American Exceptionalism and the Welfare State: The Revisionist Literature


Abstract: Recent research has argued that the American welfare state is not necessarily smaller than the welfare state in other advanced industrial countries. Rather, it is organized on principles that make it seem smaller: Because it functions through tax expenditures and public–private partnerships, it is less visible than welfare states that operate on the principle of direct spending. This review summarizes the most important messages of this revisionist scholarship, particularly in how this form of welfare provision undermines support for the welfare state, increases the complexity and decreases the efficiency of the system, and hides regressive policies from public scrutiny. I then argue that although this work has taught us much about American politics, several gaps need to be addressed. First, the explanation of the origins of this state of affairs is incomplete and unconvincing. Second, while private welfare is an important part of the American experience, the scholarship on private welfare provision has not yet grappled with the fact that private welfare was also historically found in many other advanced industrial countries, but did not crowd out the public welfare state there as it has in the United States. Finally, although the scholarship has usefully called attention to the invisibility of tax expenditures, we should not consider tax expenditures part of the “welfare state,” because they only rarely accomplish the functions of redistribution and risk pooling of public welfare programs. Rather, in most cases, tax expenditures should be seen as tax cuts, that is, diminishment of state capacity. These observations suggest that the scholarship would benefit from broader engagement with the comparative literature on political economy and from a more precise and conceptually grounded definition of the “welfare state.”