Criticisms of welfare

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The modern welfare state has been criticized on economic and moral grounds from all ends of the political spectrum. Classical liberals, libertarians and conservatives often argue that the provision of tax-funded services or transfer payments reduces the incentive for workers to seek employment, thereby by reducing the need to work, reducing the rewards of work, and exacerbating poverty. On the other hand, socialists and communists typically criticize the welfare state as an attempt to legitimize the economic system of capitalism by making it appear more equitable.

Conservative criticisms[edit]

In his 1912 book, The Servile State, English poet and social critic Hilaire Belloc, a devout Roman Catholic, argued that capitalism was inherently unstable but that attempts to amend its defects through ever-more burdensome regulation could only lead to the rise of what he calls the "Servile State". According to Belloc, this servile state resembles ancient slavery in its reliance on positive law as opposed to custom or economic necessity by themselves. Austrian-born economist Friedrich Hayek mentions Belloc's Servile State favorably in his book The Road to Serfdom.[1] Belloc, along with others, such as G. K. Chesterton and Eric Gill, advocated abolishing profit-making banking in favor of credit unions and replacing capitalism with a system they called distributism, which they believed would preserve private property and revive the dignity of work exemplified by the small craftsmen and property holder of the Middle Ages.

Some conservatives[who?] in the UK claim that the welfare state has produced a generation of dependents who, instead of working, rely solely upon the state for income and support; even though assistance is only legally available to those unable to work or who being without employment are unable to find work. The welfare state in the UK was created to provide certain people with a basic level of benefits in order to alleviate poverty, but these conservatives believe that it has been expanded to provide more people with more money from the state than it can ideally afford.[2][3]

Some British conservatives, such as Conservative Party co-chairman Sayeeda Warsi, also criticise the "'something for nothing' culture" of the welfare state, claiming that the high extent of the welfare state "discourages the unemployed from finding jobs".[4] 55% of people in England and 43% of people in Scotland believe that "benefits for unemployed people are too high and discourage them from finding jobs".[5]

According to political scientist Alan Ryan, "Modern conservatives argue that liberalism promises a degree of personal fulfillment that the welfare state cannot deliver and that attempts to deliver it will inevitably lead to disillusionment." Additionally, citizens' resentment of paying taxes to create benefits for others creates "hostility between more and less favored groups that is wholly at odds with what modern liberals desire."[6]

Moreover, the welfare state must employ an extensive bureaucracy whose members are granted discretionary powers and charged by law to use those powers for the welfare of their clients. This means that classical liberals' concern for the rule of law and the curtailing of arbitrary discretion is ignored: bureaucrats are given resources to disburse to their clients ... The liberation the welfare state promises – liberation from anxiety, poverty, and the cramped circumstances of working-class existence – is easily obtained by the educated middle class and is impossible to achieve for most others. There is thus a grave risk of disillusionment with liberalism in general as a result of its failure when it overextends itself. Some writers suppose that the worldwide popularity of conservative governments during the 1980s is explained by this consideration.[7]

Liberal criticisms[edit]

Advocates of classical liberalism, economic liberalism and neoliberalism, such as modern adherents of the Chicago school of economics faulted the New Deal version of social insurance for creating “notches” that perverted economic incentives.

The government, Milton Friedman and others argued, told the poor: make more money and we will take away your free housing, food stamps, and income support. People are rational, Friedman said, so they will not work for long if they get nothing or next to nothing for it. The big difference between the Malthusian conservative critics of social insurance in the early nineteenth century and the Chicago critics of the 1970’s is that the Chicago critics had a point: Providing public support to the “worthy” poor, and then removing it when they began to stand on their own feet, poisoned incentives and was unlikely to lead to good outcomes. And so, from 1970 to 2000, a broad coalition of conservatives (who wanted to see the government stop encouraging immorality), centrists (who wanted government money spent effectively), and leftists (who wanted poverty alleviated) removed the “notches” from the social-insurance system. Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and even George W. Bush and their supporters created the current system, in which tax rates and eligibility thresholds are not punitive disincentives to enterprise.[8][page needed]

Socialist criticisms[edit]

Critiques of the welfare state and of social welfare programs have come from various socialist perspectives, ranging from Marxists to Anarchists. In these perspectives, criticism of the welfare state often goes alongside criticism of the structural issues of capitalism.

Marxian socialists argue that welfare states and modern social democratic welfare policies are unable to solve the fundamental and structural issues of capitalism, such as cyclical fluctuations, exploitation and alienation because the welfare state retains the capitalist mode of production. Accordingly, social democratic programs intended to ameliorate capitalism - such as unemployment benefits and taxation on profits and the wealthy - create contradictions of their own by limiting the efficiency of the capitalist system by reducing incentives for capitalists to invest in production.[9] In this view, the welfare state only serves to legitimize and prolong the exploitative and contradiction-laden system of capitalism to society's detriment.

Democratic socialists, such as the American philosopher and mathematician David Schweickart, contrast "social democracy" with democratic socialism by defining the former as an attempt to strengthen the welfare state and the latter as an alternative economic system to capitalism. According to Schweickart, the democratic socialist critique of social democracy is that capitalism can never be sufficiently "humanized", and any attempt to suppress the economic contradictions of capitalism would only cause them to emerge elsewhere. For example, attempts to reduce unemployment too much would result in inflation, while too much job security would erode labor discipline. As socialists, democratic socialists aim to create an alternative to capitalism.[10] In contrast to social democracy, democratic socialists advocate a post-capitalist economic system based either on market socialism combined with workers self-management, or on some form of participatory-economic planning.[11]

Market socialism is also critical of and contrasted with social democratic welfare states. While one common goal of both systems is to achieve greater social and economic equality, market socialism does so by changes in enterprise ownership and management, whereas social democracy attempts to do so by government-imposed taxes and subsidies on privately owned enterprises to finance welfare programs. Frank Roosevelt and David Belkin criticize social democracy for maintaining a property-owning capitalist class, which has an active interest in reversing social democratic welfare policies and a disproportionate amount of power as a class to influence governmental policy.[12]

Karl Marx famously critiqued the basic institutions of the welfare state in his Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League by warning against the programs advanced by liberal democrats. Specifically, he argued that measures designed to increase wages, improve working conditions and provide welfare payments would be used to dissuade the working class away from socialism and the revolutionary consciousness he believed was necessary to achieve a socialist economy, and would thus be a threat to genuine structural changes to society by making the conditions of workers in capitalism more tolerable through welfare schemes.[13]

The most extreme criticisms of states and governments are made by anarchists, who advocate for the abolition of all social hierarchies; including the state. Ultimately, despite the anti-state and anti-market views of socialist anarchism, most anarchists advocate for the strengthening of the welfare state, arguing that social safety nets are short-term goals for the working class. According to Noam Chomsky, "social democrats and anarchists always agreed, fairly generally, on so-called 'welfare state measures'" and "Anarchists propose other measures to deal with these problems, without recourse to state authority."[14] Some anarchists believe in stopping welfare programs only if it means abolishing government and capitalism as well.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (London: University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 67.
  2. ^ The Welfare State We're in / James Bartholomew (2004) ISBN 1-84275-063-1
  3. ^ Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses / Theodore Dalrymple (2005) ISBN 1-56663-643-4
  4. ^
  5. ^ the British Social Attitudes Survey
  6. ^ Alan Ryan, The Making of Modern Liberalism (Princeton and Oxford University Presses, 2012), p. 26.
  7. ^ Ryan, The Making of Modern Liberalism, p. 26.
  8. ^ DeLong "American Conservative's Crisis of Ideas"
  9. ^ Market Socialism: The Debate Among Socialists, by Schweickart, David; Lawler, James; Ticktin, Hillel; Ollman, Bertell. 1998. (P.60-61): "The Marxist answers involves limiting the incentive system of the market through providing minimum wages, high levels of unemployment insurance, reducing the size of the reserve army of labour, taxing profits, and taxing the wealthy. As a result, capitalists will have little incentive to invest and the workers will have little incentive to work. Capitalism works because, as Marx remarked, it is a system of economic force (coercion)."
  10. ^ Schweickart, David. Democratic Socialism. Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice (2006): "Social democrats supported and tried to strengthen the basic institutions of the welfare state--pensions for all, public health care, public education, unemployment insurance. They supported and tried to strengthen the labor movement. The latter, as socialists, argued that capitalism could never be sufficiently humanized, and that trying to suppress the economic contradictions in one area would only see them emerge in a different guise elsewhere. (E.g., if you push unemployment too low, you'll get inflation; if job security is too strong, labor discipline breaks down; etc.)"
  11. ^ Schweickart, David. Democratic Socialism. Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice (2006): "Virtually all (democratic) socialists have distanced themselves from the economic model long synonymous with 'socialism,' i.e. the Soviet model of a non-market, centrally-planned economy...Some have endorsed the concept of 'market socialism,' a post-capitalist economy that retains market competition, but socializes the means of production, and, in some versions, extends democracy to the workplace. Some hold out for a non-market, participatory economy. All democratic socialists agree on the need for a democratic alternative to capitalism."
  12. ^ Roosevelt, Frank; David Belkin (1994). Why Market Socialism?. M.E. Sharpe, Inc. pp. 314–315. ISBN 1-56324-465-9. "Social democracy achieves greater egalitarianism via ex post government taxes and subsidies, where market socialism does so via ex ante changes in patterns of enterprise ownership...the maintenance of property-owning capitalists under social democracy assures the presence of a disproportionately powerful class with a continuing interest in challenging social democratic government policies." 
  13. ^ Karl Marx - Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. 1850 retrieved January 5, 2013, from "However, the democratic petty bourgeois want better wages and security for the workers, and hope to achieve this by an extension of state employment and by welfare measures; in short, they hope to bribe the workers with a more or less disguised form of alms and to break their revolutionary strength by temporarily rendering their situation tolerable."
  14. ^ Noam Chomsky on anarchist support for 'welfare state' policies
  15. ^ J.5 What alternative social organisations do anarchists create?