Moral Climate Change? Unemployment, Ethics, and the Sustainability of the Nordic Welfare Model

Wednesday, July 12, 2017
JWS - Room J10 (J355) (University of Glasgow)
Kelly McKowen , Anthropology, Princeton University
There are many longstanding questions regarding the sustainability of the Nordic welfare model. One difficult, though relatively understudied, question pertains to the individual exploitation of public benefits and services. One view posits that the inexorable expansion of the bureaucratic welfare state apparatus breaks and replaces the personal, non-state ties that not only enabled the development of the welfare state but cultivated the altruistic motives that protected it from rent-seeking. Others discern danger in the alleged spread of an ethos of individualism or in perceived cultural incompatibilities in an increasingly diverse population. What these perspectives share is an assumption that critical other-regarding motives--e.g. altruism, reciprocity--are, or will be, overwhelmed by material self-interest or in-group loyalty. In short, it is a vision of the Nordic welfare model as vulnerable to a moral crisis that threatens to become a decisive economic one. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Norway in 2015-2016, including participant observation in state-funded job-seeker courses and 30 in-depth interviews with unemployed benefit recipients, I suggest that notions of a moral crisis in the Nordic welfare model, at least in the Norwegian case, are off the mark. I argue that the model remains a powerful cultivator of the norms of reciprocity, feelings of social obligation, and work ethic that stem exploitative welfare-claiming based on material self-interest. For many, natives and newcomers alike, first hand-experience of the welfare system during periods of hardship appears to be a meaningful learning experience where the social contract between the state and individual is clarified and affirmed.
  • McKowen_NordMod_Draft.pdf (476.6 kB)