Review: After the Welfare State

After the Welfare State, edited by Tom G. Palmer. Ottawa, IL: Jameson Books, 2012. 180 pp. $8.95 (paperback).

The welfare state is in crisis. The promises made in its name are a mixture of wishful thinking and outright lies. It emerged as a mechanism of power; it displaced, crowded out, and crushed voluntary and participatory institutions; it enervated and atomized societies and undercut personal responsibility; it substituted dependency and patronage for independence and rights. In usurping from citizens responsibility for their own welfare, it has turned them into clients, vassals, subjects, supplicants.
—Tom G. Palmer (After the Welfare State [p. 52])


The modern welfare state began to take shape in the 1880s in Otto von Bismarck’s Germany, and it took off in the United States in the 1930s under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Now that the welfare state is thoroughly entrenched throughout most of the world, is there any reason to question its existence or any way to eliminate it? There is a reason and a way, and these are the subjects of the essays in After the Welfare State.

The book, published by Jameson Books in conjunction with Students for Liberty and the Atlas Network (and available for download at no cost from either organization), features nine essays covering the history of the welfare state and some of the common criticisms of it. The publishers of the book intended it to be short (with only 136 pages for the essays), inexpensive (easily downloaded or shipped in bulk paperbacks), and readily available and accessible to college students. These qualities make the book a fine introduction to the history and problems of the welfare state.

In “Bismarck’s Legacy” (the fourth essay in the book), Tom G. Palmer (who also edited the book) recounts the Prussian roots of the welfare state. Dependency, writes Palmer, is not an “unintended consequence” of the welfare state; it is its primary objective: “All welfare states begin by rejecting the classical liberal principles of limited government and individual freedom. They create systems of political control over the behavior of constituencies through deliberately induced dependence, typically justified through one doctrine or another of collective identity and collective purpose” (p. 37). Or, in the words of Bismarck himself, the father of the modern welfare state: “Whoever has a pension for his old age is far more content and far easier to handle than one who has no such prospect” (p. 35).

After reviewing the Prussian origins of the welfare state, Palmer shifts to U.S. history and to FDR, who also wanted to make people easier to handle. The welfare state, writes Palmer, took an especially tragic turn in the 1960s under the so-called “Great Society.” . . .

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