Addressing the difficulties attending to necessary albeit unpopular reform of economic policy, the prime minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker once made remarked famously, “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.” The dangers of the so-called “Juncker Curse” seem endemic to democratic regimes; officials who depend on pleasing the electorate for their continued power have strong incentives to cater to the demands of the people, even in cases where those demands are unreasonable, unrealistic, or unsustainable. Democracies can be particularly ill-suited for fostering the kind of political virtues that provide conditions for political leaders to make and carry through tough decisions contrary to the popular will.
Particularly in social democracies, where provision for the public material welfare has been largely taken over by government, schemes of redistribution can devolve into what Frédéric Bastiat called “legal plunder” of the minority by the majority. But as long as the majority is happy with the arrangement, politicians are loath to address the dangers these regimes inevitably face when, as John Paul II put it, the welfare state “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”
With this in mind, there’s something to be said for the ability of non-elected leaders to speak truth to the power of the majority without fear of reprisal at the ballot box. Consider the case of the newly-coronated king of the Netherlands Willem-Alexander. In his first annual speech to parliament, King Willem-Alexander said that “due to social developments such as globalization and an aging population, our labour market and public services are no longer suited to the demands of the times,” and that the Dutch model needed to shift accordingly. “The classical welfare state is slowly but surely evolving into a ‘participation society,’” he said. As Nima Sanandaji explains, by invoking a “participation society,” King Willem-Alexander “meant that the public systems should start encouraging self-reliance over government dependency.” For those nations like the Netherlands that have moved beyond monarchy, the residual consequences of having a leader like the Dutch king who has the independence to speak unpopular truths are invaluable.
Sanandaji goes on to detail the history of the transformation of the welfare state in the Netherlands over recent decades. As Sanandaji writes, “Similarly to as in Denmark and Sweden, the Netherlands has with time reformed its system, for example by introducing legislation which increases employer’s responsibility for the provision of sickness benefits. In some ways the Dutch have been even keener to reform than the Nordic countries.” In particular, writes Sanandaji, “Privatisation of social security and a shift from welfare to workfare have been coupled with the introduction of elaborate markets in the provision of health care and social protection.” Thus, since about 1980, “The Netherlands has moved from being a country with a large to a medium-sized welfare system, something that still cannot yet be said about culturally and politically similar Sweden and Denmark. The Dutch seem to have been earlier than their Nordic cousins in realizing that overly generous welfare systems and high taxes led to not only sluggish economic growth, but also exclusion of large groups from the labour market.”
Political officials, whether elected or not, are certainly not the only figures responsible for providing principled leadership in the public square. The church, too, has an important role to play as an institution providing moral guidance and leadership within the context of modern democratic regimes. In the case of the Netherlands, however, the churches have in many cases been outspoken in their opposition to reforms of the “classical welfare state.” Herman Noordegraaf, a professor at the Protestant Theological University in Leiden, describes the state of affairs in a recent article, “Aid Under Protest? Churches in the Netherlands and Material Aid to the Poor.” Noordegraaf takes note of a 1987 declaration by Dutch churches, “The poor side of the Netherlands,” which among other things included a section describing the posture of the churches towards reform of the welfare state:
We reject the way people are once again made dependent on charity. We plead for social security that is not charity but a right that is fully guaranteed by government. For this reason, financial aid given by churches in situations of need should be combined with protest against the causes of this need to government and society.
Thus, says Noordegraaf, the “‘aid under protest’ formula was born,” which led the church to provide material aid to the poor only under the condition of protest that such action is not its primary responsibility. Thus, in the case of foodbanks run by church diaconal structures, for instance, a follow-up conference in 2006 by The Poor Side of the Netherlands, concluded that “the need for foodbanks in a social constitutional state is against the fundamental principles of that constitutional state.”
As Noordegraaf concludes, the ambivalence in the Dutch church context about providing direct material assistance to the poor arises from the church’s adherence to a “vision of the task of the state to promote the general welfare and to secure the basic needs of people in society.” So any material aid given by the churches as “a kind of safety net under the increasingly porous safety net of the state” is to be combined with political activism. The “aid under protest” formula means that “individual aid is combined with advocacy in the public domain” to make that aid redundant.
The churches’ conception of the place of Christian charity in the Netherlands has changed in striking ways over the last century. In 1891, the Dutch theologian and later prime minister Abraham Kuyper, while still granting space for temporary and limited state action for poor relief as a matter of necessity, warned his Christian audience that “all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your savior.” But as Rolf van der Woude of the VU Amsterdam describes this shift, in the post-war period “the Netherlands entered a period of economic boom, and a generous welfare state was rapidly erected from the ground up wherein welfare was no longer a matter of charity but a matter of justice guaranteed by the government.” This later view is that which still dominates in church conferences like those described by Noordegraaf.
So the Dutch king and the Dutch churches represent different approaches to the question of the welfare state in the Netherlands, but they both represent important resources for leadership in the public square that provides a measure of independence from the hurly burly of democratic elections. The defects of various political systems are a common place of political theorizing, and the threat of majoritarian tyranny is well recognized as an inherent danger of democracy. In the context of social democratic regimes today, however, the resources for counter-majoritarian resistance to democratic folly exemplified by the Dutch king’s speech are well worth recognizing and appreciating.