The pursuit of happiness is a noble idea, though not a novel one in the realm of politics. America’s founding fathers enshrined it in their country’s Declaration of Independence. One of the highlights of International Happiness Day is the release, at the UN headquarters in New York, of the annual World Happiness Report. It is no coincidence that the happiest people among the 155 countries where the survey is conducted live in countries that have embraced a welfare society. Of the top 10 happiest countries around the globe, five are the Nordic states, which provide the most extensive social safety net to their citizens.
This strong correlation between people’s happiness and the welfare state reflects the security, the opportunities for social mobility and self-improvement, and the mutual trust and responsibility that a welfare society instils in its people. The welfare state is founded on the idea that in any society there is a mutual responsibility between its citizens, and between government and citizens, for the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of all members of society — ensuring that everyone has access to at least the basic human needs, regardless of their ability to pay. A common and erroneous criticism of the welfare society is that it consequently makes people lazy and encourages them to relinquish their individual responsibility, even promotes fraud. For the most part this criticism is completely and utterly unsubstantiated. The welfare state supplements and motivates most people to improve their living conditions and take risks in doing so, knowing that there is always a safety net to support them in times of hardship.
At its minimum the welfare state represents “those aspects of government policy designed to protect against particular risks shared by broad segments of society.” It can take the form of providing a range of social services such as health, child and elder care, and protect against loss of earnings of the unemployed, sick, disabled, or elderly. While even the most ardent detractors of the welfare state would admit that these are noble causes, their common attitude is that it is not the business of the state to provide these services, and when it does interfere, it does so inefficiently, distorts the market forces in the economy and makes people chronically dependent on the state. And when all these arguments turn out to be more anecdotal than fact-based, those critics evoke the failure of the Soviet Union and communism, although there is the loosest of connections between the two.
A common and erroneous criticism of state programs is that they make people lazy and discourage individual responsibility; on the contrary, they motivate most people to improve their living conditions and take risks, knowing there is always a safety net.
The welfare state is not communism in disguise; it is part and parcel of the capitalist consumerist system, and to a large extent serves it. It indeed faces massive challenges with a growing and aging population, and the slow growth of job creation. It is true that the cost of education, health care and care for the elderly is constantly going up, but the answer to this is not to neglect those who most need the support of the state, or to deprive young people of quality education, but to instead to find creative and fair means to finance it. The post-Second World War idea of looking after people “from cradle to grave” was not about creating a nanny state, but was a holistic approach that saw society as the sum of its parts; the success of a welfare society, and dare I say its happiness, makes for a better, safer and more prosperous society. To a large extent the European welfare society has become the victim of its own success. It has enabled progress in science and quality of life that in return has also increased life expectancy, which naturally increases the pressure on resources, especially in times of economic crisis and a distorted wealth distribution system that protects and privileges the very wealthy.
As with any other policy that has its origins in a different era, the welfare state needs to be reformed and reassessed, but with the intention of nurturing it, not killing it off. When it was first introduced, the age of retirement and entitlement to a state pension was set at 70. At that time, average life expectancy was just under 50 years. The current increase in life expectancy, the growth of and movements of populations, and lower retirement age, even the need to stay longer in education, put a severe and unsustainable strain on government finances. This doesn’t mean that care for the elderly should be abandoned, but that the method of achieving it has to be adjusted. The same goes for health and education, which are both becoming increasingly expensive, but free access to these helps mainly those with lower incomes to better their life and so facilitates social mobility, which in turn results in greater contributions in terms of taxes and job creation on the part of those who enjoy these services.
The welfare society is not a form of charity, but an investment in individuals and consequently in society as a whole. It produces citizens who are invested in the well-being of the collective, and not just in themselves. They are more committed citizens, secure in the knowledge that the state is supporting them to fulfil their potential and won’t let them down in a time of need. This is the essence of the social contract in any decent country. The alternative is a society, if it can be called that, known as “dog eat dog.”
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.