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The International Labor Organization and the welfare state: institutional effects on national welfare spending, 1960–80

  • David Strang and Patricia Mei Yin Chang (a1)


National welfare programs are importantly affected by models of welfare activity institutionalized at the global level. This article examines the impact of the welfare regime advocated by and within the International Labor Organization (ILO). Countries that have recently ratified ILO conventions related to welfare show increased growth in spending, net of national characteristics. Subanalyses show that the effects of ILO ratification are strong in the industrialized capitalist democracies, particularly where prior welfare spending is low and the working class has a weakly institutionalized role in policymaking. ILO ratification seems disconnected from spending in the less developed countries. Legislative case studies point to similar patterns. These findings suggest that international norms contribute to policy where they offer compelling models that powerful actors can use to legitimate policy innovation.



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We thank Ernst B. Haas, Peter J. Katzenstein, E. A. Landy, Connie McNeely, John W. Meyer, Fred Pampel, Abram de Swaan, and John B. Williamson for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article and Doug Currivan and Mark Chaffee for research assistance on this project. None of the individuals named above (with the possible exception of the authors) bears any responsibility for the views stated herein. We would be happy to make data used in this project available to interested scholars.

1 For arguments concerning organized labor, see Castles, Francis G. and McKinlay, R. D.Public Welfare Provision and the Sheer Futility of a Sociological Approach to Politics,” British Journal of Political Science 9 (04 1979), pp. 157–72; Stephens, John D., The Transition from Capitalism to Socialism (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1980); Andersen, Gosta Esping, Politics Against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985); and Korpi, Walter, “Power, Politics, and State Autonomy in the Development of Social Citizenship: Social Rights During Sickness in Eighteen OECD Countries Since 1930,” American Sociological Review 54 (06 1989), pp. 309–28. For a discussion emphasizing the middle class, see Baldwin, Peter, The Politics of Social Solidarity: Class Bases of the European Welfare State, 1875–1975 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). Finally, for an argument that focuses on the elderly, see Pampel, Fred C. and Williamson, John B., “Welfare Spending in Advanced Industrial Democracies, 1950–1980,” American Journal of Sociology 93 (05 1988), pp. 1424–56.

2 Examples of arguments stressing the structural consequences of industrialization include Clark Kerr's works Labor and Management in Industrial Society (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1964) and The Future of Industrial Societies: Convergence or Continuing Diversity? (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983). The seminal empirical analysis of welfare expenditures, flowing mainly from this tradition, is Wilensky, Harold L., The Welfare State and Equality: Structural and Ideological Roots of Public Expenditure (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975). For a more historical discussion, see Flora, Peter and Alber, Jens, “Modernization, Democratisation, and the Development of Welfare States in Western Europe,” in Flora, Peter and Heidenhammer, J. A., eds., The Development of Welfare States in Europe and America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1981), pp. 3780. For Marxist formulations, see o'Connor, James, The Fiscal Crisis of the State (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973); and the essays collected in Offe, Claus, ed., Contradictions of the Welfare State (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984).

3 Foundational analyses of this type include Heclo, Hugh, Modem Social Politics in Britain and Sweden (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974); Orloff, Ann S. and Skocpol, Theda, “Why Not Equal Protection? Explaining the Politics of Public Social Spending in Britain, 1900–1911, and the United States, 1880s-1920,” American Sociological Review 49 (12 1984), pp. 726–50; Weir, Margaret and Skocpol, Theda, “State Structures and the Possibilities for ‘Keynesian’ Responses to the Great Depression in Sweden, Britain, and the United States,” in Evans, Peter B., Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, and Skocpol, Theda, eds., Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 107–68.

4 This work is sometimes referred to as the “new” institutionalism to distinguish it from “old” institutionalism of Talcott Parsons and Philip Selznick. The new institutionalism grew out of the study of formal organizations; see the papers collected in Powell, Walter W. and DiMaggio, Paul J., eds., The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

5 For a programmatic statement, see Meyer, John W., Boli, John, and Thomas, George M., “Ontology and Rationalization in the Western Cultural Account,” in Thomas, George M., Meyer, John W., Ramirez, Francisco O., and Boli, John, eds., Institutional Structure (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1987), pp. 1238. Most empirical work centers on the worldwide expansion of mass schooling and the parallel homogenisation of the curriculum; see, for example, Meyer, John W., Ramirez, Francisco O., and Soysal, Yasemin N., “World Expansion of Mass Education, 1870–1980,” Sociology of Education 63 (04 1992), pp. 128–49; Benavot, Aaron, Cha, Yun-Kyung, Kamens, David, Meyer, John W., and Wong, Suk-Ying, “Knowledge for the Masses: World Models and National Curricula, 1920–1986,” American Sociological Review 56 (02 1991), pp. 85100. Other concerns include the expansion of codified statuses and the cultural expansion of the nation-state system. On personal status, see Boli, John and Meyer, John W., “The Ideology of Childhood and the State: Rules Distinguishing Children in National Constitutions, 1870–1970,” American Sociological Review 43 (12 1978), pp. 797812. On collective status, see Strang, David, “From Dependency to Sovereignty: An Event History Analysis of Decolonization, 1870–1987,” American Sociological Review 55 (spring 1990), pp. 846–60.

6 The direction of influence thus parallels that explicated in Gourevitch, Peter A., “The Second Image Reversed: The International Sources of Domestic Politics,” International Organization 32 (Autumn 1978), pp. 881912. Much of its substance also turns on the role of scientists and professionals, in ways consistent with the arguments voiced by Peter Haas. See Do Regimes Matter? Epistemic Communities and Mediterranean Pollution Control,” International Organization 43 (Summer 1989), pp. 377404; and Haas, Peter, ed., “Knowledge, Power, and International Policy Coordination,” special issue, International Organization (Winter 1992), an issue devoted to epistemic communities. Some parallels here are spelled out in David Strang and John W. Meyer, “Institutional Conditions for Diffusion,” Theory and Society, in press.

7 Excellent expositions and discussions of the regime concept include Krasner, Stephen D., ed., International Regimes (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983); Keohane, Robert O., After Hegemony (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984); Kratochwil, Friedrich and Ruggie, John Gerard, “International Organization: A State of the Art on an Art of the State,” International Organization 40 (Autumn 1986), pp. 753–75; and Haggard, Stephan and Simmons, Beth A., “Theories of International Regimes,” International Organization 41 (Summer 1987), pp. 491517.

8 The “reflexive” or “constructivist” positions adopted by these authors undergird this article's discussion of regimes. For an argument connecting debates within international relations to sociological concerns, see Wendt, Alexander, “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics,” International Organization 46 (Spring 1992), pp. 391425. Regime analysis of the type labeled “modified structural” by Stephen Krasner sees regimes as mediating between interests and capabilities on the one hand and behavior on the other. For example, regimes may be characterized as solutions to problems of complex interdependence where the uncoordinated pursuit of self-interest produces suboptimal outcomes for all.

9 Haggard and Simmons, “Theories of International Regimes.”

10 Stein Kuhnle, “The Growth of Social Insurance Programs in Scandinavia: Outside Influences and Internal Forces,” in Flora, and Heidenheimer, , The Development of Welfare States in Europe and America, pp. 125–50.

11 Collier, David and Messick, Richard E.Prerequisites Versus Diffusion: Testing Alternative Explanations of Social Security Adoption,” American Political Science Review 69 (12 1975), pp. 1299–315. Today, 142 countries have some type of national welfare legislation.

12 Usui, Chikako, “The Origin and the Development of Modern Welfare States: A Study of Societal Forces and World Influences on the Adoption of Social Insurance Policies Among Sixty-three Countries, 1880–1976,” Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, Stanford, California, 1987.

13 Thomas, George M. and Lauderdale, Pat, “State Authority and National Welfare Programs in the World System Context,” Sociological Forum 3 (Summer 1988), pp. 383–99.

14 See Chang, Patricia M. Y. and Strang, David, “Internal and External Sources of the Welfare State: A Cross-National Analysis, 1950–1980,” presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, Washington, D.C., 111508 1990; and Pampel, Fred C. and Williamson, John B., Age, Class, Politics and the Welfare State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), chap. 4.

15 See Katzenstein, Peter J., Corporatism and Change (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984) and Small States in World Markets (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985).

16 Cameron, David R., “The Expansion of the Public Economy: A Comparative Analysis,” American Political Science Review 72 (12 1978), pp. 1243–61.

17 See Thomas and Lauderdale, “State Authority and National Welfare Programs in the World System Context”; and Chang and Strang, “Internal and External Sources of the Welfare State.”

18 Pampel and Williamson, Age, Class, Politics, and the Welfare State.

19 See Cameron, “The Expansion of the Public Economy”; and Katzenstein, Corporatism and Change and Small States in World Markets.

20 We can give only the most cursory overview of ILO history and organizational structure. Detailed accounts include Shotwell, James T., The Origins of the International Labor Organization (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934); Haas, Ernst B., Beyond the Nation-State (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1964); Cox, Robert W., “ILO: Limited Monarchy,” in Cox, Robert W. and Jacobson, Harold K., eds., The Anatomy of Influence (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973), pp. 59101; Galenson, Walter, The International Labor Organization (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981); and Ghebali, Victor-Yves, The International Labour Organisation (Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1989). Galenson also provides some preliminary evidence about the impact of ILO conventions.

21 We use the term “corporatism” after the fashion illuminated by Schmitter, Phillippe C., “Still the Century of Corporatism?The Review of Politics 36 (spring 1974), pp. 85131.

22 See Cox, Robert W., “Labor and Hegemony,” International Organization 31 (Summer 1977), pp. 385–24.

23 The ILO also passes recommendations, which differ from conventions in that their ratification does not incur international obligations. Here we focus on conventions.

24 For details of ILO reporting requirements and its review process, see Landy, E. A., The Effectiveness of International Supervision (London: Stevens and Sons, 1966); and Ghebali, , The International Labour Organisation, pp. 220–41.

25 Ghebali, , The International Labour Organisation, pp. 225–28.

26 Malloy, James M., The Politics of Social Security in Brazil (Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979).

27 Landy, The Effectiveness of International Supervision.

28 See Haas's, Ernst B. works Beyond the Nation-State, and Human Rights and International Action (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1970).

29 Haas, , Beyond the Nation-State, pp. 1213.

30 Lagregen, Stina, “The Influence of ILO Standards on Swedish Law and Practice,” International Labour Review 125 (05/06 1986), pp. 305–28. The law is quoted on p. 319.

31 Landy, E. A., “The Influence of International Labour Standards: Possibilities and Performance”, International Labour Review 101 (06 1970), p. 566.

32 Kratochwil, Friedrich V., Rules, Norms, and Decisions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

33 Landau, C. E., “The Influence of ILO Standards on Australian Labour Law and Practice,” International Labour Review 126 (1112, 1987), pp. 669–90, particularly p. 677.

34 Berenstein, Alexandre, “The Influence of International Labour Conventions on Swiss Legislation,” International Labour Review 77 (06 1958), pp. 495518.

35 Consideration of ILO conventions may stimulate activities that affect state policy without leading to ratification. For example, Britain's failure to ratify the ILO's convention on equal pay for equal work mobilized constituencies that successfully pressed for new policy; see Luard, Evan, International Agencies (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1977). If substantial numbers of countries did not belong to the ILO, it would be possible to assess a broad range of direct and indirect effects by examining the effect of membership. However, virtually all states are members of the ILO today, as has been true through most of the organization's history. We study the effects of ratification because this seems to provide the best opportunity for analytic leverage.

36 One of the prettiest examples of a purely symbolic commitment was Luxembourg's ratification in 1928 of several conventions on labor practices in the merchant marine. It seems implausible that landlocked Luxembourg could translate these conventions into action.

37 Kratochwil, and Ruggie, , “International Organization,” pp. 764–66.

38 Bates, Robert H., Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

39 This notion is strongly expressed in Meyer, John W., “The World Polity and the Authority of the Nation-State,” in Bergesen, Albert, ed., Studies of the Modem World-System (New York: Academic Press, 1980), pp. 109–38.

40 International Labour Organisation (ILO), The Cost of Social Security (Geneva: ILO, various years).

41 The precise criterion is arbitrary; we examined country characteristics across several dimensions (especially the distribution of employment across sectors) and sought a criterion that would capture standard notions of “less developed” or “developing” countries. The countries are Bolivia, the Cameroons, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cyprus, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Malaysia, Malta, Mauritania, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Panama, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Uruguay.

42 The countries are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and West Germany. We focus on these states in part to promote comparability with prior research.

43 For a listing of the conventions, see the Appendix, Table A-l.

44 Wilensky, The Welfare State and Equality.

45 For a list of the sources and statistical descriptions of the variables, see the Appendix.

46 The cross-sectional correlation between all prior ILO ratifications and welfare expenditures is, in fact, very high (r =.66).

47 The implementation of welfare programs takes time. In addition, reviews of legislative histories (described below) indicate that great weight should not be placed on the temporal order of legislation and ratification. Influential conventions sometimes induce legislation designed to permit ratification; in other cases, ratification may precede and stimulate legislation. We thus emphasize temporal proximity rather than exact ordering.

48 Analyses were also performed assuming no minimum lag between ratification and its impact, thus counting all ratifications occurring between time points. Equivalent results were found under these somewhat less plausible assumptions.

49 See Tuma, Nancy B. and Hannan, Michael T., Social Dynamics (Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1984), pp. 430–47; and Stimson, James A., “Regression in Space and Time: A Statistical EssayAmerican Journal of Political Science 29 (1985), pp. 914–47.

50 We should emphasize that these results pertain to spending for social security programs, not social welfare more broadly construed. The ILO conventions that bear most directly on social welfare in many LDCs do not provide benefits but instead protect the worker's freedom to contract and organize. For example, Nigerian labor law in the colonial period was humanized through the application of ILO conventions, most importantly the Forced Labor Convention.

51 The federal structure of the U.S. government is sometimes cited to explain low levels of ratifications. While a federal structure does pose certain difficulties for ratification, on average federal states have ratified ILO conventions more frequently than have unitary states. See Dahl, Karl N., “The Role of ILO Standards in Global Integration Process,” Journal of Peace Research vol. 5, no. 4, 1968, pp. 309–51.

52 Stephens, , Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, p. 149.

53 See the essays in Weir, Margaret, Orloff, Ann S., and Skocpol, Theda, eds., The Politics of Social Policy in the United States (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988).

54 An excellent review is provided by Michael Shalev, “The Social Democratic Model and Beyond: Two ‘Generations’ of Comparative Research on the Welfare State,” in Tomasson, Richard, ed., Comparative Social Research (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1983), pp. 315–52.

55 Pampel and Williamson, “Welfare Spending in Advanced Industrial Democracies, 1950–1980.”

56 See Katzenstein's works Corporatism and Change and Small States in World Markets; and Cameron, “The Expansion of the Public Economy.”

57 The insights of Skocpol and others suffer in the translation to conventional quantitative indices. For sources and descriptive statistics for each of the measures described, see the Appendix.

58 We do not wish to make much of these results, however. We continue to ignore the potential effects of Autocorrelation bias and multicollinearity where they solely concern variables added as statistical controls, since our goal is to test the robustness of the effect of ILO ratifications (which is unaffected by relationships among the regressors with which it is uncorrelated-here, all other effects in the model). Excellent quantitative analyses of the effects of internal characteristics are noted above. See also Hicks, Alexander and Swank, Duane, “On the Political Economy of Welfare Expansion: A Comparative Analysis of Eighteen Advanced Capitalist Democracies, 1960–71,” Comparative Political Studies 17 (04 1984), pp. 81120.

59 See Haas, , Beyond the Nation-State, pp. 447–48; and Haas, , Human Rights and International Action, p. 117.

60 These reviews are most often authored by legal scholars, many of whom have experience working with the ILO. While the generally favorable orientation to the ILO should be noted, we found that the reviews strive for an objective appraisal. Reviews published before 1976 are collected in ILO, The Impact of International Labor Conventions and Recommendations (Geneva: ILO, 1976). Subsequent articles appear in volumes of the International Labour Review. In all, some twenty-five legislative histories have appeared. Below we discuss those cases in which conventions on social security were ratified during the period 1960 to 1980.

61 Hanami, Tadashi, “The Influence of ILO Standards on Law and Practice in Japan,” International Labour Review 120 (1112 1981), pp. 765–79.

62 Cashiell, Maurice, “The Influence on Irish Law and Practice of International Labor Standards,” International Labour Review 106 (07 1972), pp. 4774.

63 Calder, Kent E., “Japanese Foreign Economic Policy Formation: Explaining the Reactive State,” WorM Potties 40 (07 1988), pp. 517–41.

64 Maguire, Maria, “Ireland,” in Flora, Peter, ed., Growth to Limits, vol. 2 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1981), pp. 241384.

65 Two other cases for which closer analysis might be fruitful are those of Italy and the Netherlands (International Labour Review overviews covering the appropriate period were available for neither). The logic of ratification in Italy during the 1960s and 1970s might resemble that of Japan and Ireland, since Italy possessed a ruling center party that sought partners to its left. In the Netherlands, convention ratifications accompanied the state's funding of privately organized social security schemes that led to welfare takeoff in the 1960s. Here, international conventions may have helped re frame concerns about state expansion in a segmented polity.

66 See Dahl, Karl N., “The Influence of I.L.O. Standards on Norwegian Legislation,” International Labour Review 90 (09 1964), pp. 226–51; Schnorr, Gerhard, “The Influence of ILO Standards on Law and Practice in the Federal Republic of Germany,” International Labour Review 110 (12 1974), pp. 539–64; and Stina Lagregen, “The Influence of ILO Standards on Swedish Law and Practice.” International Labour Review.

67 Plata-Castilla, Alfonso, “International Labour Standards and Colombian Legislation,” International Labour Review 99 (02 1969), pp. 137–58.

68 See Menon, V. K. R., “The Influence of International Labour Conventions on Indian Labour Legislation,” International Labour Review 73 (06 1956), pp. 551–71; and Abdeljaouad, Amor, “The Influence of International Labour Conventions on Tunisian Legislation,” International Labour Review 91 (03 1965), pp. 191209.

69 ILO, “Social Security and I.L.O. Technical Cooperation in Libya,” International Labour Review 91 (04 1965), pp. 292320.

70 The best statement of this argument is DiMaggio, Paul J. and Powell, Walter W., “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields,” American Sociological Review 48 (04 1983), pp. 147–60.

71 The best statement of this argument is found in Meyer, John W. and Rowan, Brian, “Institutionalised Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony,” American Journal of Sociology 83 (09 1977), pp. 340–63.

72 See Cox, Robert W., “The Executive Head: An Essay on Leadership in International Organization,” International Organization 23 (Spring 1969), pp. 205–30; and Cox, “Labor and Hegemony.” The argument central to much contemporary organization theory that organizations are interpenetrated by their institutional environments is discussed by Ness, Gayl D. and Brechin, Steven R., “Bridging the Gap: International Organizations as Organizations,” International Organization 42(Spring 1988), pp. 245–73.

73 There is an interesting historical dynamic here. The ILO was created in part due to perceptions of complex interdependence in labor relations, where it was seen as competitively damaging for one nation to enact favorable labor laws unless all did. Little of this sense remains today; as welfare and other reforms advocated by the ILO have become institutionalised, the internal discourse of the organization has come to revolve around human rights much more than national interdependencies.

74 Ikenberry, G. John, “Explaining the Diffusion of State Norms: Coercion, Competition, and Learning in the International System,” presented at the meetings of the International Studies Association, London, 28 03 1989.


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