Sam Hammond of the Niskanen Center wrote an excellent piece analyzing the under-appreciated complementarity of a strong social safety net and free market policies. Separating labor market and business regulation from social spending, Hammond goes on to argue that there is a steady equilibrium correlation between how free a country’s economy is and how generous their social safety net is. While I applaud his line of thinking on how free market policies and social insurance can be mutually reinforcing, I am not as convinced that there is necessarily a strong equilibrium relationship between the two, nor that the US is in an unsteady state that could lead it down the road to further reactionary populism.

Why the Market Economy Benefits from a Strong Safety Net

As an economy grows and adapts to changing demands, Joseph Schumpeter observed, a process of “creative destruction” leaves newly obsolete industries and skills in the dust. The displaced workers from this process can be enticed by populist revolts that threaten to counteract the productive forces of a market economy. Hammond’s paper “argues that the countries that have eluded Schumpeter’s dreary prediction have done so by combining free-markets with robust systems of universal social insurance.” In other words, if any polity wants to enjoy the fruits of a well-functioning market economy, it needs to cushion the blow for those that are harmed by the inherent dynamism that allows it to prosper. With its relatively stingy cash benefits, the United States is at risk of sliding into a policy environment that removes its unique dynamism.

Hammond argues a more generous social safety net can complement, rather than work against, the power of markets by, among other things: 1) promoting entrepreneurial risk-taking by spreading out risk across society; 2) address the painful adjustment costs embedded in a dynamic globalized market economy; 3) replace policies that ostensibly increase economic security but inevitably decrease economic flexibility; 4) increase labor market flexibility by detaching “important social benefits…from any particular employer or market structure.”

The False Dichotomy of Economic Policy-making

Many tend to incorrectly see economic policy regimes as necessarily being a bundled package. One political party may favor stronger unionization, have a more interventionist approach to industry, a more progressive taxation scheme, and a more generous welfare state, while the other wants to decrease the power of unions, privatize more government functions, lower top marginal tax rates, and cut social spending. In reality, it’s not one bundle or the other. It’s possible to have a generous social insurance system as well as a lightly-regulated economy. Hammond makes a distinction between a Swedish “social insurance state” that has generous social insurance policies but a relatively unregulated marketplace, with a Venezuelan “interventionist state” that relies on nationalization and inflexible labor markets. Both can be referred to as “socialist” or “social democratic” in political discourse, but of course their policy combinations are far from identical. The ideal scheme, according to Hammond (and one I agree with), is one that combines the powers of the market economy with a generous welfare state.

[As a slight aside, this overall point is something I want to increasingly shout from the rooftops. Opponents of “capitalism” or market economies tend to associate pro-market reforms with skimpy welfare states, neoconservative foreign policy, and low environmental regulation. The Niskanen Center is great at producing work that combines ideal policies outside this false dichotomy.]

What Economic Freedom Should Really Mean

Often times, country rankings of “economic freedom” from the Heritage Foundation or Fraser Institute imply a necessary bundling of economic policy decisions. Both of these foundations, Hammond notes, value economic freedoms related to economic regulation, but they also value low government spending and skimpy social safety nets. To better get to an analysis showing the kind of government presence he’s talking about, he develops an index that separates social expenditures and pro-market institutions from “government size.” The economic freedom index thus values government transparency, rule of law, and regulatory efficiency while the social welfare index suggests higher income transfers. Economic freedom does not need to mean low taxation and social spending. We’re left with this graphic:

Screen Shot 2018-05-08 at 10.47.48 AM

The graphic suggests a correlation between his measure of economic freedom and income security. But instead of just saying this is a correlation, he believes the relationship is in fact an equilibrium, and countries that diverge from the path by becoming either economically less-free or decrease welfare spending are at risk of falling down the path to populism found in the bottom left quadrant. In theory, these countries are in disequilibrium, as I see it, because an economically less-free country with generous welfare spending would have low-growth that couldn’t support its welfare state. Meanwhile, an economically free country with skimpy benefits wouldn’t be able to cushion the blow from an ever-changing economy.

But is there a Steady-state Equilibrium?

This is where I’m skeptical. The United States is a significant outlier here. An atypical amount of our government spending goes towards military ventures, but I don’t think that collapsing military spending would result in a more generous welfare state. I’m drawn to this Glaser et al paper suggesting that skimpier US welfare state spending comes from historical and cultural realities that are hard to undo by overnight Federal policymaking. Specifically, the paper suggests that “racial fragmentation is a powerful predictor of redistribution” across countries, and America’s cultural/racial heterogeneity could lead to an unwillingness to provide strong social welfare benefits that is difficult to overcome. The United States is atypical in many regards to other OECD countries, and a big difference is this diversity. Scandinavian countries with relatively homogenous populations could be seen as more willing to provide a social safety net because people perceive their tax dollars as going to people just like them. Countries like Italy or Spain, with relatively less national unity than Denmark or Norway, have administratively weaker welfare states.

Although Nordic countries have recently experienced a surge in “otherness” migration – and with significant frictions politically as they try to protect their natives and welfare states – it’s not clear to me that the dust will settle with these countries having their generous welfare states remain in place. I don’t mean to argue against diversity or say it can’t coexist with strong social spending; instead, I want to assert the common tension between the two and point out that America’s atypical cultural heterogeneity could be an endogenous force working against political willingness to increase social spending. Further, as Hammond notes, Sweden was in an equilibrium in the 70s and 80s more in line with the bottom left quadrant of his graphic than the top right. A particularly bad recession in the early 90s shocked the country and resulted in liberalization of markets but preserved strong social insurance programs. But if Sweden can suddenly switch quadrants, what makes Hammond so sure it can’t just as easily switch back?

A further argument against the inevitability of this equilibrium is in the United States’s long history. Sure, countries in the Anglo world are today on a more authoritarian path with Trump/Brexit than many other OECD countries, likely stemming from an inability to protect citizens who were displaced by globalization. But the United States has never had a particularly strong welfare state? The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is a part of what is deemed American exceptionalism. The United States transitioned from an agricultural country to industrial without falling out of this bottom right quadrant. The transition didn’t come without side effects – agricultural subsidies today can be seen as a historical concession towards farmers harmed by the change – but the United States still never left its unique quadrant. Now, maybe I’m oversimplifying United States economic history here, or not involving the nuances of European economic history either. But if I really am misunderstanding history, it begs the question of whether Hammond can show that his graphic is robust enough throughout time in order to prove that this is indeed an equilibrium.

To say that a more robust welfare state counteracts the forces that led to Trump and Brexit also seems like a stretch to me. Specifically, Hammond believes that a well designed welfare state could alleviate “search and adjustment costs…with a system of subsidized employment for the long-term unemployed, combined with job search and relocation supports for geographically locked workers.” I’m skeptical the proverbial rust-belt Trump voter that used to thrive in a coal-fueled world or manufacturing-based American economy will be helped much by this. These workers have a strong connection to the identity their job provides them. I don’t just mean the purpose or community employment gives them. A coal miner isn’t suddenly going to become a male nurse just because that’s where the economy is producing jobs, no matter how much assistance the government gives them. The assembly line worker in West Virginia isn’t going to start to learn Python and move to Silicon Valley. The fact of the matter, as I see it, is that the economic displacement from globalization and automation interacts with a stubbornness of human nature that leaves many workers potentially unable or unwilling to participate in the new economy, regardless of government support. [I’d note that this job-identity relationship extends to professional-class workers who probably refused to work retail jobs during the Great Recession. Our employment opportunities are tied to how we see ourselves, and I think government spending can only do so much here.]

Hammond writes that “unregulated open economies are vulnerable to reactionary populist backlashes when the forces of creative destruction leave large swaths of society behind.” But take a look at his graphic showing OECD countries and their level of “cash minimum-income benefits.”

Screen Shot 2018-05-08 at 11.06.36 AM.png

Greece paints a picture of an unstable populist backlash, but what about other countries on the left-side of this distribution? Is Canada unstable? South Korea? Hong Kong and Singapore are atypical city-states, but I don’t see them as being at risk of going in a more authoritarian direction, either. Perhaps it’s possible for countries to exist as free-market states without having pressures to increase its social welfare spending. History, culture, demographics, or even size/government setup – something particularly unique about the United States – could lead countries to a steady-state outside the correlation Hammond’s graphic suggests. And if there is no equilibrium, can we really think of these as being necessarily reinforcing rather than just a correlation?

How to Improve American Social Insurance

Outside any theoretical equilibrium, I would like to see the policies Hammond argues for. While I may not be convinced the United States must do this in order to avoid becoming more of an authoritative populist country, I still believe a stronger safety net can complement the wonders of the market economy discusses previously. So how can the United States transition into more a top-right quadrant country? Hammond argues that social insurance schemes can be more politically viable and successful if they are designed to be “neutral” and “universal.” It’s important to be neutral – in the sense that as little as possible is left up to the discretion of policymakers that will likely pander to special interests – to avoid favoritism and cronyism. It’s important to be “universal” because programs perceived to be designated only for the poor are typically poorly-run and underfunded. Making social insurance schemes something that everyone benefits from and pays into will ensure more forces that lead to beauracratic quality and efficiency. Federalism and American attitudes could make this a relatively difficult process, but still one worth pursuing.