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The world’s welfare net

Published: 
Thursday, May 18, 2017

This is the most comprehensive non-academic survey of welfare policies ever undertaken. British writer James Bartholomew travelled to 11 developed nations to analyse their policies in education, health, unemployment, housing and every other aspect of State funding.

The book’s 13 chapters also examines the effects of welfare on work ethic and parenting. His historical overview, which shows that welfare policies existed even in ancient civilisations, throws up several motives for welfare, ranging from compassion for the poor and afflicted to political ambition to gain a prestigious place in history to the belief that governments could completely eradicate poverty.

Bartholomew’s examination of the Scandinavian nations, typically cited by leftists as examples of successful socialist states, often contradicts conventional wisdom.

His opening chapter is titled “Why Are So Many Swedish People Disabled?” He shows how the generous welfare benefits in Sweden has undermined productivity and incentivised many Swedes to lie about their health.

His third chapter is a search for the best health-care system in the world. Bartholomew first interviewed experts in health policies and read the relevant literature, and went to the recommended nations. But in each country he found that the reality contradicted even the official statistics.

The chapter on unemployment is especially telling, since he notes that up to the early part of the 20th century most developed nations had full employment (ie unemployed people constituted less than five percent of the labour force).

Bartholomew notes that the usual explanations for unemployment in developed nation, such as low-value work being exported, do not fly.

The only two developed nations which have full employment are Switzerland (4.8 per cent) and Singapore (two per cent). The explanation given to Bartholomew by the head of a Swiss employers’ organisation is straightforward: “It is easy to fire people.” This makes Swiss companies more willing to hire people. There is also no minimum wage.

And, while the country has unemployment insurance, it is rigorous in ensuring that the unemployed seek work in order to be eligible for benefits.

But it is Bartholomew’s education findings which are the most surprising – illiteracy, he discovers, is as high as 14 per cent in Germany, Australia and the Netherlands. By comparison, the best estimates in Trinidad and Tobago place functional illiteracy at 20 per cent, which is not much different (although our official rate is two percent).

He also finds that private education accounts for much of the better education performance in nations that top international tests, like South Korea. “State education ostensibly creates a level playing field for the children of the poor to compete with the children of the rich,” writes Bartholomew.

“But, in many countries, public schools reinforce the difference instead because the rich get their children into the best public schools and the poor are left with the rest.”

The book ends with three appendices, starting with ten recommendations on how to improve the welfare system. Bartholomew’s well-researched and cogently argued thesis will make discomfiting reading for left-leaning and even centrist persons, if only because the former will have to make an extra effort to preserve their cognitive dissonance, while the latter may well be persuaded to move more to the right.

REVIEW BY KEVIN BALDEOSINGH

Book info

The Welfare of Nations.

James Bartholomew,

Cato Institute, 2016.

ASIN: B01N3SSQ1W; 450 pages.