Why Welfare States Persist: The Importance of Public Opinion in Democracies

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The world’s richer democracies all provide such public benefits as pensions and health care, but why are some far more generous than others? And why, in the face of globalization and fiscal pressures, has the welfare state not been replaced by another model? Reconsidering the myriad issues raised by such pressing questions, Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza contend here that public opinion has been an important, yet neglected, factor in shaping welfare states in recent decades.

Analyzing data on sixteen countries, Brooks and Manza find that the preferences of citizens profoundly influence the welfare policies of their governments and the behavior of politicians in office. Shaped by slow-moving forces such as social institutions and collective memories, these preferences have counteracted global pressures that many commentators assumed would lead to the welfare state’s demise. Moreover, Brooks and Manza show that cross-national differences in popular support help explain why Scandinavian social democracies offer so much more than liberal democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom.

Significantly expanding our understanding of both public opinion and social policy in the world’s most developed countries, this landmark study will be essential reading for scholars of political economy, public opinion, and democratic theory.

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Editorial Reviews


"This succinct argument is a must read for faculty and graduate students interested in the restructuring of welfare states over the past two decades."
Political Science Quarterly
Brooks and Manza have made a useful contribution by combining information from several sources to link public opinion and public policy on welfare provision. . . . The book makes a compelling case for how policy differences among countries can persist, even in our modern, globalized, and post-socialist economy.

— Andrew Gelman

Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare
The authors of this well-written and thoroughly-documented book take us on a detailed journey through the historical development of theory and research on welfare states over the last half century, paying particular attention to comparative international dimensions. They bring an abundance of data and sophisticated analytical techniques to bear on the challenging task of teasing out the reasons why different countries and categories of countries which share certain characteristics differ in the level of welfare effort.

— Allan Brawley

Political Studies Review
The authors present a compelling argument for the importance of public opinion as an integral factor in welfare policy. . . . This work will be of value for scholars who study the influence of public opinion on policy makeing in general, as well as for those interested in welfare policy specifically.

— Keith A. Clark II

Robert Y. Shapiro

Why Welfare States Persist makes important predictions about how social welfare policies will hold up under increased globalization and provides illuminating explanations of their histories. This book will be of great interest to researchers and students in comparative social policy, public opinion, and political behavior.”

Lawrence R. Jacobs

“Brooks and Manza pose a bold challenge to research on welfare state development by demonstrating the impacts of mass public opinion on cross-national social welfare policy. They rescue mass public opinion from one-sided institutional accounts and from crude portrayals of citizen attitudes as merely ‘national values’ with little or no political significance.” 

Doug McAdam

“Lots of scholarly energy has been invested in trying to understand variation in welfare state entitlements. But in explaining this variation, surprisingly little attention has been paid to differences in public opinion. In this conceptually smart and empirically rich book, Brooks and Manza remedy this deficiency. They convincingly show that variation in welfare state outcomes is related to enduring differences in popular preferences. Their ‘embedded preferences’ approach to the topic deserves a wide audience in sociology, political science, and policy studies.” 

Paul Burstein

“Why do some countries spend so much more than others on social welfare policies? Because, in large measure, their citizens want them to. Why hasn’t there been major retrenchment of such policies, in the face of globalization and other forces? Because the public doesn’t want retrenchment. And why do preferences persist within countries and vary between countries? Because they are embedded in collective memory, educational institutions, and the social groups to which people belong. In Why Welfare States Persist, Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza present a careful, cogent, and concise analysis of welfare state spending, showing in their comparison of social-democratic, Christian-democratic, and liberal-democratic states that the key word is ‘democratic.’ Why Welfare States Persist should affect debates about the sources of policy change for years to come.”

Political Science Quarterly - Andrew Gelman

"Brooks and Manza have made a useful contribution by combining information from several sources to link public opinion and public policy on welfare provision. . . . The book makes a compelling case for how policy differences among countries can persist, even in our modern, globalized, and post-socialist economy."
Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare - Allan Brawley

"The authors of this well-written and thoroughly-documented book take us on a detailed journey through the historical development of theory and research on welfare states over the last half century, paying particular attention to comparative international dimensions. They bring an abundance of data and sophisticated analytical techniques to bear on the challenging task of teasing out the reasons why different countries and categories of countries which share certain characteristics differ in the level of welfare effort."
Political Studies Review - Keith A. Clark II

"The authors present a compelling argument for the importance of public opinion as an integral factor in welfare policy. . . . This work will be of value for scholars who study the influence of public opinion on policy makeing in general, as well as for those interested in welfare policy specifically."
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Clem Brooks is the James H. Rudy Professor of Sociology at Indiana University. Jeff Manza is professor of sociology at New York University. They are the coauthors of Social Cleavages and Political Change: Voter Alignments and U.S. Party Coalitions.        

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Read an Excerpt

Why Welfare States Persist

The Importance of Public Opinion in Democracies


Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-07583-9

Chapter One

Reaching for Mass Opinion

There is a surprising paradox in the intellectual history of research on the welfare state. There are numerous reasons—stemming from intuitive conceptions of how democracies operate as well as scholarly research on policy responsiveness—to expect that citizens' preferences will influence the extent and types of social provision that countries adopt. Indeed, some of the very earliest theorizing on the sources of welfare state variation pointed to differences in the "values" of national publics, and many leading contemporary analysts have identified public support for social spending as an important bulwark of the welfare state.

Yet remarkably, there have been few attempts to systematically assess or theorize the impact of mass opinion on social policy output. How can this be? Both theoretical assumptions and data limitations account for this state of affairs, and in this chapter we unravel the history of scholarly research on the foundations of welfare states and its curious neglect of mass opinion. Our account highlights the ways in which welfare state scholars have approached, in a variety of ways, the question of mass opinion without fully engaging it.

We begin with economic and functionalist theories of the welfare state advanced in the 1960s, and their more recent revival in the literature on globalization. These models emphasize welfare state convergence and reject the view that politics matters in the long-run trajectory of welfare state development. They can be contrasted with theories that emphasize the importance of political and institutional factors in producing cross-national variation in welfare states. In the last two decades, political models of the welfare state have been sometimes accompanied by invocations of public opinion as a source of welfare state persistence. But since 1980 there has been little examination of this underlying issue.

Our brief intellectual history sets the stage for the "embedded preferences" approach that we present and explore in the rest of the book. We develop a theory of how mass opinion may shape social policy, as well as a model of the sources of policy attitudes on the part of national publics. Central to our argument is the idea that mass opinion undergirds the contemporary welfare state, providing in many countries a powerful source of legitimacy its political defenders are able to draw upon. This is a notable phenomenon in the hostile climate of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, when forms of social provision established in earlier decades have been under vigorous attack.

The Necessary Welfare State?

The Logic of Industrialism Thesis

Modern welfare states first emerged in societies experiencing rapid industrialization and economic growth, and the accompanying social problems these developments generated. Much of the early scholarship on the welfare state took as its point of departure the assumption that economic development was a necessary precondition for the emergence of government solutions to the inequities of industrial societies. Two distinct versions of this thesis can be identified: a modernization version and a Marxist version. The former—developed in the 1960s and 1970s—came to be referred to as the "logic of industrialism" thesis (e.g., Kerr et al. 1960; Wilensky 1965, 1975; Flora and Alber 1981).

The logic of industrialism's central contention was that growing affluence provides the surplus as well as the stimulus for government to fund new policy initiatives involving pensions, health care, and unemployment insurance (Cutright 1965, 1967). Fueled by social, technical, and medical advances that led to increased longevity, the aging of populations was further seen as exerting pressure on governments to address the needs of the growing number of elderly citizens (Wilensky 1975; see also Pampel and Williamson 1985, 1988). Public social provision in the logic of industrialism model was sometimes identified as one of the "functional prerequisites" of industrial capitalist democracies (Cutright 1965:537). In the most extreme formulations, political conflicts or pressures were seen as largely irrelevant; as Wilensky (1975:xiii ) put it in an oft-quoted formulation, "economic growth and its demographic and bureaucratic outcomes are the root causes of the general emergence of the welfare state."

The logic of industrialism model was part of a larger scholarly paradigm that viewed modernization as the path common to all societies undergoing a transition from agrarian to industrial capitalism (Rostow 1960; Parsons 1960, 1971). These theories had a decidedly optimistic view of the social implications of modernization. They hypothesized that changes in the economy and class structure would provide individuals with continually expanding opportunities for social mobility (Kerr et al. 1960; Galbraith 1985[1971]). Economic development was seen as bringing about cross-national convergence, and enlarged social provision would take care of remaining social problems. In the long run, the political ideologies of particular governments were of far less significance in comparison to macroeconomic and demographic forces promoting modernization.

T. H. Marshall's (1950) influential writings on the evolution of citizenship provided an important, if distinct, impetus behind the optimism of modernization theorizing. For Marshall, the evolution of citizenship involved a progression from the establishment of civil rights to both political rights (including the extension of the franchise) and ultimately social rights (that is, a right to an adequate standard of living). All societies were seen as passing through these stages. To be sure, Marshall did acknowledge persisting conflicts between the market and the social rights of citizenship produced by the rise of the welfare state, a point sometimes lost on later commentators. But his overarching thesis was that trends toward a more inclusive citizenship grounded in welfare states were the hallmark of modern industrial societies.

This steady evolution of social citizenship rights led, in turn, to an expectation of a largely homogeneous welfare state. This expectation was, in practice, indistinguishable from the logic of industrialism model's prediction concerning the emergence of social policy. Because both strains of theorizing viewed welfare states as varying little within industrial capitalism, they would be vulnerable to evidence concerning the diversity of social policy across countries.

Radical Theories of the Welfare State

While modernization theories suggested steady improvements in the wellbeing of individuals and families, neo-Marxist and other radical theories that appeared in the same era drew different conclusions. But on key points their logic was strikingly similar to the modernization paradigm. As noted by Myles (1984:93), radical theories of the welfare state sometimes adopted a "logic of capitalism" model that largely substitutes "capitalism" for "industrialization." Where the logic of industrialism thesis posited that industrialization generates social problems necessitating welfare state institutions, the "logic of capitalism" position is that market capitalism generates crisis tendencies and surplus workers, which welfare states are required to ameliorate and placate, respectively.

In O'Connor's (1973) famous formulation, the welfare state arises because of the need for the capitalist state to manage the "contradictions" between accumulation and legitimation, with social provision facilitating legitimation. The result is an inevitable "fiscal crisis" of the state. In other variants, social provision reflects a response to class struggles: in order to avoid the threat of pressure from below, elites occasionally are forced to make concessions to subordinate classes (Piven and Cloward 1971; Block 1977; Przeworski 1985).

In one important respect, however, radical theories did go beyond logic of industrialism approaches to consider a role for mass political consciousness. This can be seen most obviously in the Gramscian tradition within Marxism, where the securing of popular support for capitalism is a central explanatory problem. But other variations of radical political thought explicitly incorporated a role for political consciousness.

Class-struggle explanations pay close attention to the conditions under which the poor will revolt. And notwithstanding its structural-functional apparatus, O'Connor's account of the coming fiscal crisis of capitalist states emphasized the need for such states to secure popular support ("legitimacy") among workers for capitalism. In explaining the adoption of old-age pensions, for example, he proposed that

the primary purpose of the system is to create a sense of economic security within the ranks of employed workers ... and thereby raise morale and reinforce discipline. This contributes to harmonious management-labor relations which are indispensable to capital accumulation and the growth of production. (O'Connor 1973:138)

Other radical accounts of working-class opposition to capitalism grounded in the analysis of class struggles highlighted the centrality of "class consciousness." This too leads in the direction of considering public opinion; as Stephens (1979:71) once put it, "public opinion is nothing but a reflection of class consciousness, which is in turn a product of definite social forces, one of which is the level of labor organization."

Critical Assessments

As functionalist explanations of social phenomena have been subjected to methodological scrutiny by several generations of scholars (e.g., Homans 1964; Elster 1989; Cook 2000), the analytical limitations of both modernization approaches and radical theories have become apparent. Accounting for the timing and cross-national variation of welfare state development has been viewed as especially problematic (Orloff 1993b:42–50). The age distribution of the population and the level of economic development could not, by themselves, account for cross-national and historical differences in social program development and welfare state output.

Neo-Marxist and other radical theories of the welfare state suffer from a number of the same limitations, for these traditions move readily toward an undifferentiated conception of "capitalist" societies. Functionalist accounts of the reproduction "needs" of the capitalist system generating pressures for social provision are quite close to the logic of industrialism approach. Unless class conflict is reconceptualized as involving country-and time-specific contingencies (as in Piven and Cloward 1971 and Block 1977, or in the later power resources formulation), structural-functional approaches to class analysis provide an unsatisfactory perspective from which to explain the comparative development of welfare states.

Economic Theories of Globalization and the Welfare State

In spite of these problems, the idea that the welfare state is largely a product of, and shaped by, economic forces has been recently revived in the extensive literature on economic globalization. Globalization arguments have been marshaled to anticipate negative trends in contemporary welfare state development (e.g., Misra 1999; Rodrik 1997; Gilbert 2002). Here, the growing international mobility of capital is viewed as inducing "race to the bottom" pressures among governments seeking to maintain international competitiveness and avoid disinvestment.

Some analysts have advanced even stronger claims. One such contention is that economic globalization imperils the very idea of national sovereignty (Ohmae 1996; Boswell and Chase-Dunn 1999; Standing 1999). This would likewise constrain the ability of welfare states within specific countries to engage in public spending at rates higher than globally dominant countries such as the United States. In limiting the policy options available to national governments, economic globalization appears to set in place substantial incentive for policymakers to turn away from traditional forms of social provision (Greve 1996; Montanari 2001).

The literature on economic globalization has not been without controversy (for overviews, see Rhodes 1996; Berger 2000). Indeed, twenty years into its development, evidence for strong globalization impacts on social policy is notably problematic. Using established measures of welfare state output, economic globalization's core dimension of foreign direct investment can at best be said to have yielded a modest and occasionally positive influence (Iversen and Cusack 2000; Iversen 2001; Brady, Beckfield, and Seeleib-Kaiser 2005).

These results fit well, in retrospect, with a seminal line of commentary on issues of globalization and national sovereignty. According to this perspective, individual nation-states, particularly small polities whose economies have always depended upon high levels of trade and participation in the world economy, adjusted continuously in the post–WW II era to anticipate the uncertainties associated with globalization (Katzenstein 1985; Garrett 1998; Hall and Soskice 2001). Furthermore, welfare state policies such as jobs training programs and family services enhance economic productivity, rather than undermining a country's tax base. Social policy innovations within many European nations can be viewed as a bulwark against deindustrialization and related economic effects of the world economy (Iversen 2001). Recent patterns of economic globalization thus appear quite compatible with the maintenance of contemporary welfare states.

Moving beyond Economic Theories of the Welfare State

There are good reasons to be skeptical about ecnomically reductionistic approaches to welfare states that leave little explanatory room for political factors. These theories have difficulty grasping extensive variation between countries and accounting for causal processes preventing "race to the bottom" tendencies. Taking these shortcomings as their point of departure, welfare state theories have introduced context-varying political factors into explanations of the development of public social provision. As we will see, these approaches, particularly in recent formulations, provide a springboard for considering the policy influence of mass opinion.

Political Theories of the Welfare State

National Values

It is striking that one of the early challenges to logic of industrialism and Marxist approaches highlighted differences in welfare policy rooted in "national" or "cultural" values (Rimlinger 1971; Coughlin 1980; Guest 1991[1980]; see also Lipset 1963, 1996). In this tradition, cross-national variation in values was seen as providing the basis for different national approaches to social provision. Societies with higher levels of support for egalitarianism were viewed as far more likely than those with more individualistic traditions to build extensive welfare states (Rimlinger 1961, 1971; Lipset 1963; Coughlin 1980).

The national values thesis finds its most famous embodiment in theories of "American exceptionalism" (e.g., Lipset 1963). Americans were portrayed in these accounts as having a distinct set of cultural values in comparison to Europeans, stemming from the absence of a feudal past, a putative openness of social structure, and the relative absence of class consciousness. As a result, Americans were said to have rejected socialism and other collective solutions to social problems. Only an unusual external shock such as the Great Depression could partially overcome deep-seated, individualistic values. As European democracies proceeded to build extensive welfare systems during the postwar era, the comparatively stingy nature of the American welfare state could, then, be cited as indicative of the power of liberal values in the United States (Lipset 1996).

But the early national values arguments had a number of limitations that made them a relatively easy target for subsequent critics (e.g., Skocpol 1992: 15-23; Orloff 1993a; Steinmo 1994). From the standpoint of contemporary social science, the early national values scholarship lacked adequate microfoundations and a rigorous evidentiary base. Researchers simply could not access suitable cross-national data with which to test their hypotheses. Indeed, at the time that national values analysts were writing, there were virtually no comparative survey data with standardized instrumentation, and the measurement of welfare state output was similarly underdeveloped.

Critics of the national values approach argued that a static conceptualization of values made the latter a poor device with which to understand the comparative and historical development of social insurance programs (Skocpol 1992). Because national values, according to one prominent interpretation, were viewed as established by national and industrial revolutions (Lipset 1963), their assumed stability made it difficult to explain patterns of policy change. A further criticism concerned analytical vagueness in the causal mechanism at hand. Was the "values" factor operating at the level of political elites, major institutions, the media, or ordinary citizens?

So vigorously were these criticisms expressed that they have at times been seen as undermining the validity of any welfare state explanation that considers mass opinion as an input into welfare state policymaking (Steinmo 1994; Immergut 1998; Thelen 1999). Yet this conclusion is unwarranted. As we discuss in detail later in this chapter, more recent public opinion theory and research provides the specificity and microfoundations that critics found lacking in the earlier national values models. Further, rather than banning all reference to mass opinion, the analytical logic of the most influential contemporary welfare state theories anticipate a causal role for mass policy preferences. It is to these theoretical approaches and their implications that we now turn.

Power Resources Theory

The inability of early theories of the welfare state, such as the logic of industrialism, to incorporate political factors in the making of welfare states provided a key point of departure for "power resources" scholarship (see Korpi 1983, 1989; Esping-Andersen 1990). This approach starts from the assumption that unequal economic relationships, particularly as exemplified in the class structure, facilitate the formation of social groups with distinct and competing interests. Within capitalist democracies, elections provide classes and class-related organizations such as unions with a recurring set of opportunities to extract benefits from national government, yielding policy influence on such issues as the length of the workweek or the extent of unemployment insurance. Class conflict—the "democratic class struggle," in Korpi's (1983) influential formulation—is thus a central mechanism in the development of welfare states.


Excerpted from Why Welfare States Persist by CLEM BROOKS JEFF MANZA Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables
Introduction: The Welfare State, Mass Opinion, and Embedded Preferences

Chapter 1: Reaching for Mass Opinion
Chapter 2: Do Policy Preferences Explain Welfare State Differences?
Chapter 3: Retrenchment, Restructuring, Persistence     
Chapter 4: The Question of Convergence
Chapter 5: Where Do Welfare State Preferences Come From?
Chapter 6: The Patterning of Social Policy Responsiveness
Chapter 7: Embedded Preferences and Welfare State Trajectories


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