The Welfare state: A Case of Plus cá change?

Anthony McCashin
Anthony McCashin

by Anthony McCashin, Trinity College Dublin

Paul Pierson shaped the terms on which we considered the sources and scale of welfare state change. Would a critical review of Pierson’s claims still endorse them? Our Policy & Politics article entitled How much change? Pierson and the welfare state revisited attempts to answer this question.

First, welfare state resilience: while appropriate, perhaps, to Pierson’s analysis of ‘early’ retrenchers like Reagan in the US, or Swedish Social Democrats in the 1990s, this term no longer reflects the variety and depth of change – especially in social security. Second, globalisation: here Pierson is on more certain ground. On the one hand, there are strong nationally based drivers of change- such as ageing and health care costs. On the other, individual welfare states have quite distinct economies (and institutions) and these filter the influence of globalisation. Welfare states remain specific and diverse and are not flattened into conformity by globalisation.

As for his third main claim- the replacement of class politics by ‘new politics’- this is simply not supported by the evidence. True, some new forms of welfare state politics have emerged, but these co-exist with ‘old’ politics and have not replaced them. There is a deeper truth, however, in Piersonian welfare state politics. History tells us that politics shaped welfare states. Nowadays, Pierson stressed, the lines of causality may also run in the opposite direction and welfare states may shape politics.

Pierson is as concerned with methodology as he is with the substance of welfare state change. His work makes a case for a specific type of analysis; one that is context-driven, based on case studies, and concerned to understand sequence and timing.

It is important of course to view Pierson’s work alongside that of other acclaimed institutionalists such as Clasen, Bonoli and many others. Institutions, he confirms, do matter. The challenge empirically is to link formal institutional structures and welfare regimes, identify the types of politics at play and tease out the implications of these factors for welfare state change.

Perhaps the most difficult question –still unresolved- is about welfare state change. What do we mean by this? Pierson is somewhat contradictory here. He occasionally cites conventional measures of change (such as changes in replacement rates over short periods of time), and yet he stresses the need for a genuinely historical perspective that clarifies what types and degrees of change might be expected over specific periods of time. The problem here – as welfare state scholars know well- is that the welfare state is highly complex. Pierson ignores the complexity by invoking rough indicators or classifying change into very broad types (recommodification, cost containment etc.). In contrast, other scholars – typically those with expertise in the nuances of welfare state provisions – give ‘thick description’ or detailed data that measure change.

The challenge for the future is probably best expressed this way. We need to find a suitable level of analysis, one that marries the detail of the welfare state to the broader historical and institutional context. As it happens, welfare state scholars now have an ideal context – the financial crisis and the associated austerity – in which to test Pierson’s methods and findings again. Does the financial crisis not show – contra Pierson – that globalisation is a defining influence on the welfare state? Surely, the politics of austerity has revealed –again – the persistence of ‘old’, class based politics?

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested to read Making the Case for the Welfare State by Peter Taylor-Gooby.

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