[As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University I wrote hundreds of essays not all of which, I think, are worthless. Here's a short one on social democracy. Needless to say, the best form of 'government' is in fact socialism, in which workers democratically run the economy themselves. But in capitalist conditions, nothing beats social democracy.]
Social Democracy Is the Best Form of Government
Conservatives and other lovers of the "free market" have generally considered the welfare state to be a restriction upon individual freedom. The Lockean rights to private property and political liberty are, they declare, trampled on in economic systems such as Sweden’s. Moreover, the evils of paternalism creep into the government when it is an extreme social democratic welfare state. These concerns, however, are unfounded. As Gosta Esping-Andersen points out, the de-commodification of workers effected by a social democratic welfare state more than compensates for any adverse consequences of a large government. More importantly, this paper will demonstrate that freedom is actually increased in a welfare state—as are also equality and democracy. Further, the Swedish system will be seen to be the most effective and potentially most permanent.
In a liberal welfare state, according to Esping-Andersen (p. 22), needs-tests and meager benefits “strengthen the market since all but those who fail in the market will be encouraged to contract private-sector welfare.” Both liberals and conservatives look favorably upon this as increasing individual freedom, but if we define freedom more inclusively—so as to additionally incorporate social liberties and opportunities—we will recognize that the opposite is the case. The impoverished do not have the freedom, for example, to gain a higher education. They do not have the freedom to choose to live in a suburban neighborhood. It may be objected that these are not properly freedoms; they are opportunities. But this objection is irrelevant: the point is that many people do not have the freedom to take advantage of these opportunities if the market is allowed to govern them. Thus commodification implies social slavery; if a welfare regime is able to de-commodify workers, it necessarily offers them a kind of liberation.
Another possible objection is that in a social democracy the rich lose their freedom to become even richer, or to totally run the country. This indeed is the case. But the sacrifice of liberties as superfluous as these is a small price to pay for greater freedom in the society as a whole. [A better argument would be that the rich generally use these 'freedoms' or powers to strip others of power/freedom, so it's a point in favor of social democracy that the wealthy are less 'free.']
De-commodification of workers, ending their reliance on the market, places them on a more equal footing with the wealthy than was the case when they were commodified. Thus there is greater social equality—which implies greater political equality. All citizens (aside from their political representatives) ultimately have, in theory, an equal influence on the political process in this system. Such is not the case in liberal welfare states, of course, for these maintain the workers’ reliance on the market. But corporate and social democratic welfare regimes are more successful at establishing economic and social equality. Arising from this equality, as was remarked previously, is the greater freedom of the citizenry as a whole. Thus equality and freedom are not, in a proper welfare state, incompatible.
Opponents of welfare states often warn that democracy becomes very fragile or non-existent when such a paternalistic, vast government bureaucracy runs the country. According to Max Weber, bureaucracy and democracy are irreconcilable: the one requires experts not democratically elected and an efficient mechanism for carrying out orders not susceptible to monitoring and control by citizens, the other by its definition implies leadership by the ignorant masses. However, since under a social democratic welfare regime there is more equality and freedom, the loss of democracy in the bureaucratic structure is partially compensated for by the increase of democracy in the public realm. The citizens are more interested in the political process because more of them feel they’re a part of it; therefore more of them vote and voice their opinions. Additionally, as was noted earlier, they all have approximately an equal say. Furthermore, although it may be true that democracy cannot penetrate the bureaucracy, it can and does exist outside it—to a greater degree than it does in liberal welfare regimes like the United States, which themselves have an equally vast bureaucracy. To cite one of Esping-Andersen’s examples (p. 69), when the Swedish social democrats made middle-class standards the universal norm, the average worker experienced upward mobility, and so there was a “consolidation of a vast popular majority wedded to [the] defense” of social democracy.
As for the accusation of paternalism, it is possibly justified vis-à-vis corporate welfare regimes like Germany—although probably much less so than is thought. It is not, however, justified vis-à-vis social democracies, where the impetus for welfare comes from the citizens themselves rather than from the state. The red-green alliance in Sweden, which effectively initiated and prolonged its social democracy (with the eventual help of the “whites”), was entirely a popular movement. Hence its outcome cannot be labeled “paternalism”, especially when it continues to be supported by the vast majority of citizens.
This fact is indeed a significant reason for the superiority of the Swedish model over the German. Bismarck initiated his social programs mainly to prevent socialism from acquiring power; hence, his welfare state began as a paternalistic, corporativist method of counteracting a popular movement. This kind of deception would be impossible in a social democracy, where equality, freedom, and democracy are the guiding laws. If these three values are the primary criteria for judging the quality of a welfare state, then clearly the social democratic one is far better than the liberal, in which de-commodification has not been achieved.
However, if the criterion is which type of welfare regime will last the longest, most people are inclined to believe that the liberal state is the best. It is flexible, it does not require the vast contributions from its citizens that the social democratic state does, it can devote its resources to more productive investments, etc. On the other hand, most citizens of a social democratic state are more satisfied and have a higher quality of life (on average) than the citizens of all but the richest liberal states, and so there is less chance of dissatisfaction and consequent alteration in the governmental structure. Moreover, if a social democratic state happens to be rich, there is a great possibility that it will be able to divert enough resources to productive investments for it to remain in existence. Evidently the primary variable determining the success of any type of welfare regime is the wealth of the nation; a poor liberal state is in most cases just as likely to go bankrupt as a poor social democratic state—and in any event, its citizens are more likely to revolt from sheer discontent. In other words, there are no overwhelming indications that a state on the Swedish model is not as likely to be long-lasting as is a state on the American model.
To conclude, social democratic welfare regimes are beneficial in nearly every way: they increase individual freedom, they augment social equality, they generally make democracy more effective (outside the bureaucracy), they are less paternalistic than corporativist welfare states, and they are potentially as permanent as liberal welfare regimes. Particularly if they are wealthy nations, it is difficult to find any major drawbacks of social democracies.
[Here's the source of the artwork above.]