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Politicians’ major achievements are not acknowledged by the public

Together with a colleague professor Kees van Kersbergen has written a new book that places emphasis on the development, possibilities and limitations of the welfare state.

[Translate to English:] Velfærd, Keesbergen, Kees, Van, statskundskab, politik, policy,
[Translate to English:] I ny bog gennemgår Kees van Kersbergen og Barbara Vis velfærdsstatens udvikling.

It is impressive how well the welfare state works despite major challenges, such as growing dependency ratios, crises and years of massive unemployment.

This is the statement made by Kees van Kersbergen, who is professor at the Department of Political Science and Government at Aarhus University's School of Business and Social Sciences. In collaboration with his colleague Barbara Vis, he has written the book "Comparative Welfare State Politics" published by Cambridge University Press.

In this book, the two researchers look into the development of the welfare state in several countries and identify the possibilities and limitations of the welfare state. A major theme in the book is the concept of reform – because the conclusion is clear: Reforms are a necessary but unpopular tool in the politicians’ tool box. The only reason the welfare state has been able to survive is because the politicians have always had the courage to alter the system wherever and whenever necessary. Denmark is no exception.

"If we look at how many people receive pension, the number has increased since the 1960s, and the number of Danes eligible for unemployment benefit is at a stable level," says Kees van Kersbergen and emphasises that he has not examined the standard of the various services offered, but rather whether the welfare state continues to do what it was meant to do from the very outset: protecting the weakest in society.

"It is an interesting point that the political system has been able to reform the welfare state and thereby make it work in spite of massive changes, which is actually a great political achievement."

Voters believe they are entitled to social welfare

This is, however, not acknowledged by the voters. On the contrary. According to Kees van Kersbergen, the citizens have a hard time reconciling themselves with the fact that there is actually a need to make cutbacks in certain areas. This has become very clear under the existing Danish government. When she first began her term as head of government, prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt tried to advocate the message that reforms are necessary in order to prepare the country for the future and whatever challenges lie ahead.

"But people are without jobs now. And the media tend to focus on day-to-day politics and not so much on what will happen in the future. It is a paradox: You need to change something if you want to keep it. And it is a really hard argument to sell," says Kees van Kersbergen and proceeds to explain that the government have had a hard time convincing the voters about the reasoning behind the social assistance reform, the study progress reform as well as the public school reform.

"Voters keep thinking: What do I get out of this? What is at stake here are short-sighted interests, and people feel they have certain established rights. They are not able to see things from a macroeconomic perspective."

The end of the Scandinavian welfare state model

However, there is no doubt in the professor’s mind. History shows that reforms are an intrinsic part of and reason for the success of the welfare state. A system works only so long as it is able to adjust to constant changes and conditions – and it seems that the expectations towards what a state can handle may be too high. 

"We have no idea what we will have tomorrow, but we have to be ready to adjust. If we cannot do that, we will end up with a situation like the one in Greece," says Kersbergen and explains that the universal welfare state, the one that pays benefits to everyone, is basically a sinking ship.

It is threatened by such things as immigration, growing inequality and fewer births. According to Kersbergen, this is what makes reforms absolutely necessary – no matter the feeling among the voters.

"My guess is that in fifteen to twenty years we will be facing the end of the welfare system as we know it; the welfare state that we have had since the 1960s and 1970s. It will be divided in two: A strong welfare state for everyone on matters relating to, for instance, education and health. But there will also be several initiatives targeted at the poor."

You can read more about this in the book "Comparative Welfare State Politics: Development, Opportunities, and Reform" written by Kees van Kersbergen and Barbara Vis. Published by Cambridge University Press. 


Kees van Kersbergen, professor at The Department of Political Science and Government
Aarhus University, School of Business and Social Sciences
T: 8716 5727


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