- The Changing Meanings of the Welfare State: Histories of a Key Concept in the Nordic Countries ed. by Niels Edling
For some people, primarily those on the political right, welfare state is a term that turns their stomach; it means virtually the same as that other horrifying concept, socialism, which for them implies an all-encompassing state that stifles individual freedom. For others, chiefly on the left of the political spectrum, welfare state may not be a synonym for utopia, but it represents a great accomplishment of solidarity and social justice. However, in one region in the world, the Nordic countries (comprising Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland), this political bifurcation in the political- normative evaluation of the welfare-state concept has largely ceased to exist. Nordic Europe evinces a broad, nearly spectrum-wide, political consensus around the positive meaning and importance of the welfare state. Some parts of the welfare state, especially health care, elderly care, and education, have acquired the status of what political scientists call “valence issues,” that is, political issues that most voters view as important and about which they have roughly the same preferences.
Why did the welfare state become such a distinguishing feature of the Nordic way of life? How did the concept of the welfare state acquire such a positive connotation in this region? How deep does the favorable appraisal in the Nordics really go? In the best tradition of Begriffsgeschichte (conceptual history à la Koselleck), this thoroughly researched book offers fascinating histories of the changing meanings of the welfare state in the Nordic countries.1 It is the first systematic study of this key term of social policy language in the Nordic countries available in English. In [End Page 158] spite of the large number of historical and social-science studies of the region that already exist, this volume makes a unique contribution. Most importantly, as Edling’s introduction correctly stresses and the compre- hensive and rich country studies corroborate, the meaning and political significance of the welfare state have shifted, often radically, over time, and behind the apparent current consensus, conflicting connotations and meanings are hidden.
Edling’s chapter about the quintessential Swedish welfare state meticulously documents that in the 1930s, the social democrats started to use the conception of the welfare state to highlight what they already had accomplished, but above all as the key ideological framework for their future-oriented political project to create a new society through piecemeal social reforms. The welfare state became increasingly inclusive, covering labor-market policies, health care, and education, and enjoying broad political support. As a result, it became the generic and neutral term with which to describe the Swedish political economy of the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, however, and in the wake of several financial crises and the challenges of globalization, aging, and post-industrialization, the welfare state became something of a nostalgic item, describing an idyllic past but also more ambiguous and more politically loaded. This development points to a reconceptualization of the welfare state, in which the “state” component has receded in favor of market and societal solutions. Hence, the change of words from welfare state to welfare society or even “the welfare”—“the nebulous concept used in public discourse covering the new mix of tax-financed services provided by competing public and private actors” (112).
The chapters about Denmark (by Jørn Henrik Petersen and Klaus Petersen), Norway (by Per Haave), Finland (by Pauli Kettunen), and Iceland (by Guđmundur Jónsson) tell distinctive but, to some extent, similar stories about the changing meanings of the welfare state. In Danish history, for example, the notion of a welfare state also mutated from being a future-oriented political aspiration in the 1930s to being a description of Danish society in the 1960s and 1970s, a society to be defended in the 1980s, and finally a backward-looking relic since the 1990s. The Danish conceptual history, however, stands out with much fiercer and resilient political contestation regarding...