What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?

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Leonard McCombe/Picture Post/Getty Images
A factory meeting about the Beveridge report, which laid the foundation for the welfare state in England, February 1943

The following is adapted from a lecture given at New York University on October 19, 2009.

Americans would like things to be better. According to public opinion surveys in recent years, everyone would like their child to have improved life chances at birth. They would prefer it if their wife or daughter had the same odds of surviving maternity as women in other advanced countries. They would appreciate full medical coverage at lower cost, longer life expectancy, better public services, and less crime.

When told that these things are available in Austria, Scandinavia, or the Netherlands, but that they come with higher taxes and an “interventionary” state, many of those same Americans respond: “But that is socialism! We do not want the state interfering in our affairs. And above all, we do not wish to pay more taxes.”

This curious cognitive dissonance is an old story. A century ago, the German sociologist Werner Sombart famously asked: Why is there no socialism in America? There are many answers to this question. Some have to do with the sheer size of the country: shared purposes are difficult to organize and sustain on an imperial scale. There are also, of course, cultural factors, including the distinctively American suspicion of central government.

And indeed, it is not by chance that social democracy and welfare states have worked best in small, homogeneous countries, where issues of mistrust and mutual suspicion do not arise so acutely. A willingness to pay for other people’s services and benefits rests upon the understanding that they in turn will do likewise for you and your children: because they are like you and see the world as you do.

Conversely, where immigration and visible minorities have altered the demography of a country, we typically find increased suspicion of others and a loss of enthusiasm for the institutions of the welfare state. Finally, it is incontrovertible that social democracy and the welfare states face serious practical challenges today. Their survival is not in question, but they are no longer as self-confident as they once appeared.

But my concern tonight is the following: Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?

Our shortcoming—forgive the academic jargon—is discursive. We simply do not know how to talk about these things. To understand why this should be the case, some history is in order: as Keynes once observed, “A study of the history of opinion…


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