Mauricio Rojas is a doctor and professor of Economic History, Lund University. Former Member of Parliament of Sweden for the Liberal Party
The speech of the new king of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, about the need to replace the"classical Welfare State of the second half of the 20th century with a participation society" has opened a central discussion on our future. Its basic idea is simple: the Welfare State, a kind of enlightened despot which tried to solve the vital problems of the people "from above", by giving them solutions decided and managed by the bureaucratic-state apparatus has become a problem, from being the driving force of a sort of progress it has become a barrier to it. Its structures and responses, typical of the era of centralised hierarchies and standardisation, today burden the progress of an increasingly diverse society, where efficient and satisfactory answers to our life challenges can only be shaped by the citizens themselves, "from below" and without intermediaries, from their increasingly dissimilar life conditions and projects.
"People want to be able to make their own choices, manage their own lives and take care of one another" the king said. Making it possible is our great challenge, transforming the Welfare State of the past into an enabling State, the aim of which should be expanding the freedom of citizens and not replacing it. David Cameron has said it strongly in his proposal for a "Big Society": "The Big Society is about a huge culture change…where people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace…don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face …but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities." (Big Society Speech, 19-7-2010). The Swedes have been doing this for the past twenty years, but in their own quiet way, in what The Economist (02/02/2013) aptly called "Sweden's Quiet Revolution". In order to do this they gave the citizen, through an extensive system of welfare checks or bonds, full freedom of choice among the guaranteed public services and, in turn, restored a full freedom of entrepreneurship in these sectors, which broke State monopolies and renewed, with citizen demand and participation at its core, all welfare services.
For liberal thinking this is a great opportunity and a great challenge. We must leave the state-market dichotomy and rediscover civil society, making it the true aim of both state and market. We need a partnership liberalism based on that "true individualism" addressed by Friedrich Hayek, the one that makes us free by associating ourselves, creating community, and not transforming us into atoms that turn their backs to each other.
For further information:
M. Rojas, Por un liberalismo asociativo.
M. Rojas, El bienestar después del Estado del bienestar.