Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising is a book which tries to make sense of how the human mind works, how to make it work better, and the implications for human development, from the past through the present to the future. It is in part a work of social philosophy, and is truly enlightening about humanity, containing plenty of thought-provoking insights. Here is one which I think is relevant to this blog:
“Welfare-ism, socialism, totalitarianism, etc. represent attempts, in varying degrees of rationality and hysteria, to re-create the tribal bond by making the State stand-in for the gene pool. Conservatives who claim that no form of Welfare is tolerable to them are asking that people live with total bio-survival anxiety and anomie combined with terror. The conservatives, of course, vaguely recognize this and ask for “local charity” to replace State Welfare – ie.,, they ask for the gene-pool to be restored by magic, among people (denizens of a typical city) who are not genetically related at all.”
This is surely right, but for me there is no alternative to some form of welfare state under capitalism, if some of its worst aspects are to be mitigated. Some sort of middle way is preferable to political extremes which have historically been associated with repression and a widespread disregard for human life in the pursuit of ideological purity.Welfare needs to be designed intelligently, to encourage work for those who are able, and support for those who can’t (I think this was the gist of a recent political slogan here in the UK!).
It may be easier for a government to find a consensus for redistribution through taxes and public spending with a more homogeneous population, since this is closer to Wilson’s ‘gene pool’. This may be why the welfare state is relatively ungenerous in the US, a huge economy with a large and very diverse population, while the small nations of Scandinavia have much larger welfare states. This also suggests that a pan-European welfare state managed by the EU institutions is a pipe dream. Such things are best left to nation-states or devolved powers among larger populations if they are to work and maintain political legitimacy. Even then support for a generous welfare state may be difficult to establish.
Small nations may be more likely to be ethnically homogeneous, although high levels of immigration can of course change that. The population of a nation may also be united in the face of some external threat, militaristic or otherwise, and this can strengthen the legitimacy of governments wishing to carry out particular policies. An example of this would be the Cold War, which led the US to encourage capitalist development among its allies, providing military support and allowing various forms of state intervention. The aim was to accelerate growth and achieve widespread prosperity as a counterweight to the spread of communism. The methods were not always admirable, but this was an example of enlightened self-interest on the part of the US. With the end of the Cold War and the apparent triumph of market-based economies, the lack of an external threat helped to weaken support for state interventions whose aim was to tackle the undesirable social aspects of unfettered capitalism and improve its performance.
When studying elements of the economy such as the welfare state, these kinds of considerations, whether political, social, ethnographic or otherwise, are important to consider. That is why I believe an inter-disciplinary political economy can often be very helpful in moving beyond the narrow theories of mainstream economics and providing a richer explanation of events.