Back To CourseHistory 109: Western Europe Since 1945
14 chapters | 134 lessons
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Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.
So, let's discuss the welfare state and its development within modern European history. What exactly is a welfare state? A welfare state is a nation-state whose government is committed to ensuring economic and social well-being through redistribution of wealth and other government-sponsored programs. While the precise components of a welfare state vary, most modern welfare states tend to contain elements of democracy and socialism.
Welfare states typically value universal human rights and economic equality. To achieve this, high taxes are often levied, usually in the form of a progressive tax. A progressive tax is a tax in which those with larger income are taxed to a greater degree.
Universal nationalized healthcare is a common component of the modern welfare state. Access to education and employment opportunities are also emphasized. The concept behind a welfare state is that all individuals are entitled to economic and social well-being, and the government ought to take an active role in orchestrating this. In a welfare state, the government, to varying degrees, 'levels the playing field' for its citizens. Privatization is typically kept to a minimum, especially in the areas of healthcare, education, and industry.
Welfare states are common throughout Europe. The Scandinavian counties of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and others are often cited as stereotypical welfare states.
Welfare states as we know them emerged throughout Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. Although conservative in many respects, the German Empire was an early leading welfare state. This may seem surprising to those of us in 2014, who associate welfare states with liberalism, but throughout the late 19th century, many European governments adopted elements of a welfare state in order to forestall communism. Otto von Bismarck's German Empire, or the 'First Reich,' which lasted between 1871-1918, was in many respects, remarkably progressive, having elements of old-age pension plans, various insurances, healthcare programs, and other welfare features.
In Great Britain, elements of a welfare state were introduced in the early 20th century. Under liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, reforms were put into place between 1906 and 1914, including old-age pension plans, free school meals, and other programs. Of particular importance was the Development Act of 1909, which allowed for greater government involvement in economics, and the National Insurance Act of 1911, which allowed for healthcare and unemployment benefits. As Chancellor of the Exchequer (or basically finance minister) David Lloyd George also played a key role in transforming Great Britain into a welfare state.
Germany and Great Britain were not alone in their transformation into welfare states. Throughout the early 20th century, a number of European states experimented with elements of welfare programs. In France, the Popular Front movement of the 1930s resulted in domestic reforms along socialist lines. The Second Spanish Republic also made progressive reforms during this time, as did many Eastern European states.
Interestingly, the United States has historically been reluctant to adopt elements of the welfare state. Many Americans equate the welfare state with communism or socialism. The United States, while not nearly as much of a welfare state as the countries in Europe, should probably be considered a partial welfare state. During the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt was successful in implementing elements of the welfare state, most notably Social Security. President Lyndon B. Johnson also played a role in promoting welfare state programs, as did President Barack Obama, with his Affordable Care Act, commonly known as 'ObamaCare.'
Of course, our focus here is on Europe. After World War II, the European welfare state came into its own. After World War II, the welfare state became the ideal model for many European states. The system was commonly seen as combining the best elements of laissez-faire capitalism and communism. In this way, the welfare state represents a balance between the political right and left. Most European states today are welfare states. Their taxes are relatively high, but that is compensated by the services citizens receive through the government.
In Great Britain, the Labor Party won a landslide victory in July 1945 over Winston Churchill's Conservative Party. The Labor Party was instrumental in forging Britain's modern welfare state. One of the cornerstones of the British welfare state is the National Health Service, or NHS, which provides free or low-cost comprehensive healthcare coverage to citizens of the United Kingdom. The NHS was established by the National Health Service Act of 1946.
Of course, after World War II, Germany was divided into communist East Germany and democratic West Germany. West Germany boomed as a result of American aid and principles of free market economics. Even so, West Germany was not entirely laissez-faire. In fact, West Germany flourished as a welfare state under its 'social market economy,' which combined elements of free market economics with social welfare programs.
Other European states like France, Italy, and the Scandinavian states similarly experienced post-war prosperity as welfare states. The welfare state has undoubtedly transformed life for modern Europeans. There certainly are criticisms against the welfare state. Some economists predict European states will go bankrupt if they continue to fund welfare programs. The economic difficulties in Greece in the past few years have generally been linked to welfare spending. That said, many Europeans approve of the welfare system. The welfare state has allowed millions of Europeans access to healthcare, and generally has improved the quality of life on that continent.
Let's review. A welfare state is a nation-state whose government is committed to ensuring economic and social well-being through redistribution of wealth and other government-sponsored programs. Most European countries are welfare states. Many welfare states fund social programs through a progressive tax, in which those who are rich pay a higher proportion of taxes.
The German Empire under Otto von Bismarck was an early leading welfare state, despite being a generally conservative government. In the early 20th century, Great Britain too was transformed into a welfare state under the leadership of Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George. In Great Britain, the National Health Service is one of the cornerstones of their welfare platform. It was established as we know it today by the National Health Service Act of 1946.
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Back To CourseHistory 109: Western Europe Since 1945
14 chapters | 134 lessons