tony judt on the european welfare state

The Nation has an interview with historian Tony Judt. His new book, Ill Fares the Land, is an argument for the European style welfare state. A few clips:

There are two different considerations here. The first is the social reality of the social democratic state—the activist state, if you like—with collective responsibility across space and time for other people’s interests. That is almost inevitably going to survive in one form or another. In my world it was pretty clear which aspects of my parents’ world would survive into ours; in my kids’ world, it’s not at all clear which aspects of my world will survive into theirs. With globalization, with the fear of economic change, with the insecurities that the twenty-first century is going to bring, which are going to be far greater than those of the twentieth, the level of insecurity is going to have the paradoxical effect of throwing people back on the state much more, looking to it for everything from medical protection to physical protection to job guarantees to protection against outside competition and such. So the question is not going to be, Will there be an activist state? The question is going to be, What kind of an activist state?

And that brings us to the second consideration, which is how we think about it. We’ve emerged from a twentieth century which we’ve learned to think of as a kind of seventy-year running battle between the over-mighty state and the wonders of individual freedom. Extreme forms of individualism versus extreme forms of collective enforced authority. Roughly speaking, Stalin versus the tea party. That’s a caricature of the twentieth century. But it’s one that we have to a large degree internalized, so when people think of the political choices facing them, they think of them in terms of maximized individual freedom versus maximized collective repression, or power or authority or whatever. And then they think of any changes with one or the other, regrettable compromises with freedom or so on. We need to change that conversation so we can think of the state not as some external creature that history has imposed upon us but simply as a way of collective organization that we chose to place onto ourselves. In that sense the liberal state either has a future or it doesn’t, but it really is up to us.

Here’s our previous discussion of Judt and postwar European history.

Written by fabiorojas

May 7, 2010 at 12:46 am

5 Responses

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  1. The first paragraphs asserts that the 21st century is basically going to scare the crap out of people so that they run for state protection. For people who like activist states this is very attractive/convenient. But I don’t see it empirically.
    Then in paragraph 2 he states that a government should be viewed simply as a “way of collective organization that we chose to place onto ourselves”
    Of course it is.
    The question still remains however how much we want to accomplish through that collective organization we call government and how much we want to do through other collective organizations such as religion, facebook, the WTO, or whatever.


    Justin Kraus

    May 7, 2010 at 1:22 am

  2. I believe the author has something of a point. In fact, in many countries the government apparatus has grown, not shrinked, since the eighties.



    May 7, 2010 at 3:46 am

  3. Judt’s critique is powerfully–and succinctly– made in a NY review of books article ( from several months ago in which he claims that the death of social democracy is not so much about the retraction of the state. The state, in a way, never “retracts”. It just invests its energies away from providing social support and from “public” purposes. The irony, for Judt, is that the very prosperity that the social democratic parts of the state created in the mid-twentieth century contained the seeds of its own destruction because it made state social support seem less palatable. The kind of state-building (if you want to call it that) that happened in the Reagan-Thatcher era thus didn’t “shrink” government, as Guillermo suggests, but redesigned it in such a way that gave private sector logics to public programs (as well as giving public programs to private providers–“the hollowed out state”) and, at least in the United States, reassigned fiscal responsibilities to sub-national administrative units (like states and localities) with little ability to fund these programs. The state doesn’t wither away; it sticks around–but with a different, and Judt would suggest, corrosive set of logics. I’ll conclude by quoting the man himself:

    “For the state is not about to wither away. Even if we strip it of all its service attributes, it will still be with us—if only as a force for control and repression. Between state and individuals there would then be no intermediate institutions or allegiances: nothing would remain of the spider’s web of reciprocal services and obligations that bind citizens to one another via the public space they collectively occupy. All that would be left is private persons and corporations seeking competitively to hijack the state for their own advantage.”


    kruppingham jones

    May 8, 2010 at 4:34 pm

  4. I’ve had this discussion with a colleague before that thought that the state would always exist because some people would always have the incentive to use coercion over others. But, I think Adam Smith’s thoughts in TMS subsume that logic,

    “What system of government could tend so much to promote the happiness of mankind as the general prevalence of wisdom and virtue? All government is but an imperfect remedy for these.”

    Really our desire for collective action via government comes from our imperfections which exist because of desires to use coercion but also due to a lack of trust.

    I have two questions:

    What is the scope for voluntary collective action?

    And, if the trend continues with more government action can we at least “sunset” legislation such that voters have an opportunity to reflect upon whether a piece of legislation exceeded the cost/benefit bar?



    May 13, 2010 at 10:09 pm

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