Reinventing Social Security Worldwide, by Vladimir Rys

Policy Press, 2010, x + 126 pp, hbk 1 847 42643, £60, pbk 1 847 426406, £19.99

This book is the fruit of a lifetime of academic research and administrative experience in international social security policy. Rys worked for thirty years for the International Social Security Association (ISSA) and for half of that time as its General Secretary, and there can be few people with such a broad geographical and historical overview of the evolution of social security (here understood as financial benefits and also state insurance-funded health provision) and of the challenges facing it.

The first part of the book offers an international history of social security, a discussion of the economic and ideological context of the current debate, and some current trends:

‘… a series of shifts in emphasis on different elements in the existing structures and different roles assigned to specific actors. Thus, the state, while reducing its direct involvement in running social security schemes and providing social welfare benefits, is at the same time greatly increasing its powers when it comes to regulating occupational or private arrangements. Simultaneously, … there is an obvious shift of responsibility back to employers and different forms of occupational welfare, back to families and their supporting role, and also back to the individual and their personal capacity to save for rainy days’ (p.55)

The second part of the book builds on Rys’s previous publications on the sociological study of social security policy, and in particular discusses the ISSA’s contribution to the development of a method which goes ‘beyond the descriptive accounts of the institution as contained in legislative texts and [explains] why it is organised the way it is and why it functions the way it does’ (p.77). Such a method contributes to policy debate by suggesting which proposals might be feasible and which not. The different components of the method are discussed: the demographic, the economic, the sociological, and the political, the study of ideas, ideologies, laws, institutions and administrative techniques, and the study of the ways in which ideas are disseminated. The method is then applied to a variety of contexts, and particularly to eastern Europe ( – Rys is Czech).

The third section of the book is entitled ‘Reinventing social security in time of economic crisis: foundations of a new political consensus’ and argues for transparency about expenditures and present and future benefit levels and that only a renewed emphasis on social insurance can halt the privatisation of social security:

‘The principle of social insurance appeals partly to the rational self-interest of the individual, assuring them of access to benefits not normally attainable through private means, but also partly to their natural sentiment of solidarity and respect for other human beings’ (p.116)

As Rys suggests in his introduction, ‘it would be irresponsible, in the light of recent experience, to entrust [social insurance] to private arrangements’ (p.2).

Whilst rather too much of this book is of the ‘We did this at the ISSA’ variety, there is plenty of useful material here, and, above all, a sustained and rational argument for the importance of social insurance. However, Rys’s own career investment in the development of today’s systems leads him to neglect developments in which he has been rather less involved. It simply isn’t true that ‘no new social protection mechanism has been invented to deal with new risks and socially precarious situations’ (p.1). ‘Basic income’, ‘citizen’s income’ and ‘Child Benefit’ don’t appear in the index, and neither do ‘universal’ or ‘universalism’. Recent experience in Namibia suggests that universal provision might be precisely the new mechanism which the current crisis needs.