Trouble in Welfare-State Paradise: France, Sweden and Cuba

Welfare states are unstable, and tend either to give way to free market reforms and liberalization, to collapse under their own weight, or to fall down the slippery slope of interventionism and degenerate into authoritarian regimes.

For as long as I can recall, and certainly for decades before I was born, the American left had a romantic attachment to the welfare states of the rest of the world. Unsatisfied with America’s own burgeoning 20th-century entitlement systems, left-liberals would point to the more domestically interventionist governments abroad as examples showing that some form of social democracy, or even outright socialism, was preferable to the United States’s alleged free market. In these more civilized countries, so goes the progressive narrative, health care and jobs are provided by the government, no one has to pay personally for anything that’s really important — a “safety net” would prevent people from growing old without financial support or getting sick without the comfort of subsidized health care.

This narrative typically neglects America’s own history with welfare, which demonstrates that the market and voluntary community will produce a far better, more humane, efficient and reliable, safety net than anything we can expect from the state. Instead, we were supposed to look to places like France or Sweden as inspiration of what government could do here in America. We should even look to Cuba, where something akin to mild communism was allegedly working well.

Well, in France, the government is on the brink of raising the retirement age to 62, much to the impassioned cries from the French left. Much as in the case of America’s own socialist retirement program, the accounting never adds up as promised. Idealists protest this effective cut in government benefits, but such cuts cannot be avoided forever. Meanwhile, another news story illustrates the fact that welfare states, even admired and civilized ones such as France, tend to have a police state side. The issues are connected, as a government that cares for all cradle to grave, a state that acts as a parent, must also exercise control over its subjects, and show a great interest in who is coming into the country or leaving, and what they are doing with their lives and bodies. So France is in hot water for its round ups and deportation of Gypsies. The nation’s leaders understandably resent the comparisons to the Nazis being thrown around. The Nazis did, in fact, go much further in their brutality. And they also went further in their welfare statism and economic regulation—a truth often forgotten.

As an aside, anti-immigration voices in the U.S. often point out that most other countries have even more severe border controls and immigration policies than are found in the United States. But do we want to be more like France, either in immigration policy or welfare policy? It is revealing that in American history, the further we have moved from free markets and limited government, the more anti-immigration scapegoating has been manifested in actual crackdowns. We used to have more open immigration and less welfare. The more America becomes a full-blown welfare state, the more pressure there is for America to resemble the rest of the welfare states in their exclusion of immigrants. There is a logic here for the left to consider: If you champion the human rights of immigrants, rethink your devotion to the inherently nationalistic welfare state. If we go the route of France in terms of entitlements, increased social tension and worse nativism will be on their way.

Looking over to Sweden, we see this left-liberal utopia on the verge of major privatization plans. Their system, too, is unsustainable as it is. And their welfarism has also bred police state approaches to immigration, drugs and other social issues. The very far-right anti-immigration party has been gaining ground, and it looks like the center-right coalition will have a firm grasp of the state after the elections next week. The greens and social democrats are teeming up with former communists to try to maintain power. But the center-right, which has been running the government and whose tax cuts and reform approach to welfare have been associated with improvements for the economy, looks like a shoe-in. As the AP puts it:

Swedish politics used to be like a long marriage with brief spells of infidelity.

Voters always returned to the long-governing Social Democrats – guardians of the Nordic country’s high-tax welfare state – after short-lived flirts with center-right coalitions.

That love story, it appears, may be coming to an end as Sweden heads into national elections Sept. 19.

But what about Cuba? The more daring progressives have always pointed to this purported example of even something resembling communism working. Well, although he has apparently retracted his statement somewhat, Castro himself admitted publicly that the Cuban model is a failure. He has also apologized for his regime’s unspeakably brutal treatment of gays. This raises another point for the left to consider. The regime they have long defended as enlightened and progressive had some of the most notoriously cruel policies toward gays—but this is often shrugged off as irrelevant to the question of Cuba’s political economy. If George W. Bush had been 1/10 as criminal in enforcing policies against gays, it would have been held up as a prime example of the inhumanity behind his entire alleged ideology of compassionate conservatism. If an American conservative were as bad on homosexual rights as Castro was, he would not be embraced by practically any leftist, no matter what else he stood for. But the Cuban regime has long gotten a pass, because of its free health care system.

We must remember that it is big governments—almost always with the bought support of the people through welfare-state handouts—that segregate, crack down, round up, deport, torture, mass murder and exterminate. It is not usually small governments that do these things. Just as with every socialist state in the modern era, Cuba’s welfarism and its police statism are inextricably linked.

But there is hope for Cuba, that it will liberalize and its socialism will give way to something more humane and economically manageable. Castro seems to be speaking out of both sides of his mouth, but you don’t have to take his word for anything. Actions speak louder than a dictator’s utterances. Cuba is cutting one million public sector jobs—a significant and clear reduction in the size of government, especially considering the nation’s entire population of about eleven million.

The age of the modern entitlement state appears to be in a transition period—and maybe, let’s hope, its final stage. It looks like most of the welfare states around the world are changing, either giving way to rightwing politics, for better and worse, liberalizing voluntarily, or otherwise demonstrating the unsustainability of their current forms. Sweden is no longer a social democratic model. France is turning toward conservatism. Cuba is slashing government. Moreover, there have been welfare riots and strikes throughout much of Europe. And of course China, while still nominally communist, has been liberalizing radically ever since the Mao years—providing the world with perhaps the most inspiring modern example of a nation moving from enslavement under the total state toward freedom, and particularly when we consider how many people’s lives are at stake.

But one country is not moving toward liberalization and free markets, and that is the United States. While the world’s socialist and welfare states are retreating from the politics of entitlement, the U.S. is still on its century-long course in that dismal direction. Last year, Putin famously warned Obama not to travel down the road of socialism, which had brought so much misery to the Russian people. And it’s not just Democrats getting such embarrassing warnings. After the 2008 financial bailouts, Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez backhandedly called President George W. Bush his “comrade” who was “to the left of me now.”

Let us hope things turn around sooner rather than later. The U.S. welfare state will give way eventually, but it will be none too pretty should the collapse of the U.S. entitlement state be delayed much longer.

Anthony Gregory is a former Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books American Surveillance and The Power of Habeas Corpus in America.
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