What’s left of the welfare state

Tuesday, 29. October 2013


Daniel Kestenholz


Student of Economics University of Berne

The 12th Dialogue on Science of Academia Engelberg has been over for more than a week and still thoughts about the welfare state are buzzing around in my head – especially doubtful thoughts. Although I was not an expert on the subject of the welfare state before the congress, I did have my ideas and well-meaning principles. Now I’m close to being an expert, but without principles and ideas. So I’ll try to find my principles and ideas again.

Not having a welfare state doesn’t work. It is part of our culture, our understanding of society. It is that or nothing. Only: what do we want such a state to be like?

Crises of the welfare state
Three days of presentations, discussions, walks and beer reveal: the welfare state is in crisis and facing tremendous challenges. Six points:

1. The most obvious challenge: demographic change. More and more elderly, yet increasingly fewer young people.
2. Family structures are changing. Our welfare systems are stuck in the middle of the 20th century. There are no single mothers, and the term ‘patchwork families’ is unknown. Family models that are no longer the exception today fall through the cracks of the welfare state.
3. We all know the arguments. If we want to do well and burden employers and employees with our social system, wage costs will rise. But companies are not interested in such social nonsense; therefore, they emigrate – to where the welfare state is irrelevant.
4. We get used to the welfare state. Just now, a generation is growing up that only knows war, poverty and fear of the future from stories told by parents: a generation that came of age after the fall of the Berlin Wall and for who the welfare state is a given. There is no need for personal responsibility – the state will take care of it: a muscle atrophy. We forget how to be responsible for ourselves.
5. Solidarity within society is declining. Nation-states are increasingly fragmented. One identifies less locally, and rather more globally. Not with one’s country, but through one’s interests. People with the same hobbies and interests find each other on the Internet, from dog breeders to car fanatics. My neighbor is more of a stranger to me than an acquaintance in Laos. I’d rather help my community than my lazy neighbor who does not want to work.
6. A restructuring of the social systems to some is also always a dismantling of their social system. How to explain this?

The future of the welfare state
Three days of presentations, discussions, walks and beer do not result in a vision for the future of the welfare state. As much as the Academia Engelberg Foundation’s congress was able to say about the challenges of the welfare state, as little was it able to provide answers for the future of the welfare state.
So it missed its target? No, because the congress gave the correct and probably only honest answer. There is no vision. The welfare state’s crisis is not in the multitude of its challenges; the crisis is in the lack of vision and societies’ lack of creativity in finding answers to the problems. Societies are changing, and as the years pass we need new answers, partly to dated questions. The welfare state is a revolutionary answer to questions from the early and mid-20th century. A revolutionary answer to the questions of the 21st century fails to materialize.
What we need is a new vision. The concept of the welfare state needs to be redefined, broken up and renewed from within. Maybe we should just put it aside completely and start again from zero and develop completely new ideas – the welfare state itself was also something completely new.

But: the thesis remains. Not having a welfare state doesn’t work. It’s just that the synthesis shows that not having a vision doesn’t work, either.
We need a vision for the welfare state of the future.
Let’s go!

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