Social welfare or the social services, operating through agencies, institutions and programs outside the private market, are becoming more difficult to define in any society with any precision. As societies become more complex and specialized, so do systems of social welfare. Functionally, they reflect and respond to the larger social structure and its division of labour. This process makes it much harder today to identify the causal agents of change—the microbes of social disorganization and the viruses of impoverishment—and to make them responsible for the costs of ‘disservices’. Who should bear the social costs of the thalidomide babies, of urban blight, of smoke pollution, of the obsolescence of skills, of automation, of the impact on the peasants of Brazil of synthetic coffee which will dispense with the need for coffee beans? The private benefits are to some extent measurable and attributable, but the private losses are not. Neoclassical economics and the private market cannot make these allocations; they are not organized to estimate social disruption and are unable to provide adequately for the public needs created by social and economic change.

Our growing inability to identify and connect cause and effect in the world of social and technological change is thus one reason for the historical emergence of social welfare institutions in the West. Altruism by strangers for strangers was and is an attempt to fill a moral void created by applied science. The services and programmes developed in the West to give aid to the stranger victims of industrialism and change have inevitably and necessarily become more specialized and complex. In this paper we shall only be able to speak of them in general terms.

The social services are largely the product of the twentieth century—a delayed response to the industrialism of the nineteenth century. The term is generally and loosely interpreted today to cover such public (or publicly supported) services as medical care, education, housing, income maintenance in old age and during periods of unemployment, sickness, disability and so forth, child allowances, and a variety of specific services for particular groups of people with special needs, e.g., neglected children, unmarried mothers, the blind, mental defectives, young delinquents, discharged prisoners and other categories. All these services came apologetically into existence to provide for certain basic needs which the individual, the family and the private market in capitalist societies were unable or unwilling to meet. In the United States and other Western countries, the terms ‘social welfare’ or ‘social policy programmes’ are used a alternative generic labels to embrace a similar variety of collectively organized services which may differ widely in scope and structure, methods of administration and finance, and in the fundamental objectives underlying them.

The concept of ‘The Welfare State’, which entered the arena of political thought in the 1940’s, is generally accepted as a wider definition of the role of the State in the field of social and economic policy, embracing more than the provision of social services. Most writers on the subject, whether on the right or left politically, take it to mean a more positive and purposeful commitment by government to concern itself with the general welfare of the whole community and with the social costs of change. In his book, Beyond the Welfare State, Gunnar Myrdal concluded that, ‘In the last half-century, the State, in all the rich countries in the Western world, has become a democratic “Welfare State”, with fairly explicit commitments to the broad goals of economic development, full employment, equality of opportunity for the young, social security, and protected minimum standards as regards not only income, but nutrition, housing, health and education, for people of all regions and social groups.’footnote1

On this view, it can be argued that ‘Welfare Statism’, either as an established fact or as a political objective, is a common phenomenon of large-scale, industrialized societies. The renaissance of private enterprise during the past two decades in North America and Europe, the Keynesian revolution and the adoption of techniques of economic management, rising standards of living and the achievements of political parties and Trade Unions on behalf of the under-privileged, have led all these culturally different societies along the same road to ‘Welfare Statism’—a road unforeseen by Marx. Whether they know it or not and whether they like it or not, Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives, Socialists and Liberals in North America and Europe have become ‘welfare-statists’. The Germans and the Swedes may have more ‘advanced’ pension systems, the British a more comprehensive health service, the French more extensive family allowances, and the Americans may spend more on public education but, when all these national differences are acknowledged, the generalized welfare commitment is nevertheless viewed as the dominant political fact of modern Western societies. Governments of the liberal right and the liberal left may come and go; the commitment to welfare, economic growth and full employment will remain with minor rather than major changes in scope and objectives.