I was in Berlin this week for “Vision Europe Summit”, a conference on the future of the welfare state, organised by Bertelsmann Stiftung and Chatham House. The main paper is here. I found more to disagree with than to agree: I take a different view of the problems, the aims, the instruments and the prescriptions. The paper suggests, for example, that there are three main objectives of welfare states: redistribution, social protection (reduced to “piggy banks”) and social investment. But there are far more aims than that – among them the relief of poverty, economic management and support for economic production, behaviour change, social welfare, social control and humanitarian aid. Similarly, there is no intrinsic reason to suppose that welfare is unsustainably expensive. Countries often choose to consume more as they get richer – which is understandable – but transfer payments are largely neutral in economic terms and the real question is whether payment for benefits and services is made by governments or independently.
I wasn’t presenting my own work, but I was asked at the last minute to step in to a panel as a respondent for a survey of public opinions about welfare. The same problems apply here: people don’t share a common view of what the terms mean and it’s difficult from their responses to work out what they mean when they say, for example, that they’re not sure their pensions will be paid. Because there’s no uniform model of the welfare state, generalisations about what people are saying don’t offer a clear guide.