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How Can You Classify Welfare States Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2735 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Introduction: As I have found it so difficult to structure this essay and formulate a strong line of argument, which would be outlined here, I will limit the introduction to some of my thoughts surrounding issues which may have an effect on the discussion.

What authors mean by the term welfare state varies from each classification attempt. This results in different classifications which within the boundaries the author has set can be very convincing. Different measures and types of analysis are used creating different outcomes, different levels, and different understandings of welfare states.

Some focus more on expenditure than others, definitions may be broader or narrower. As Cochrane points out ‘…a loose working definition is required to make comparison possible in the first place’ (1993) but there is not an overwhelming consensus about what constitutes the welfare state. This is one reason why there is so much controversy surrounding classification, as writers disagree about what the welfare state consists of, and thus use different types of evidence according to their particular view on what makes up the welfare state. However, classifying welfare states helps makes useful generalisations which can enrich our understanding of a complex and important subject.

Main body:

Early attempts to classify the welfare state of the advanced world did so largely according to expenditure. Wilensky (1975) analyses differences in the levels of government spending, using this criteria to distinguish the ‘leaders’ from the ‘laggards’. Cutright (1965) also bases his differentiation of welfare states primarily on expenditure specifically on social insurance provision. Bonoli (1997) makes the point that ‘This approach, by concentrating exclusively on the levels of expenditure completely neglects other dimensions of welfare provision’.

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Esping-Anderson (1990), in his ground-breaking work The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism makes the point that within expenditure based classifications ‘that all spending counts equally.’ Of course the level of money a government assigns to its welfare provision is very important in classifying states but the way in which it is spent can have implications for the provision and leads to large differences between welfare states, even if expenditure levels appear similar. Firstly in countries such as Austria, governments ‘…spend a large share on benefits to privileged civil servants’ which, Esping-Anderson points out, ‘…is normally not what we would consider a commitment to social citizenship and solidarity’. Furthermore, expenditure analysis has tended to neglect for instance whether benefits are means tested or universal. Expenditure can be misleading in other ways too, Esping-Andersen uses the example of Britain under Thatcher, where total expenditure grew, but that it was mainly a function of very high unemployment. Castles and Mitchell (1992) concur; ‘ceteris paribus, an identical input of expenditure will lead to quite different observed levels of poverty and inequality, depending on the distribution of incomes prior to income maintenance expenditures and taxes’.

Most recent classifications agree that expenditure alone is inadequate criterion to classify welfare states. Esping-Andersen has been praised for highlighting this problem (Bonoli, Pierson & Castles) The way in which money is spent is crucially important as is the rights the welfare state grants its citizens. But more than this required, according to Esping-Andersen, who argues further that welfare states can not merely be understood in terms of rights granted. ‘We must also take into account how state activities are interlocked with the market’s and the family’s role in social provision’. Esping-Andersen’s understanding of the welfare state is thus broader than many other authors in their attempts at classification. This is a major strength as it attempts to include many activities carried out by governments that have implications for the standard of living of its citizens. Esping-Andersen focuses on the notion of decommodifying the impact of ‘diverse systems of social rights’ (Pierson and Castles). Decommodification is defined as ‘the degree to which individuals or families can uphold a socially acceptable standard of living independently of market participation’ (Esping-Andersen 1990). As well as firmly moving the emphasis away from expenditure as the sole tool of analysis, Esping-Andersen has been praised for suggesting that ‘the welfare state is about more than just services and transfers’ (Pierson and Castles 2000).

Esping-Andersen’s three proposed ‘welfare regimes’, the liberal, social-democratic and corporatist or conservative are argued convincingly and well supported. The analysis goes beyond merely the descriptive, and attempts to provide common development of the welfare states within each regime type, largely around class and power issues. This strengthens the common characteristics identified by Esping-Andersen in today’s welfare states.

However, Esping-Andersen has been criticised on a number of grounds. A good classification must result in the welfare states of the advanced world being classified. That is to say, they must fit into the categories proposed, meeting the necessary criteria to be associated with a particular welfare regime of type. Esping-Andersen admits that none of the regimes he identifies can be found in a perfect or pure form. Still, even if we ignore this inevitable consequence of classification, (all welfare states are unique), further objections to Esping-Andersen remain concerning welfare states comfortably fitting into the regimes.

A major problem with the three regime types is that Japan cannot be comfortably incorporated, as it possesses features of all three types, and yet it is without doubt part of the advanced world. Esping-Andersen admits this, as Japan’s level of expenditure is relatively low, similar to the liberal classification, but that unemployment rates are typically low too, more similar to those found in social-democratic regimes. Elements of the conservative/corporatist model may be found too, due to Japan’s reliance on non-state forms of support from the family and the firm for example. The failure to incorporate Japan into his analysis is clearly an unsuccessful aspect of Esping-Andersen’s classification attempt.

Many alternative classifications have been proposed in response to Esping-Andersen’s The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, which highlight other deficiencies and problems with the work. Abrahamson (1991) and Leibfried (2000) both point to the difficulty of including various Southern European States into Esping-Andersen’s three regimes and argue for a 4th world, the ‘rudimentary’ or ‘Latin rim’. According to Leibfried ‘the Southern countries of Europe…seem to constitute a welfare state regime of their own’. Countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece would come under this banner, more easily described as rudimentary and similar to each other than grouped with liberal, social-democratic or conservative welfare states, as they display very different characteristics.

Castles and Mitchell (1992), however, use different techniques to establish an alternative 4th world, which they term ‘radical’. They base a classification of countries such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom as radical because these nations’ equality outcomes are much more favourable than other states which Esping-Andersen describes as liberal. The above countries, according to Castles and Mitchell’s analysis, do more for increasing equality among their people than the Netherlands does, which ‘according to his [Esping-Andersen’s] classification is a socialist, high decommodification system.”

Many criticisms of Esping-Andersen are the basis for new models, adding or adjusting his three worlds. But other criticisms have been launched too, which also apply to those studies stemming from Esping-Andersen’s three worlds. Allan Cochrane makes the point that ‘the most striking absences from the statistical approaches – and indeed (except in asides) from Esping-Andersen’s regimes – are those relating to gender’. He notes how the decommodification of labour is tarnished as a tool for classification because of failing to fully consider gender issues, many of which find no expression in aggregate statistics. (Of course this criticism also applies to most other statistics used to support classification attempts.) For instance Esping-Andersen ‘fails to acknowledge the extent to which women’s involvement in that sphere is a necessary basis for the commodification of labour’. (Cochrane). Peter Taylor-Gooby developed this point arguing that analysis must include ‘both uncommodified care work in the home and the position of women in the formal labour market’ and that this will mean ‘different struggles will develop in the various regime types in response to current pressures on the welfare states’. Consequently a classification neglecting to investigate these angles will result in presenting welfare states as very different to their true nature. Many have argued that classifying welfare states without understanding issues such as this that they face greatly reduces their value. (Langan & Ostner 1991, Dominelli 1991)

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Both Bonoli, Kemeny, and Castle & Mitchell argue that whilst Esping-Andersen criticises over reliance on expenditure as a basis for classification, and that this is a valid and important claim, he is in some ways also guilty of this fault. Each of the three regimes is ‘heavily contaminated by expenditure considerations.’ Kemeny notes that e-a’s classification ‘does not make a complete break with the traditional quantification approach’. Bonoli maintains that e-a still ends up with a classification overly based on the quantity of welfare provided by individual states. Instead of using spending to measure welfare states he measures decommodification and Bonoli argues that a consequence of this quantitative approach is a failure to ‘reflect the substantial differences which exist in the way welfare is delivered’.

Other attempts at classification have placed their emphasis on how welfare states have administered welfare provision rather than how much they have spent in doing so. In Bonoli’s article ‘Classifying Welfare States; A Two Dimensional Approach” he notes that Ferrera (1993) and traditional French approaches to welfare state classification (commonly known as the Beveridgean and Bismarckian types) examine the ways in which provision is made, moving away from the quantitative ‘how much’ approach. Ferrera ‘openly sets out to break with the quantification approach’ and the French models are ‘considered independent of the quantity of welfare it provides’. Ferrera focuses on one aspect of welfare provision – the coverage of welfare protection schemes, mainly distinguishing between universal and occupational schemes. Briefly, Bismarckian social policy is ‘concerned with income maintenance for employees, whereas Beveridgean social policy aims at the prevention of poverty’ (Bonoli).

Bonoli, however, highlights that although Ferrera’s classification is able to account for differences in the way in which welfare is delivered more competently than Esping-Andersen, ‘it’s obvious weakness is the fact that it now fails to take into account the quantitative dimension of state welfare’. Aside from the fact that knowing how much government spends on the ways on which they administer welfare as a useful element in distinguishing welfare states there are other problems. For instance, as with (ironically) some expenditure only analyses, the Bismarckian /Beveridgean approaches do not distinguish between universal and means tested benefits, a distinction which has very important connotations for welfare provision. A major point in Bonoli’s article is that welfare state classification requires a comprehensive two-dimensional approach considering both expenditure and the way in which that money is spent, as well as other methods such as policy measures. That is to say how welfare is administered. These vital two dimensions are found in some form in Esping-Andersen’s three worlds, but Bonoli argues this is not adequate, as the two dimensions are limited only to decommodification rather than to the whole analysis. Bonoli attempt at classifying welfare states takes the Beveridgean/Bismarckian approach but adds a new twist differentiating not only the two from each other but also distinguishing between higher spending and lower spending within the regime types. This addresses more fully the issue of two dimensions of analysis. Although Bonoli’s point that these two dimensions of analysis are required to understand the welfare state, it seems quite simplistic to imply that there are only two ‘hows’- the Beveridgean and Bismarckian. Esping-Andersen’s three regime types appear more convincing generally although Bonoli makes a useful methodological point.

Many rival classifications to Esping-Andersen’s stem form his work, and similar methodology is sometimes used. However, differences in methodology are also common, perhaps due to different understandings of what constitutes the welfare state. Ferrera’s understanding, it could be argued, is rather narrow, solely concentrating on social protection schemes. It is difficult, apart from in very broad terms to talk in detail about the variations in methodology (although ideally this is what I would like to have done).

Conclusion – issues, not a comprehensive summing up.

The failure to fit Japan into Esping-Andersen’s three worlds clearly reduces the success of the classification which in many other ways came as a crucial addition to the study of welfare states. But this is an excellent way of examining whether a classification attempt is successful in its main objective that has to allow all welfare states in the advanced world to be comfortable in the classification groups.

However, this is very difficult to assess in many of the other cases. Different authors use different ways of formulating classifications, and their methodology leads to different conclusions. Therefore, often the countries discussed do fit generally well into the regimes proposed. But because the criteria for classification varies so much between authors, and because, for instance, Japan’s relevant statistics are not available to me, it is difficult to know whether all the advanced countries do indeed fit snugly into all the different regimes presented.

One could argue however, that most of the authors discussed do succeed in creating classifications which manage to incorporate all the countries they have analysed according to the particular way they have chosen to analyse them, this is largely inevitable! Esping-Andersen has admitted that Japan is a large exception to the rule, but the absence of Japan form the discussion by other authors could also be seen as some sort of failure.

Functionalism – classification of welfare states is pointless, the fact they exist is the main point?

It is also important to remember that although welfare states show enduring characteristics and tendencies that remain over the years, that they are not static, unchanging entities. As such, classification may only really be able to group states according to their past trends and present characteristics, and arguably welfare states could ultimately change regimes depending on government policies. For instance, it could be said that the influence of globalisation may alter welfare states’ make-up, and make certain classifications void or in need of adjustment.


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