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Subsidiary social provision before the welfare state. Political theory and social policy in nineteenth-century Belgium

This study is about the origins of the Belgian welfare state; more specifically, about both the policy origins and the ideological origins of the Belgian welfare state. The historical origins of the Belgian modern welfare state are often traced back to the introduction of social insurances in national legislation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. However, this legislation only confirmed a system that had been developing for a long time and does not in itself say much about how and why it had developed in such or such direction. This study will therefore dig a little deeper and will be a story about political theory and social policy in the long nineteenth century, a century that connects the pre-revolutionary ancien régime and its predominantly local, mixed private/public arrangements of social policy to the national establishment of a range of social insurances. It will make clear that, if Belgium with its system of ‘subsidized liberty’ today serves as a conventional conservative welfare regime characterized by non-state provision in the form of powerful non-profit private providers, this can be traced back largely to nineteenth-century political theory and social policy.

Reflecting its main aim, this dissertation rests on two research questions, from which a third naturally follows. Firstly, in which intellectual, social and political – both national and transnational – discourse (within or outside the realm of Catholic social thought where it was eventually first coined) did the so-called ‘subsidiarity principle’ originate? Secondly, in what ways and in what sort of configuration of a ‘mixed economy of social welfare’ did the government (in its different levels) relate to individuals, voluntary associations and private institutions in the fields of poor relief, popular education and social insurance? Thirdly, following from the two preceding questions, in what ways did this kind of discourse or theory affect, influence or justify policy decisions in the fields of poor relief, popular education and social insurance or, conversely, in what ways did policy structures or decisions strengthen or provoke this sort of discourse or theory? Indeed, as apparent from these research questions, the thematic focus of this dissertation is delineated to the three fields which can be said to have been three early core tasks of social policy: poor relief, popular education, and social insurance. Chronologically speaking this dissertation will be confined to the long nineteenth century (ca.1800-ca.1920), not only because it was the period in which both policy and ideas had fundamentally developed before they were defined as ‘subsidised liberty’ and ‘subsidiarity’, respectively, but also because this period has been somewhat neglected in the Belgian historiography compared to the focus on social policy in early-modern times on the one hand and the twentieth-century development of the welfare state on the other.

Part one is devoted to the intellectual history of subsidiarity. In chapter one I first work towards my own definition of subsidiarity and thoroughly consider the methodological and theoretical difficulties in tracing back subsidiarity as an idea that was as yet not explicitly defined. Then I provide ample evidence to my argument that the ideas later characterizing subsidiarity are essentially shaped by the nineteenth-century context and that their gradual emergence is largely due to two intellectual traditions, that is late-eighteenth- and nineteenth century Classical liberalism and nineteenth-century Catholic social thinking. Chapter two charts the Belgian landscape of national and transnational intellectual networks engaging with discussions on state and society. It shows how some of the same ideas discussed in chapter one prevailed in these networks and were discussed in the emerging transnational European space. After the overview of these networks and debates in chapter two, chapter three finishes off part one by elaborating on the thought of five key figures within these networks. It demonstrate how some of the main lines of the later subsidiarity principle as defined in chapter one were already visible in their vision on society and in their discourse. Though in changing proportions and to greater or lesser extent, these five thinkers shared the preference for a multi-layered society between the individual and the state, in which much was to be expected from the natural human right of association in its diverse expressions and in which the state had to play a subsidiary role.

Part two again contains three chapters, dealing with the three fields of poor relief, popular education and social insurance, respectively. All three chapters are more or less structured along chronological lines, but without losing their focus to the mixed private/public relations between government(s) and other actors. Chapter four, on poor relief, offers a typology of the different mixed private/public types of cooperation on the local level within what I have broadly defined as the public poor relief system, and goes on to study the transformative impact on this local system caused by ideological and political tensions on the national level as well as late-nineteenth-century processes of professionalization and reform. Chapter five does the same for popular education. It again offers a typology, in this case distinguishing between the different mixed private/public types of primary schools. Basically it shows how Catholics reacted to the trauma of sudden laicizing and modernizing reforms by the liberals in the late 1870s and the resulting ‘school war’, by radically changing their education strategy into building their own private Catholic network of schools and subsequently reinforcing it with state subsidies under thirty years of Catholic government power. Chapter six on social insurance, too, demonstrates the importance of Catholic government power during this period (between 1884 and 1914). Maintaining an ideological preference for mutual aid associations as the best way for the workers to learn bourgeoisie ideals and participating in society, Catholics refused alternatives for organising social insurance (most famously the German compulsory social insurances introduced by Bismarck) and instead reinforced their own institutions by making clever use of their government power, in accordance with their strategy of ‘subsidised liberty’.

Upon arriving at the general conclusion, it should have been made clear that this study was first and foremost an attempt to come to a fairly comprehensive understanding of political theory and social policy in Belgium in the nineteenth century, to contribute to our historical understanding of the Belgian welfare state, and to make an original contribution to its historiography. The conclusion first elaborates on one of the main concluding arguments, namely that the three fields under scrutiny shared a core of ‘subsidiary social provision’, meaning that the way in which these fields of policy were put into place and organized was the result of a larger preference for mixed private/public forms of provision, ‘subsidiary’ in being supported by the respective governments within their regulatory framework, and legitimized and underpinned by a favourable discourse widely accepted on the national and transnational level. A connection will be drawn not only between the early-nineteenth-century local mixed private/public system and the late-nineteenth-century national mixed private/public system of ‘subsidized liberty’, but also between the social policies in practice and their ideological justifications in ideas. The impact of this discourse and especially the specific uses of ‘subsidized liberty’ and its link to subsidiarity will be amply discussed. Furthermore, in a looking back on the period under scrutiny as a whole, it will be clear that the nineteenth century was a decisive era in blending traditional with modern aspects of social policy and thus shaping the welfare state as we know it today. The conclusion then finishes off with some reflections on the remnants of the system of ‘subsidiary social provision’ in the current welfare state.

Date:1 Oct 2012  →  26 May 2017
Keywords:social policy, political theory, subsidiarity, nineteenth century, welfare state, Belgium
Disciplines:Theory and methodology of philosophy, History, Economic history, Social work, Other sociology and anthropology, General psychology
Project type:PhD project