The Economist devotes this week’s cover, and its main leader, to a story about the expansion of social protection in Asia. One of the main unsung tales of the last ten years has been the massive development of social protection in developing economies like South Africa, Mexico, India, Indonesia, China and Brazil – Barrientos and Hulme call it a “quiet revolution”. The Economist article focuses mainly on health care, and Asia has come late to the party. The Economist is probably right to argue that “every country that can afford to build a welfare state will come under mounting pressure to do so.” But then, I would say that: I have argued the case in The Welfare State (Sage, 2000) and some other papers.
The Economist’s leader does, however, make a common mistake. They write: “Europe’s welfare states began as basic safety nets. But over time they turned into cushions.” They didn’t begin that way, and they haven’t finished that way either. The origins of many welfare states lie in the development of solidarity and the mutuals; the state became involved much later. See Peter Baldwin’s book, The politics of social solidarity, Cambridge University Press 1990. The extension of health care, which they focus on, is essential to the maintenance of any modern labour force.
It was the English Poor Law that began as a safety net. The accusations that the British system had become excessively generous can be dated back to the criticisms of the monasteries before the Reformation, but it became a regular part of complaints about welfare from the mid-18th century onwards; it continued in the accusations that workhouses had become ‘pauper places’; and it continues now in the assertion, contrary to all the evidence, of generations who have ‘never worked’. The system is neither generous at an individual level, nor collectively unaffordable. There is extensive evidence of the relationship of welfare to economic performance: there isn’t one. See A B Atkinson, 1995, The welfare state and economic performance, in Incomes and the welfare state, Cambridge University Press, and the entry on my website.