An introduction to Social Policy

Social Policy: Theory and Practice - 3rd edition

Paul Spicker

The politics of welfare


The welfare state: a general theoryEdmund Burke wrote that "government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants".(1) Governments have a wide range of possible actions.

Ideology and social welfare

Political views on welfare are often divided into 'left' and 'right' wing views.

The left wing is:
  • for welfare
  • for public provision
  • collectivist
  • for institutional welfare
The right wing is:
  • against welfare
  • against public provision
  • individualist
  • for residual welfare

The positions people hold are not, however, straightforward. There is an individualistic left wing, and a collectivist right wing. Left-wingers favour social security (which enable people to buy food in the private market) rather than soup kitchens (which can be publicly provided). Many right-wingers accept the principle of institutional welfare, and many left wingers are uncomfortable about institutional measures, like earnings-related pensions or student grants, which favour richer people over poorer ones.

From the perspective of welfare, the main political positions are:


Marxists see society in terms of a conflict between economic classes. A dominant class (the bourgeoisie or 'capitalist' class) owns and controls the means of production; an industrial working class, the 'proletariat', is exploited by them. Communism was based on Marx's claim that the proletariat must revolt to throw over the old economic order.

The Marxist analysis of welfare concentrates principally on its relationship to the exercise of power. The state can be seen either as an instrument of the ruling capitalist class, or as a complex set of systems which reflects the contradictions of the society it is part of. It is often argued that welfare has been developed through the strength of working-class resistance to exploitation.

Marxism is not a single doctrine; it has come to stand for a wide range of opinions within an analytical framework that is critical of 'capitalist' society. Neo-marxists argue that the state has two main functions. The first is to improve the conditions for the accumulation of capital - that is, the chance for industries to make profits. The second is to legitimate the capitalist system, by introducing measures (like welfare policies, pensions and health services) which lead people to accept the system as it stands. The requirements of accumulation and legitimation may be contradictory, and the costs of legitimation have led to a 'legitimation crisis'.

The basic objections to marxist analyses are that the description of 'capitalism' is very limited  - there is not one economic system, but many; that the role of government is misunderstood; and that the Marxist model of interpretation greatly underestimates the capacity of different societies to form different patterns of social organisation. The patterns of inequality and the structure of power are complex, and the organisation of economic production has long ceased to reflect formal ownership. Power in society is divided, and governments are among the actors.  The 'welfare states' display many different approaches, motivations and experiences.  Within that range, however, states which promote the welfare of their citizens are not pretending to be more legitimate - they are more legitimate.


There are many forms of socialism. The main models, which can be found in various permutations, include representations of socialism as

Socialism is confused with Marxism and communism in many texts (and by Wikipedia, which makes the same mistake). Marxism became a prominent form of socialism in the early 20th century, and Marxists and the political right-wing still claim that Marxism is central, but in truth socialism and communism went their separate ways more than a century ago, and Marxism has been largely irrelevant to the mainstream.

Socialism in Europe grew from a range of religious, occupational and communal groups. Historically, socialism is strongly associated with working-class movements, and in much of Europe 'socialist' issues are closely linked with labour relations. 

The key socialist values are 'liberty, equality, and fraternity'. Most European socialists would add to that issues of rights and democracy.

Social democracy

Social democracy depends, like socialism, on the values of liberty, equality and fraternity (or solidarity). This is fused with a model of liberal democracy, based on rights.  The central premise of social demoracy is a commitment to reform: society can be made better by the application of socialism's core moral values.

The term 'social democracy' has often been used to differentiate socialists from Marxists, but there are also differences between 'democratic socialists' and 'social democrats'. The distinction is hazy, because their ideals may coincide in some aspects and not in others, but two are particularly important. First, many social democrats are individualists rather than collectivists; even if they accept arguments for mutual aid or the reduction of disadvantage, they think it important to stress the liberty of the individual, to develop individual rights (as liberals do), and often to restrict the role of the state. Second, some social democrats are not concerned to remove inequality, but only to mitigate its effects through social arrangements which protect people from the worst consequences of a market society. Others favour equality of opportunity, which implies the opportunity to be unequal.


Conservatives believe in the importance of social order. This is reflected in a respect for tradition, an emphasis on the importance of religion, and a stress on the importance of inequality - such as inequalities of class or caste - as the basis for structured social relationships. Welfare is a secondary issue, but the kinds of concerns which conservatives have are likely to impose restraints on welfare, with a particular emphasis on traditional values in work, the family, and nationhood. Welfare does raise concern where it is seen to have implications for public order - one British conservative commented, in commending the Beveridge report, that "if you do not give the people social reform they are going to give you revolution."

Christian democratic thought is closely related to conservatism, but it also has important distinguishing features. Like conservatives, Christian Democrats place a strong emphasis on order; but order is to be achieved, not primarily through state action, but by moral restraints. These moral restraints have principally in Europe reflected the influence of the Catholic religion. Catholic social teaching has emphasised both the limits of the state and the responsibility of people in families and communities for each other; Christian Democrats tend, then, to favour limitations in the role of the state while at the same time accepting moral responsibility for social welfare. Some Christian Democratic parties have committed themselves to principles of freedom, justice and solidarity, which can bring them close to the position of social democrats.

Liberal individualism

Reclaiming individualism, Policy Press 2013

In the United States, the term 'liberal' is often taken to refer to social democrats and the political left. In the rest of the world, and in most of the academic literature, a 'liberal' is someone who holds a set of liberal values. Liberalism begins from the premise that everyone is an individual, and that individuals have rights. The central value of liberal individualism is freedom. All freedoms are not equally important; the main liberal values are concerned with certain particularly important freedoms, such as freedom of assembly, of speech, and of worship.

'Classical' liberals mistrust the state and argue that society is likely to regulate itself if state interference is removed. Hayek argues that all state activity, whatever its intentions, is liable to undermine the freedom of the individual; that society is too complex to be tampered with; and that the activities of the free market, which is nothing more than the sum total of activities of many individuals, constitute the best protection of the rights of each individual.  JS Mill, however, considered that much state action could be justified so long as it did not infringe individual rights. "When a government provides means of fulfilling a certain end, leaving individuals free to avail themselves of different means if in their opinion preferable, there is no infringement of liberty, no irksome or degrading restraint." (2)  It is open to a liberal government to persuade, bargain, encourage, to offer incentives, to educate and to enable.

As a political position, liberalism has been important as a means of defending people from abuse by authority. Although liberalism was initially a radical doctrine, it has also been used since the 19th century to stand for a defence of propertied interests. The 'conservatives' of the New Right are generally liberal individualists rather than conservatives. They are sometimes also called neo-liberals, because they combine the focus of traditional market liberals with a degree of conservative scepticism about human behaviour and motives.


Vitrolles offers a bonus to French families only Populism has been described as "an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice." (3) This is as much a description of a style of political argument, on both left and right of politics, as it is of any distinctive political position. Populism is often seen as a reaction against social change, appealing particularly to people who feel their position is threatened by it.

Populism is based on a view of 'the people' as sharing views and interests, and able to exercise a common 'general will' (typically interpreted by a charismatic leader). The French Front National, for example, claims to run "in the name of the people". The populist approach to democracy is liable to be exclusive. Populist parties may be prepared to support welfare provision for 'the people', but they may be suspicious of welfare for outsiders and immigrants. The picture advertises provision formerly made in a French town led by a National Front mayor, offering a bonus payment for French families only. The measure was subsequently declared illegal.


Photo: British fascists rally in 1937

A rally of British fascists in 1937.

Fascism is often represented in the academic literature as a pseudo-ideology, lacking any coherence or system of thought. This was a political position taken post-war in an attempt to deny the romantic and emotional appeal of fascist thought. Fascist ideology is based in an authoritarian collectivism. The individual is meaningless; the collectivity (the state, the nation or the race) is paramount. Fascism has been characterised by a strong social agenda; in Nazi Germany, the desire to foster racial supremacy included extensive state intervention in society and the economy, with a stress on socialisation (both through schooling and youth movements) and eugenic policies.

Eugenic ideologies existed before fascism, and although they were discredited by their association with medical murder and the holocaust they have resurfaced in recent years. They are characterised by the nineteenth-century belief that socially constructed characteristics, like poverty, crime or sexuality are inborn, and that they will inevitably find a way to emerge unless breeding is regulated. Repeated attempts in social science have found no empirical support for the belief that such characteristics are replicated between generations.

The extreme right in Europe is mainly racialist and nationalist rather than collectivist. In Greece, however, Golden Dawn has adopted an authoritarian, collectivist ideology referring directly to fascist tropes.

Political ideas

Individual and social well-being

Well being is a multi-faceted concept: it might refer to

Despite the ambiguity; some generalisations are possible: in each sense, poverty can be identified with a lack of well-being.

Individualists (and economists) define well-being as a property of 'individuals'. Social well-being is the interests of people in groups, which is not always the same as the people within it; there are often conflicts between the interests of individuals, families and communities. For example, it is generally considered to be in the interests of a nation to defend itself against attack, even where people within it suffer directly as a result. Individual and social welfare coincide because people are interdependent, social creatures, and people rely on social mechanisms (like social interaction, exchange, the division of labour, and education) for their personal development and well-being.


The idea of solidarity is referred to in Catholic social teaching as

"a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, that is ... the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for each other." (4)

The basis of solidarity is mutual obligation. This is mainly expressed through reciprocity, or exchange. "Balanced reciprocity" occurs where people make a direct return for the things they receive. Often, though, reciprocity is "generalized"; there is no simple balance, but people give because they have received something in the past, or because some future reciprocity is possible. For example, parents give to children because their own parents gave to them; people support pensioners in the expectation that future generations will support them when they are pensioners. Generalized reciprocity is the norm within families, but it also occurs in mutual insurance.

Solidarity can be difficult to distinguish from 'altruism', but there is no reason to suppose that the motivation is unselfish. The central problem of solidarity is that it is often exclusive - confined to a special group.


Rights are rules: they can protect liberties or impose duties on other people.  A classic account by Hohfeld distinguishes  claim-rights  (such as a pension) from liberties, and  powers (like a driving licence) from immunities (such as tax relief).(5). Moral rights are rights which are backed by a moral claim; legal rights are backed by a legal sanction.

Rights to welfare can be general (applying to everyone) or particular (applying, like contractual rights, only to specific people). The welfare states of continental Europe have mainly developed particular rights, related to membership of schemes and individual rights; this has proved a very effective way of promoting social protection, most notably in the area of pensions, but it does not necessarily extend to the whole population. The model followed by the UK attempted to extend rights to everyone, on the basis of citizenship; citizenship is the right to have rights. This idea, like solidarity, can be exclusive; it can be used to deny people rights, as well as to include them.

Most rights are held by individuals, but a strong case has been made for group-based rights, such as rights to culture and the rights of indigenous peoples.


There are two main approaches to justice.

Justice begins with a presumption of equality; people should not be treated differently without a reason. There may, though, be many reasons. The criteria which have been proposed as the basis for distribution are complex: they have included need, desert, contribution to society, hereditary status, and many others.


Liberty, equality, fraternity, Policy Press 2006: now on open accessFreedom has three elements. A person must be free from restraint, to do something.(10) Freedom is, then:

Individualists argue for a model of freedom where people's freedom depends on their independence. Social welfare and state intervention are seen as undermining independence, and so freedom.

A social model of freedom begins from the view that freedom depends on interdependence. To be able to act, people have to have the power to choose in society. In this model, poverty negates freedom. Social welfare empowers people and enhances their freedom.


Democracy can refer to

Welfare provision has grown hand in hand with democracy. Drèze and Sen claim that there has never been a famine in a democracy; they argue that this is because political rights are fundamental to the maintenance of social and economic rights. (12)

The state

States and welfare states (2022)The state is a general term for the institutions, agencies and procedures related to government. The idea of the 'welfare state' suggests that social policy is mainly a governmental responsibility, though in practice many of the functions of welfare states are undertaken by agencies beyond the government.

Virtually all the states in the world accept some responsibility for health and education. If governments are concerned about the welfare of their citizens, they will also have some responsibility for social protection. This responsibility may be residual (confined to those who are unable to manage in other ways), but most states have found that it is impossible in practice to confine their actions only to support in the last resort (the model of the Poor Law). The reasons are partly administrative (strict selectivity is costly and inefficient), but mainly political: the pressures for expansion are irresistible.

The welfare states are institutional forms of social protection, and although many welfare services are not actually delivered by state agencies, it is often considered that the state has sets the terms on which social protection is provided. Some writers have argued that states should confine themselves to a more limited range of activity, but if the same activities can legitimately be undertaken by non-state agencies it is difficult to see why they cease to be legitimate if a properly constituted government does them.

Religious values and social policy

"Religion" is not the same thing as faith or belief, though faith may be required in some religions. Religion is a pattern of social organisation, and as such it can be distinguished from the teachings of prophets or scripture. As a pattern of organisation, religious practice has important implications for social policy.

The first dimension of religious influence is based in moral teaching. Many religions offer guides to morality, but there may be several strands of moral belief which co-exist.

There is no necessary inconsistency between these principles, but different balances imply different social policies.

A second dimension of religious teaching lies in the extent to which religion is integrated with political institutions. Some religions, and some countries, have made a firm distinction between the secular and religious spheres of their societies - there are examples in Catholic France or the predominantly Protestant USA. Others have established religions and churches, including the formally Christian United Kingdom, the Jewish state of Israel or the Islamic Republics of Iran or Pakistan. Some religious groups are radical, arguing for fundamental political and social change; others are conservative, arguing either for support for established regimes or at least acceptance of the status quo.

Third, there is religion as a means of forging common identity. Ethnicity - though commonly confused with 'race' - is a matter of culture and descent, and it is through culture and descent that religion is principally transmitted. It makes perfectly good sense, in those terms, to describe someone as ethnically Muslim, Jewish or Hindu; the distinction between Protestant and Catholic, Sunni and Shi'ite, is as often a matter of affiliation as of belief. Other religious movements aim deliberately to form a communal identity or sense of membership. Haynes distinguishes movements that are

Understanding the role of religious values in social policy often depends, then, on the interplay of these different dimensions - moral responsibility, political orientation and identity. So, for example, the primary issues in the USA lie in the tension between individualist and communitarian interpretations of religious principle; in Turkey they fall between secularism and political Islamism; in much of Africa and South East Asia, they are often based in ethnicity.


  1. E Burke, 1790, Reflections on the Revolution in France.
  2. J S Mill1, 848, The principles of political economy, book 5, chapter 11.
  3. D Albertazzi, D McDonnell (eds) 2008 Twenty first century populism, Palgrave Macmillan, p 3.
  4. See S Stjerno, 2005, Solidarity in Europe, Cambridge University Press, ch 6.
  5. W Hohfeld, 1920, Some fundamental legal conceptions as applied in judicial reasoning, New Haven: Yale University Press
  6. See Plato, The Republic.
  7. J Rawls, 1971, A Theory of justice, Oxford University Press.
  8. Scottish Government, 2016, Fairer Scotland Action Plan, Edinburgh: Scottish Government
  9. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.
  10. G MacCallum, 1967, Negative and positive freedom, Philosophical Review 76 312-324.
  11.  J Schumpeter, 1943, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Allen and Unwin.
  12. J Dreze, A Sen, 1989, Hunger and public action, Oxford University Press.
  13. J Haynes, 1995, Religion, fundamentalism and ethnicity, Geneva: UNRISID .

Further reading

Principles of Social Welfare R Benn, S Peters, Social principles and the democratic state, Allen and Unwin 1959
P Spicker, Principles of social welfare (PDF), Routledge 1988
E Smith, H Blocker (eds) Applied social and political philosophy, Prentice Hall 1993
G Drover, P Kearns, New approaches to welfare theory, Edward Elgar 1993
P Spicker, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (PDF) Policy Press 2006
T Fitzpatrick, Welfare theory, Palgrave Macmillan 2011

Principles of Social Welfare and Liberty, Equality, Fraternity are freely available on open access.