Bringing the Welfare State Back In: The Promise (and Perils) of the New Social Welfare History
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 27 April 2009
The welfare state—the complex of policies that, in one form or another, all rich democracies have adopted to ameliorate destitution and provide valued social goods and services—is an increasingly central subject in the study of American history and politics. The past decade has unleashed a veritable tidal wave of books on the topic, including, from historians, Alice Kessler-Harris's In Pursuit of Equity and Michael Katz's The Price of Citizenship, and, from political scientists, Robert Lieberman's Shifting the Color Line and Peter Swenson's Capitalists Against Markets. Journals ranging from the American Historical Review to Political Science Quarterly (and, with less regularity, even the American Political Science Review) now routinely feature analyses of U.S. social policy. And going back just a few years more, the early 1990s saw the publication of several influential works on the subject, notably Paul Pierson's Dismantling the Welfare State? and Theda Skocpol's Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, each of which won major book prizes in political science. If any moment deserves to be seen as a heady time for writing on the American welfare state, this is it.
- Journal of Policy History , Volume 17 , Issue 1: Special Issue: New Directions in Policy History , January 2005 , pp. 125 - 154
- Copyright © The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. 2005
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19. The main exponent of this view is Peter Swenson, whose work I will discuss shortly.
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21. It might be supposed that this is the same as saying that social policies are economically beneficial; yet it is not. Many policies that are good for economic growth have no organized defenders. Moreover, the fact that certain policies benefit business leaves open the critical historical question of whether capitalists were behind their creation. The powerful, and controversial, claim of the new business-power literature is that capitalists have a first-choice preference for key social programs before they are enacted.
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41. At the extreme, they simply assume that the effects are the motives, as summed up in the influential statement of the economist George Stigler that the “announced goals of a policy are sometimes unrelated or perversely related to its actual effects, and the truly intended effects should be deduced from the actual effects.” Stigler, George J., The Citizen and the State (Chicago, 1975), 140.Google Scholar
42. This argument is elaborated in Pierson, Paul, “The Limits of Design: Explaining Institutional Origins and Change,” Governance: An International Journal of Policy and Administration 13, no. 4 (2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. To be sure, political scientists have long recognized the “law of unintended consequences.” But it is fair to say that they have shown little inclination to come up with systematic arguments about when and why we should expect unanticipated effects. Nonetheless, based on what we know about political action, it is possible to identify at least two critical factors that are likely to influence the probability of unforeseen consequences. First, unintended effects are most likely when policies are highly complex—interacting with many different dimensions of society simultaneously—for in these circumstances the limits of humans' ability to calculate multiple and interactive effects and the possibility of emergent “system effects” loom large. Jervis, Robert, “Complexity and the Analysis of Political and Social Life,” Political Science Quarterly 112, no. 4 (1997–1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Second, unintended effects are more likely to the extent that policymakers are focused on the near-term future (to use economics lingo, their “time horizons” are short), for in these circumstances actors are likely to pay little attention to the potential longterm or interactive elements of their policies. Needless to say, social welfare policies are often characterized by the first feature, and in many cases, especially when passed to respond to pressing social needs, the second as well.
43. One of the benefits of a substantial and intensively investigated archival record is that it makes it possible to trace the strategic behavior of actors over time. In many cases, one can actually document private acknowledgments that public positions represent a strategic accommodation to political realities.
45. A case in point is Derthick's brilliant and highly influential study of the development of Social Security in the United States. Derthick's argument is that the advocacy role of administrators and the closed circle of participation in the program's development are the prime reasons for its explosive growth. Yet she does not test her argument against the development of social insurance programs in other nations—which would show that the expansionary tendencies of the American system were scarcely unique and suggest that broader social forces were at least as powerful spurs to expansion as the specific characteristics of the American policymaking environment. Derthick, Martha, Policymaking for Social Security (Washington, D.C., 1979).Google Scholar
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51. Pierson, “When Effect Becomes Cause: Policy Feedback and Political Change”; idem, “Not Just What, but When: Timing and Sequence in Political Processes,” Studies in American Political Development 14, no. 1 (2000).
52. Pierson, Dismantling the Welfare State?
53. Hacker, The Divided Welfare State, 52–58.
57. Pierson, Politics in Time.
59. Hacker, “Privatizing Risk without Privatizing the Welfare State.”
60. Of course, drift can and does run in the opposite direction—that is, toward expansion. The proliferating use of disability insurance as a means of early retirement in Europe is a powerful contemporary example.
62. As Derthick writes, in a statement as true today as when she penned it, “Much of the scholarly literature that analyzes policymaking focused on ‘leading’ or controversial cases—moments of crisis or innovation that are intrinsically interesting and undoubtedly important, but not in themselves typical. Policymaking is a compound of exciting innovative events … and not-so-exciting routines that are performed without much widespread mobilization, intense conflict, or much awareness of what is going on except among the involved few.” Derthick, Policymaking for Social Security, 9.