Social Justice, Legitimacy and the Welfare State, by Steffen Mau and Benjamin Veghte

Ashgate, 2007, xviii + 264 pp, hbk 0 754 649397 , £55

This edited collection of conference and invited papers offers a coherent, well-researched and detailed international picture of public attitudes to social justice and the welfare state. The chapters bear out the editors’ view that ‘the western welfare state is not at risk of losing support or encountering fundamental opposition … the state is still conceived of as the major addressee for social needs and the management of social risks’ (p.12) and also that different attitudes to the welfare state relate to different welfare regimes. Encouragingly, the editors also find ‘strong evidence for the effects of people’s own stake in the welfare state’ and that ‘they also seem willing to contribute to the collective good as long as the distribution of burdens and benefits are regarded as just’ (p.13). They suggest that plausible and appealing concepts of social justice will be needed to support the continuance of the social contracts on which welfare states are based.

The various authors have amassed evidence on the relationship between social class and attitudes towards redistribution, individuals’ motives for supporting redistribution, cultural differences in the notion of the ‘deserving needy’ and in attitudes to redistribution towards the deserving needy, public attitudes on the justice or otherwise of tax systems, coherence between public attitudes and attitudes embodied in social security systems, relationships between media and political party attitudes and public opinion, why the losers from globalisation have shifted their allegiance from left-wing to right-wing parties (in Belgium and Israel), factors relating to public attitudes to immigrants, and the relationship between a society’s welfare state type and general levels of trust in that society. There is enough evidence and discussion in these chapters to provide students of welfare states with plenty of material for reflection and further research projects.

Of particular interest to readers of this Newsletter will be chapter 6 on ‘the moral economy of poverty’, a study of public attitudes to the German welfare state. ‘The results show a high degree of congruence between the norms institutionalised in the German social assistance scheme and the attitudes prevalent in the population …. Welfare recipients are seen as deserving of support only when they comply with the behavioural requirements (no self-inflicted poverty, active cooperation) institutionalised in social assistance’ (p.137). But in which direction does the causality work? Or is causality circular? If conditionality were to be removed from the system, would public attitudes change? Further research on this issue would be of interest.

In their introduction the editors suggest that ‘in their reform attempts, politicians are advised to embrace both considerations of financial sustainability and principles of social justice’ (p.13); but the evidence base in chapter 6 suggests that the ‘plausible and appealing concepts of social justice’ needed might be about conditionality and the exclusion of those deemed undeserving. Might it not be the case that a system based on unconditionality and inclusion could lead to these notions becoming ‘plausible and appealing concepts of social justice’? Only thus, surely, will ‘a durable, legitimate welfare system able to address societal needs and to safeguard …. vulnerable groups become possible’ (p.13).