Conservatism and the Welfare State

This is a portion of a text that is being worked on  for an academic piece. 

I have always been slightly right-of-center, be it in India or in the UK. To put it simply, I have rather supported the ideology and tenets (albeit not all, and definitely not some of those of the far-right) of Liberal Conservatism, as recently and best stated by the incumbent British premier himself. However, one aspect which people have raised, and in most cases rightfully so, is the issue of a ‘Welfare State’ under Conservatism. After coming to power, the Tories plan to introduce a bill (their first bill in power) which will include reducing the benefit cap from 26,000 to 23,000 GBP. The whole idea has and always will be, in Conservatism, that you earn as you spend and those who contribute to the society will get the returns, albeit with a certain inclination to letting the order of society ‘and nature’ remain as it is. So does this not leave any space to reconcile ‘Conservatism’ and the ‘Welfare State’? For me, as an individual, this has been the one sticking point as well, in accepting Conservatism as a whole.



To begin with, on a historical note, Otto van Bismarck and Winston Churchill, two self-professed and well-recognized Conservative leaders, were among the first to introduce the whole concept of a welfare state! The idea was simple: without the welfare of the working class, capitalism could not possibly strive. The markets, and the idea of free enterprise, simply could not function without the proverbial cogwheels that the labor and the workers represented in the behemoth of a structure that the market was and was shaping into at that point of time in history. The concept of ‘State Socialism’ arose to blunt the sharp rise of socialism and detract the supporters of the Social Democratic Party of Germany from gaining more support. A point to be noted here is that Bismarck’s state socialism was not socialism at all probably. It sought to maintain the order and structure of German society, and as means to pre-empt the implementation of the much-celebrated programs and ideas of Marx and Engels. Bismarck’s policy was centered primarily on insurance programs to increase productivity, be it health insurance, disability insurance or an old-age retirement pension.



Churchill’s concept of the welfare state was founded on what is so beautifully expressed by Steven Hayward in his article titled ‘Churchill and the Welfare State’

“While Churchill supported social insurance, he never favored social engineering, which has been the dominant impulse of the Left for a long time now.”

Churchill’s was a policy centered on the market and the ‘wisdom of the market’, rather than of central planning. Churchill was most definitely a Conservative, with his policies and programs for income tax cuts. Just as John F. Kennedy justified income tax cuts saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” the war-time hero of Great Britain felt that such measures were beneficial not only for the rich but for society as a whole. However, particularly during the time from 1908 to 1911, Churchill championed measures for the welfare of the masses, as is best put in the seminal work of Robert Blake and Wm. Roger Louis [1]

“…he was the principal driving force behind the Liberal Party’s welfare reforms of 1908–1911. At the Board of Trade, he pioneered measures to reduce poverty and unemployment through state intervention in the labour market. In 1909, he toured Britain campaigning for the ‘People’s Budget’ and its radical proposals for the taxation of wealth. At the Home Office, his penal reforms as well as his measures to improve working conditions in shops and coal-mines…”

Today, even as the National Health Services stands as an issue of deliberation and even a bone of contention in political circles in Britain, one fails to realize often that nationalization of health services was done during war-time economic deliberations rather than by post-war, left-leaning Labor governments. What one needs to realize, as described by Norman Barry [3] is that the economic liberals of that age were not as much against collectivized distribution of welfare services as much as to institutionalized distribution of such services, which they saw as constraints on the freedom and efficiency of individuals. What is primary to the thinking of a conservative has been the idea of reciprocity, of the ‘giving back’ for a welfare scheme given to an individual which is not the case in the classical liberal economic thought process. Recently, one of my Left-leaning friends said that the very instance of moving out of your mother’s womb should guarantee you welfare from the state. This sense of entitlement to a society’s resources which the Conservatives and I, for one, don’t quite align with. Proportional entitlement, and the fair instances of employment, is of course needed, and has always been safeguarded by Conservative governments. The state does have a responsibility for those who have absolutely no way of supporting themselves, but that can be channeled as well through social entrepreneurship and providing incentives for social responsibility among those in the market economy who are able to undertake such initiatives.



Moreover, as Norman Barry [3] also mentions in his work, modern Conservatives, especially those in America, argue more on the issue of the nature of welfare than on the size or impetus needed to sustain it. For one, cash schemes, which do not have an inherent sense of reciprocity, are criticized. Instead, schemes like the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana, started by Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which ensures a certain time period of assured employment and associated welfare benefits such as the provision of subsidized food grains, is one which does help the state as well as the individual, who ‘gets what he earns’. In this regard, one pertinent point that is sure to rise is regarding the aged and the young, the disabled and the handicapped. One is led to believe that reinforcing the whole institution of families could go a long way in channeling the capital and benefits down to them, besides the aforementioned incentivization of social-responsibility schemes by individuals and companies. The Beveridge Report, which formed the basis of various economic and social reforms after World War II, in one of its key recommendations, succinctly highlights the need for this idea

“Policies of social security “must be achieved by co-operation between the State and the individual”, with the state securing the service and contributions. The state “should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family.”

This leaves ample space for private initiatives along with maintaining the public sector. Moreover, in large and unrestrained free-markets, the issue of whom to insure and who really deserves benefits is a big problem. As a result, Conservatives do see the idea of a ‘Welfare State’ as a ‘Mutual Insurance’ scheme. The individual does what he can and has a share in benefits that are associated with this task undertaken. Interestingly, a most fundamental idea within Conservatism validates the need for a measured amount of institutionalized welfare schemes as well: communitarianism. The institution of the community. Leaving the less deprived of a community, or for that matter of a nation in the whole concept of One-Nation Conservatism, is against the principles of Conservatism since it hits at a most basic social construct and institution. Thus, besides the private initiatives for social responsibility, a certain amount state-run welfare is beneficial and needed, and definitely not what Conservatives are or should be against (this statement of course goes with the caveat that there are various shades of Conservatism and some individuals may disagree with me on this). However, this same argument of communitarianism also raises the important question: how much does the state get involved in?


Communitarianism: Arguing for Compassionate Conservatism?

John Gray [4] states that there are some goods which can be provided by the state at minimal prices without creating an infinite demand. This is enshrined in the concept of ‘satiability‘. In the absence of a proper awareness of what defines this criterion or which goods come under the ambit of this concept, there is a certain amount of subjectivity relating to goods and commodities. And this is what creates another round of debate among Conservatives. Moreover, particularly among American Conservatives, there is a certain amount of bickering regarding the occurrence of what I like to call ‘apparent permanence in deprivation’. The occurrence whereby the imposition of state-run welfare increases the target group that it seeks to reduce, in number. For instance, benefits for single mothers leading to breakdown of more families, in turn leading to more economic pressure on the state, or the imposition of reservation schemes leading to more number of communities wanting to qualify as reserved classes. Thus there is an associated ‘hazard’, as Barry [3] put its, relating to who gets the benefit of such schemes: the genuinely deprived or the opportunists, as he puts it.


I would like to end this fairly long piece by stating that, much as I have faced (albeit at a very elementary level probably), Conservative economists and philosophers have to tread the narrow line between what is morally correct and what is efficient for society and humankind. And in there somewhere (actually at a lot of places), the whole concept of ‘Welfare State’ does sit smug, albeit in a regulated and oft-privatized way.


[1] Blake, Robert. Louis, Wm. Roger. Churchill. ISBN-13: 9780198206262. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198206262.001.0001 (1996).

[2] Paul Addison, “Churchill and Social Reform,”Churchill, eds. (New York: Norton, 1993), p. 57.

[3] Barry, N. (1997), Conservative Thought and the Welfare State. Political Studies, 45: 331–345. doi: 10.1111/1467-9248.00085

[4] Gray, John, et al. “The moral foundations of market institutions.” (1992): 5-17.


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