Toward an Alternative Vision of the Welfare State

Paper presented at the conference of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, July 28, 1983.

 The topic of the welfare state is rather dismal, and not only in right-of-center circles. In American English the phrase has attained a particularly pejorative connotation, because “welfare” has come to mean the dole, handing out public money to people, many of whom may not deserve it. It is perhaps salutary to recall that, originally, the phrase was a very positive one. As far as I know, it originated in Bismarck’s Germany; the English phrase is a literal translation of the German Wohlfahrtsstaat. Bismarck (not exactly a left-winger) introduced the first modern welfare-state measures for what, in all likelihood, were mixed motives — because he wanted to steal the thunder of the growing socialist movement — but also because, in the best Lutheran tradition, he sincerely believed that the community must be responsible for those in need and that, under the new conditions brought about by industrialism, some of this communal responsibility fell to the state. In this country, of course, the welfare state came much later — basically, in two big spurts, in the 1930’s and 1960’s. Whatever may be one’s criticisms of the American welfare state, it seems to me important to recognize, and indeed to reaffirm, the moral convictions that inspired its establishment. The most important of these convictions is that a society should be judged by the manner in which it treats its weakest members. And both Bismarck and the New Dealers were quite right that, in a modern industrial society, at least some of the responsibility for the weak must fall to the state.

The complete, or even near-complete, dismantling of the welfare state and the turning over of all, or most, social services to private institutions is neither politically realistic nor morally desirable. Also, it is quite unnecessary to deny that the welfare state, in this country and elsewhere, has indeed resulted in important benefits to many weak sectors of society. These benefits, however, have been obtained at very high costs. A realistic and morally defensible agenda is to restructure the welfare state in such a way as to maintain its benefits while reducing its costs.

The economic costs of the modern welfare state have become all too obvious, and indeed have become a major political issue in every Western democracy. The same issue has been one of the most important factors behind the turn to the right in many of these democracies. This is fine. What is less fine is that, in consequence, right-of-center parties and governments have projected an image of cost-cutting meanness, while their left-of-center opponents have paraded under the banner of the “party of compassion.” It is essential, therefore, to stress that the economic costs are not the only costs of the welfare state as we now know it. There are very important social and human, and in-deed moral costs, which may seem less urgent but which in the long run are even more serious than the economic costs. What are these costs? They have been the establishment of vast bureaucratic and professional empires, with a state-en-forced monopoly over social services. Those who receive the services have become disenfranchised in terms of their autonomy as human beings, converted into “clients” in the full original sense of that word (which, in Latin legal terminology, meant a dependent individual). This dependency has perverted both public and private morality, fostering a climate of irresponsibility and resentments.

What this adds up to is that the present system should be changed even if it were less costly in money terms. The changes that, in my opinion, are called for would, very probably, cost less money. This may be a case of virtue being rewarded. But these changes would be commendable even if the money costs remained the same or even if they were higher. It is both politically and morally essential that those of us who understand the failures of the welfare state categorically refuse to concede to the other side the label “party of compassion.” Leave aside here the arrogance of the notion that compassion can be neatly categorized in ideological terms; let it be stipulated that individuals who genuinely care for their fellows can be found at all points of the political spectrum. More importantly, it is hardly compassionate to keep going a welfare system that wrecks the economy, especially as the poor and other weak members of society are the ones who suffer most from this wreckage. That, indeed, is a point often made on the right, and it is a valid one. But there is another, exceedingly important point to be made: It is also not very compassionate to provide people with services, especially with services that they really need, at the price of their autonomy and self-respect. The goal of a humane social policy must be to provide the necessary services, but at the same time to protect and to expand the control that the recipients have over their own lives. As any psychologist can tell us in terms of individual life, there is compassion that stifles and there is compassion that empowers. The same is true of society. If a label is required, I would suggest that we call ourselves the party of empowerment.

Such sentiments can become items for campaign rhetoric of right-of-center parties. But, given the dynamics of democracy, political gains can only come in the very short run from rhetoric that has no concrete content in terms of practical policies and legislation. Let me, therefore, talk very concretely about the new model of the welfare state that some of us have been talking about for some time (and let me say at this point that such a new model is what is clearly indicated by the innovative thinking that has been initiated by Robert Woodson and his associates at the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise).

Obviously, I neither have the time nor the competence to spell out such a model in any detail. Equally obviously, no one, I think, can claim at this time to know exactly and in every detail what such a model will eventually look like. To work out these details is precisely the practical agenda that, I believe, is before us. But there are a number of quite concrete criteria to apply as we go about constructing this new model. Without claiming these to be exclusive, let me suggest four.

One: Government should empower people to take control of their own lives even as it provides services to meet specific needs. Or minimally: Government should not, in providing services, take away such control as people do have over their lives.

For example (and it is a very crucial example), if there is one power that virtually all people want, all over the world and in every group, it is the power to control the values instilled in their children. Indeed, this power is a fundamental human right. Now, those who are poor or otherwise handicapped in the exercise of parental responsibility may have to turn to the state for help in meeting the needs of their children — for education, health care, nutrition, and for other services. It is intolerable that all too often the state will only provide these services if, in effect, parents surrender the power over the process by which values are instilled in their children. To be sure, some of these services are provided by the state for the poor and the more affluent alike — such as education via the public school system. But the more affluent parents always have the option of obtaining the services elsewhere — in this case, by sending their children to private schools. It is poor parents who are “clients” of the public education system, which, for them, is a coercive monopoly, and which very frequently represen4s values that they strongly disapprove of.

Two: As far as possible, recipients of government-sup-plied social services should have a choice between suppliers. Put differently: As far as possible, suppliers of social services should be forced to compete with each other for the favor of recipients.

Monopolies corrupt. Monopolies fix prices. This is true in the overall economy; it is equally true in the economy of the welfare state. Thus there is every reason to believe that introducing competition between suppliers of social services will reduce money costs. But, just as important, individuals who have a choice also have their self-respect enhanced. They are changed from “clients” to consumers. They are enfranchised to shape their own lives in whatever area they have options. Let me return to the previous example. More affluent parents are consumers of educational services, and by virtue of this fact they are in a position to exercise considerable influence over the schools they elect to patronize. Poor parents do not have this option. It seems to me that it should be an important purpose of social policy to redistribute this particular power in society — that is, to use public resources to give poor parents a comparable range of choices. An additional point should be made here: In terms of empowerment, choice is almost always better than participation. Leave aside the fact that most so-called participation is window-dressing; only think here of parent-teacher associations in inner-city school districts. But even if participation is real, how many parents (especially poor parents) have the time and energy to participate fully in the shaping of a school program? The choice to go to another school is vastly more empowering.

Three: Those who provide social services should be accountable to those who receive the services.

Again, what is at issue here is a redistribution of power over one’s own life. An upper-income person will speak of “my doctor” or “my lawyer,” and this phrase will refer to social reality to the extent that the cash-for-service arrangement does bring about at least a measure of accountability. Important point: There is nothing anti-professional, or even anti-bureaucratic, in insisting on such accountability. It is not a question of denying respect to professional expertise where it applies, or of some utopian goal of abolishing modern bureaucracy. Rather, the social purpose here is to make both professionals and bureaucrats exercise their undeniable talents in the service of independent and uncoerced people, instead of making people the passive objects of professional and bureaucratic ministrations.

And fourth: Social policy should respect the pluralism of values and lifestyles in American society.

Pluralism in some degree is the hallmark of every modern society; it is one of the major characteristics and strengths of American society. Social policy should employ this strength, not try to weaken it. It is not the purpose of social policy — not in education, nor in any other area — to impose on everyone the values and lifestyles established in the white, college-educated, upper middle class. There have been all sorts of complaints — some coming from the left and some from the right in conventional political terms — that this sort of imposition is going on. I would suggest that most of these complaints have been perfectly justified. So with the complaints of blacks that social workers are trying to apply alien standards to the lives of black families. So with the complaints of Evangelicals that educators are trying to indoctrinate their children with a secularist worldview. And so on.

So much for these four-criteria (or, if you prefer, principles) that, I believe, are useful to assess social policies — and, by the same token, draw a very rough outline of the new model of the welfare state. Now let me be a little more concrete. All of this adds up to what I believe should be a central feature of the new model: As far as possible, social services should be delivered by mediating structures, or minimally with their cooperation. Put differently: Mediating structures should be the centerpiece of the new model of the welfare state. What does this mean?

I ask your indulgence; I know that some of you have heard this before; it bears repeating. “Mediating structures” sounds like just the sort of terminological monster only a sociologist could think of (and I plead guilty, with due apologies to the language of Shakespeare and Milton). But the reality that this term refers to is very well known and crucial in most people’s lives: Mediating structures are those institutions that stand between the individual and the enormous (mostly bureaucratic) structures of a modern society, and especially between the individual and the state. The most important of these institutions are the family and organized religion. Then there is the (often informal) net¬ work of institutions engendered by the local community or neighborhood. And then (last but not least) there is the world of voluntary association, with its vast array of institutions expressing the common purposes and values of different groups of people. We call these institutions “mediating” because they act as bridges between private and public life. They express the personal values and identities of individuals, but at the same time they relate these individuals to public purposes.

I have been convinced for about a decade now that mediating structures are the secret of viability of a modern society, especially if that society is democratically governed. In 1977 Richard Neuhaus and I wrote our little book, To Empower People, in which we urged a rethinking of social policy in this country in terms of mediating structures; this same idea animated the Mediating Structures Project of the American Enterprise Institute, which between 1976 and 1979 explored the applicability of this concept to specific policy areas; and, I believe, this same idea animates Robert Woodson’s present work. I would like to stress that we are not suggesting a panacea or magic formula here; this is a flexible, empirically testable concept. And much of the testing remains to be done.

Mediating structures are so important for a new model of the welfare state because the old model so fatally ignores them. The European model of the welfare state, which continues to inspire American liberals, is strictly dualistic: On one side is the state, as the supplier of social services; on the other side are individuals, with their rights and entitlements; there is nothing in between. Or, if there is, it is perceived as an obstacle. It is precisely this sociological blindness that has led to the welfare state as a centralized, bureaucratized, professionalized monopoly, which more and more of its intended beneficiaries perceive as an alien imposition. We don’t have to disparage the old model unduly (most of us, I’m sure, would prefer to live in Western Europe — if pressed, I’d even include Sweden — than in most other countries of the world); there is a lot of institutionalized concern and decency there; but I think that we can do better!

Before the coming of the modern welfare state, of course, all social services were provided by these institutions. As I have said before, it cannot be our purpose to return to that situation. However, neither must we stand by helplessly as the welfare state gobbles up or cripples these institutions one by one. An important feature of the new model can be stated in the old phrasing of the Hippocratic Oath — “do no harm!” — in this case, no harm to mediating structures. The state should not needlessly duplicate what mediating structures are doing: This means cognizance of all the private initiatives in play, and the planning of state actions around, and not against, them. Also it means that the state should not inhibit these private initiatives by foolish and unnecessary regulation — this implies a massive effort of what Robert Woodson once called social deregulation. These policies are, if you will, negative in the sense of letting mediating structures do their thing; their effects would be very positive indeed. There is an impressive agenda here for policy revamping and for legislation.

Then there is an equally impressive agenda of positive support for mediating structures. This can be done through a variety of mechanisms, the details of which, I’m sure, will have to vary as between different policy areas — direct subsidies or grants, tax incentives (mostly relevant to business as a possible supplier of social services), tax credits. I do not minimize the problems with some of these mechanisms (especially the problem of creating wondrous new pork-barrels) but I’m convinced that these problems can be solved. In terms of mechanisms, I think that the voucher concept will increasingly be turned to as the new model is being constructed. If you go over the aforementioned criteria, I think you will find that each one suggests a voucher mechanism. And most people, if given a choice, will “cash in” their vouchers at this or that mediating structure, either already in existence or newly set up to provide a particular service.

I’m sure you realize by now that I could go on and on about this. Let me instead ask the question that Lenin asked on the eve of the Russian Revolution: “What is to be done?” Well, let there be no doubt about it. To bring about such a new model of the welfare state in its full blown shape would require nothing less than a social revolution! What is more, this revolution would have to be fought in the political arena against very powerful and well-organized vested interests — all those who profit from the present system. Perhaps some of you here can envisage such a revolution as a politically realistic project. Both as a conservative and as a sociologist, I’m skeptical. (As a conservative, I prefer gradual change to revolutions as a matter of principle; as a sociologist, I know that most revolutions have high and unanticipated costs.) What, then, is to be done?

It seems to me that, first, those of us who think along these lines should actually produce an alternative vision of the welfare state, in as much detail as we can manage to put in. Let us draw a picture: Look, this is what this thing would look like — even if we can’t get there right away. Closely related to this, we should start using a new language to talk about social policy — a new rhetoric, if you will — to break the absurd monopoly that liberalism has enjoyed in this area. And then we should think, in politically realistic ways, of the immediate (and necessarily smaller) steps that would take us closer to the model. This means very concrete policy designs and legislative proposals. A very first step would be to undertake a comprehensive survey of social programs (at least on the Federal level) that impinge on mediating structures — and to start thinking of mediating-structures-oriented alternatives. There is enough business here to keep a lot of people out of mischief for quite a long time!

Let me conclude by making some observations about the political context of all this, both domestically and inter-nationally. The crisis of the welfare state is common now to all Western -style democracies. But the United States, I believe, has a unique opportunity to take the lead in finding a way out of the crisis. The reason for this is, quite simply, that mediating structures are stronger in America than in other countries. American pluralism and the American tradition of voluntary association continue to be vital societal resources. Just for this reason it is quite absurd that so many people continue to be fixated on the European model. At the same time, it is very likely that, if America takes the lead, other democracies will take note and quite possibly emulate whatever is applicable to their own problems.

Within the domestic political situation, most of what I have said here is not readily recognizable as being either conservative or liberal, right or left of center. Especially the mediating structures concept cuts across the ideological divides. Thus, in theory, the concept could be picked up by either Republicans or Democrats. The latter scenario, though, is less probable, and for a very simple reason: The Democratic Party, as it is now constituted, is much more captive to the vested interests that would preserve the status quo in social policy. Also, the intellectuals feeding ideas to the Democratic Party are just the ones who are fixated on the old, European-style model of the welfare state. It seems to me that, politically speaking, what we have here is a great Republican opportunity. (I want to stress that I say this as a sociologist. True, I’m a registered Republican — in my milieu in Boston this is almost as piquant as being a certified lunatic or a convicted bigamist — and I would like the Republican Party to make use of its opportunities. But I’m pretty sure that I would make the same socio-political diagnosis if I were on the other side of the fence.)

A final comment on the international context: For many years now my main interest as a sociologist has been on modernization processes in the Third World, and accordingly I have been more concerned with questions of U.S. foreign policy than with domestic policy issues. In this context I find it ludicrous that the United States is so widely perceived as a power blindly committed to the status quo. In actual fact, socially and culturally, American society is the most innovative and dynamic in the world. One could even say that the American Revolution is the only real revolution going on; the other so-called revolutions are, most of them, reactionary projects pushing people back into age-old structures of oppression, stagnation and misery. It seems to me high time that America turns its innovative genius to a restructuring of social policy. We are in the position of creating a new vision of a humane society superior to anything existing today and of making people everywhere take note of this vision. Such a turn, besides its domestic benefits, would also have a far from inconsiderable impact on the international image of this country.

  • Peter L. Berger

    Peter Ludwig Berger is an Austrian-born American sociologist known for his work in the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of religion, study of modernization, and theoretical contributions to sociological theory. He wrote this article during his time as a Professor at Boston University.

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