Robert J. Samuelson: The Welfare State's Reckoning

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Robert J. Samuelson is an economist and a columnist for the Washington Post.

We Americans fool ourselves if we ignore the parallels between Europe’s problems and our own. It’s reassuring to think them separate, and the fixation on the euro — Europe’s common currency — buttresses that mind-set. But Europe’s turmoil is more than a currency crisis and was inevitable, in some form, even if the euro had never been created. It’s ultimately a crisis of the welfare state, which has grown too large to be easily supported economically. People can’t live with it — and can’t live without it. The American predicament is little different.

Government expansion was one of the 20th century’s great transformations. Wealthy nations adopted programs for education, health care, unemployment insurance, old-age assistance, public housing and income redistribution. “Public spending for these activities had been almost nonexistent at the beginning of the 20th century,” writes economist Vito Tanzi in his book “Government versus Markets.”

The numbers — to those who don’t know them — are astonishing. In 1870, all government spending was 7.3 percent of national income in the United States, 9.4 percent in Britain, 10 percent in Germany and 12.6 percent in France. By 2007, the figures were 36.6 percent for the United States, 44.6 percent for Britain, 43.9 percent for Germany and 52.6 percent for France. Military costs once dominated budgets; now, social spending does.

“Survival of the fittest” no longer sufficed. Europeans have never liked markets as much as Americans do. In the 1880s, German Chancellor Bismarck created health, old-age and accident insurance — landmarks regarded as originating the welfare state. The Great Depression discredited capitalism, and after World War II, communists and socialists enjoyed strong support in part because they “had formed the backbone of wartime resistance movements,” writes Barry Eichengreen in “The European Economy Since 1945.”...

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