The Welfare State's Fragile Foundations

Tensions have existed between liberty and equality ever since modern democracy placed citizenship at the root of political legitimacy. In every democratic society, freedom for all has been at odds with equality for all, and vice versa. But no matter how frequently we proclaim that all "are born free and equal in dignity and rights," this clash of principles has not diminished. Indeed, it has simply taken new forms, partly owing to economic and technical progress - and with it an increase in available wealth - and partly owing to efforts aimed at allaying it.

The tension between civil, legal, and political equality and the reality of economic and social inequality was noted as far back as the French Revolution. Today, citizens inevitably use their civil, legal, and political rights to demand economic and social equality - or at least reduction of inequality. Equal rights, according to this logic - as socialist thought has emphasized - imply public policies aimed at narrowing inequalities in the actual living conditions of all citizens.

Indeed, contemporary democracies are distinguished precisely by their ambition to combine respect for liberty and formal equality of rights with public policies that, as the Preamble of the 1946 French Constitution puts it, provide all citizens with "adequate living conditions." Contemporary democracies base their legitimacy on ensuring both political and social rights.

But intervention by modern democratic states goes beyond the boundaries of the post-1945 welfare state, which sought to protect individuals against risks linked to old age, family responsibilities, accidents, illness, and the labor market. Intervention has now been broadened to include education, culture, sport, and ethnicity, in the belief that only citizens who receive equal education and training, and have their historical and cultural specificity recognized, can enjoy genuine equality.