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On Kings, Pietism and Rent-seeking in Scandinavian Welfare States

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This paper argues that the origins of the Scandinavian welfare states are most usefully seen in the small-state absolutism and Lutheran Pietism characterizing 18th-century Denmark/Norway. Towards the end of the 18th century, the Danish monarch or, more correctly, his agents, created a quite generous set of welfare benefits in the 1799 Poor Law for the City of Copenhagen. In return for non-punitive and generous support, the state assumed that recipients would be obedient and grateful servants of the state and its institutions. This system was replaced with more punitive and petty systems as liberalism gained importance in the following century, but basic elements of the Pietist model for the relationship between state and citizen were maintained and recreated in the development of the generous welfare state of the late 20th century. The main threat to the generous welfare state is the weakening of the Pietist culture of obedience, which is being replaced with an individualistic culture of rent-seeking, that is, changing behaviour or breaking rules to obtain welfare benefits. Greed replaces gratitude, and the obedience relationship of a citizen to the state is being changed to an exchange relationship and widespread opportunism. There is much media attention on rent-seeking using anecdotal evidence about misuse of welfare benefits. There is little actual knowledge about the extent of changes. Those designing and administering the welfare system continue to believe that it works as they intended it to work, just as it did under absolutism.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: December 1, 1998

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