice. It is not the enemy of the people. It is not the goal of the social democrat to have government own all businesses or to control, or as Marx said, “the means of production.”  The social democrat is content to have those owned privately. However the social democrat realizes that the owners of businesses and properties should not be allowed to have unfettered power because if they do they will use that power to exploit the less powerful in what they perceive, often mistakenly, as their own interest. That is not in the public interest. The Social Democrat speaks for the public interest–i.e. the common good.

Many Capitalists and most neo-conservatives want to see government shrunk. They are constantly on the warpath against ‘Big government.” They believe that almost everything of value comes from private enterprise and that government is only a chain around it. Government is seen as a hindrance, as a purveyor of red tape that strangles private enterprise. Famously, an American neo-conservative once said he wanted to shrink government until it was so small it could drown in a bathtub!

The Social Democrat also realizes that often public goods are just as important, if not more so, than private goods. Both are goods!  For example, the Social Democrat appreciates schools, hospitals, fire departments, highways, sidewalks, parks, ecological reserves, national and provincial/state parks, recreational facilities and much more, as great goods every bit as important as private goods.

Well-known Social Democrats were Tony Judt and Eric Hobsbawm.  They appreciated all the goods that governments had brought about in the 20th century and that it was crazy to suggest that all these goods had been brought about by private enterprise.

As Ed Broadbent stated in a speech in 1997, the welfare state is not a matter of altruism or charity.  Rather, it is a grand bargain that reconciles citizens to the inequalities that arise in the capitalist system by offering them equitable treatment in at least some fundamental areas of life.  As he said, “the marriage of the welfare state brings together the two dispositions of fairness and self-interest.  Like all marriages, it is precarious– and the balance between the impulse to solidarity and to self must be constantly monitored.”  In the years of the neo-conservative retreat this delicate balance was disturbed and often forgotten.

One of the interesting by-products of the success of the welfare state was to increase the number of working class families open to neo-conservative arguments.  It is easy for people to forget the help that they have received and give themselves sole credit for their own achievements. For example, many people, including successful entrepreneurs, came to believe that their success was the result of their own efforts alone, ignoring the benefits, direct and indirect from the complex networks of the welfare state.  Many successful people forget about the subsidies that they have received from the welfare state, such as state subsidized education, housing, transportation, entertainment, health care, care for their elders, assistance to their business or profession.  They think that just because they did not receive direct social assistance that they have received no help.  Then by hypocrisy that even politicians would find impressive they declare themselves “self-made men!”

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