Social Democracy, a Second Leviathan?

Stephen O'ConnellThis blog post is the second in a series of posts that come from students of our 2nd year undergraduate “Capitalism and Democracy” course. As part of the module, students were asked to select and research a topic that is related to the global political economy of redistribution. The best blog posts have been selected to provide an opportunity to exceptional young scholars at UCD to contribute to the debate on the future of international politics, and to promote the insightful scholarship being undertaken at UCD to a wider public audience.

In The Better Angels of our Nature Steven Pinker argues that Hobbes was right, that societies with a government of any kind are superior to being stateless, at least on the point of security (Pinker, 2011: 56). Drawing on archaeological evidence, Pinker (2011: 51) shows that “living in a civilization reduces one’s chances of being a victim of violence fivefold” when compared to various pre-state societies.

The question examined in this blog post is whether social democratic governments and welfare regimes have had a similar effect on well-being. In order to come to a conclusion I will examine the performance of social democracy across four main indicators: inequality, health, crime, and education.

Social democracies are generally more equal societies. This is due to a larger welfare state, a commitment to reducing unemployment and larger amounts of transfer payments. Furthermore, inequality was at a low during a period when social democratic policies were in the ascendancy in the developed world. Piketty (2014) shows that income inequality across the developed world was lower during the golden age of capitalism, however this was also the golden age of the welfare state before the implementation of neo-liberal economic and social policy and the retrenchment of the social state. Similarly, Clift (2014: 257) explains that “one of the biggest changes in the nature of capitalism within the advanced affluent democracies during the 20th century was the extension in scope and scale of social welfare provision”. This should be seen as the adoption of social democratic principles.

As Huber, Regin, and Stephens (1993: 717) argue, “strength of left parties, particularly of social democratic parties allied with strong trade union movements, has been shown to have a positive effect on welfare state expenditures”. Given that “the post-war order represented a clear triumph for social democratic principles” (Berman, 2008: 20) and that other political parties began “adopting many social democratic policies and reaching across class boundaries” (Berman, 2008: 21), it would be wrong to discount the role of social democracy in the reduction of inequality during that period. Berman (2008: 33-34) goes as far as to say “social democracy should also be seen as the most successful ideology and movement of the twentieth century: its principles and policies undergirded the most prosperous and harmonious period in European history by reconciling things that had hitherto seemed incompatible—a well functioning capitalist system, democracy, and social stability”.

Furthermore, countries with a strong social democratic tradition, who were governed by social democratic parties for the majority of the post-war period maintain lower levels of inequality than those that didn’t. Coburn (2004: 47) shows that inequality, absolute poverty and relative poverty are all lower in social democratic countries compared to liberal regime types. He points out that “increases in inequality have been particularly pronounced in those nations adopting more stringent neo-liberal or market-oriented politics and policies” (Coburn, 2004: 46). Given that these policies are opposite to those of social democrats, and that the relative levels of inequality and poverty shown between regime types (coupled with the low levels of inequality in the post-war era, during the expansion of the welfare state) it is fair to say that social democratic policies lead to lower inequality and poverty.

As an indicator of greater healthcare we can look at a wide variety of data. Chung and Muntaner (2007: 328) divided 19 wealthy countries into 4 different types of welfare regimes: Social Democratic, Christian Democratic, Liberal, and Wage Earner Welfare States and looked at infant mortality rates and low birth weight rates across these typologies over a period of 39 years (1960-1998). They used powerful, wealthy countries to “control for external influences on domestic policy decisions” (Chung and Muntaner, 2007: 329). As Navarro et al. (2006: 1033) argue “politics supposedly determine public policy”. If ever that were true it would be in these states. The results of their analysis show that “Social democracies show a better health status over the 39-year period” and that in the case of infant mortality this is significant for most of the period. For low birth weight it is significant for “half the time (since circa 1980s)” (Chung and Muntaner, 2007: 336).

Using similar data, Navarro and Shi (2001: 486) come to the conclusion that “political forces that have been more successful in reducing income inequalities, such as the social democratic parties, have also been more successful in reducing infant mortality rates”. Furthermore, Navarro and Shi (2001: 486) show that within countries not “governed by social democratic forces, those regions of the country that have been governed by parties following social democratic policies of reducing inequalities and creating employment, such as the ex-Italian Communist Party (today the Left Democratic Party), have had lesser inequalities and better mortality indicators than other regions.”

For indicators of crime we will look at per capita imprisonment and recidivism rates. Wilkinson and Pickett (2009: 135) argue that a “large body of evidence shows a clear relationship between greater inequality and higher homicide rates”. They also show a correlation between rates of imprisonment and inequality using statistics from the United Nations Survey on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009: 148). We find the same countries that Chung and Muntaner classified as social democracies clustered together when graphed with low income inequality and few prisoners per 100,000. They further compare trends over time, “in the UK, [inmate numbers] have doubled since 1990 […] this contrasts sharply with what is happening in other rich countries. Through the 1990s, the prison population was stable in Sweden and declined in Finland; it rose by only 8 percent in Denmark” (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009: 145).

Though it is suggested that countries that imprison a smaller portion of their population are more likely to see higher levels of re-offending because those imprisoned would be assumed to be the hardened criminals “in fact there, there appears to be a trend towards higher rates of re-offending in more punitive systems (in the USA and UK, re-offending rates are generally reported to be between 60 and 65 per cent) and lower rates in less harsh environments (Sweden and Japan are reported to have recidivism rates between 35 and 40 percent)” (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009: 154-155).

Given that the justice systems of social democratic countries have proven more effective at tackling violent crime and have lower rates of recidivism it is fair to say that with regard to crime, social democratic governments perform better than their counterparts. Wilkinson and Pickett (2009: 155) sum this up quite efficiently, “societies that imprison more people also spend less of their wealth on welfare for their citizens”.

On metrics of education, social democracies again do well. Wilkinson and Pickett (2009: 105) argue that “more unequal countries and more unequal states have worse educational attainment – and these relationships are strong enough for us to be sure that they are not due to chance”. Using data compiled by the Programme for International Student Assessment they show 15-year olds in countries with low income-inequality had higher average maths and literacy scores (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009: 106). Wilkinson and Pickett (2009: 112) suggest that Sweden’s 18 month parental leave is a factor in childhood education success as well as traditional social democratic policies such as social housing, healthcare, programmes to promote a healthy work/life balance and provision of early childhood education programmes.

Thus it appears that social democratic regimes have increased social utility across a number of indicators. Granted, it is debatable whether the change is as dramatic as the transition for state-less to state societies. Furthermore, given that these metrics are closely correlated to equality perhaps it is equality rather than social democracy that is the new leviathan. However, given that social democracy tends to be the most effective route to greater equality we can argue that they are one in the same, or at least that equality is increased by social democratic policies.

 Stephen O’Connell is a second year mature student studying Economics and Politics in UCD. He is also an Ad Astra Academic Scholar. He has a keen interest in political economy and social equality.”


Berman, S. (2008) ‘Understanding Social Democracy’, Paper presented at What’s Left of the Left: Liberalism and Social Democracy in a Globalized World, Havard University, 9th – 10th May. Available at: [29th October 2015].

Chung, H. and Muntaner, C. (2007) ‘Welfare state matters: A typological multilevel analysis of wealthy countries’, Health Policy, 80 (2), pp. 328 -339. Available at: [29th October 2015].

Clift, B. (2014) Comparative Political Economy. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Coburn, D. (2004) ‘Beyond the income inequality hypothesis: class, neo-liberalism, and health inequalities’, Social Science and Medicine, 58 (1), pp. 41-56. Available at: [29th October 2015].

Huber, E. and Ragin, C. and Stephens, J.D. (1993) ‘Social Democracy, Christian Democracy, Constitutional Structure, and the Welfare State’, American Journal of Sociology, 99 (3), pp. 711-749. Available at: [29th October 2015].

Navarro, V, Muntaner, C, Borrell, C, Benach, J, Quiroga, Á, Rodríguez-Sanz, M, Vergés, N, and Pasarín, M.I. (2006) ‘Politics and Health Outcomes’, The Lancet, 368 (9540), pp. 1033-1037. Available at: [29th October 2015].

Navarro, V. and Shi, L. (2001) ‘The political context of social inequalities and health’, Social Science and Medicine, 52 (3), pp. 481-491. Available at: [29th October 2015].

Piketty, T. (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Padstow: TJ International Ltd.

Pinker, S. (2011) The Better Angels of our Nature. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. (2009) The Spirit Level. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

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