Freedom and the Welfare State:
From Formal to Substantial Freedom

The important issue of "freedom" seems to be neglected a great deal in the current discussion about the welfare state and its reform process. But new ideas related to the issue of personal "freedom" are propping up here and there, e.g. under the banner of "empowerment," "self-determination," "choice," "equality of opportunity," "social inclusion," "activation," and "economic participation."

How is the concept of freedom connected to these various, seemingly independent issues? What does the concept of freedom tell us? Here, I would like to bring in the theory of Erich Fromm (cf his book "Escape from Freedom," 1941), and his definition and view of the problem of freedom.

"freedom has a twofold meaning for modern man: that he has been freed from traditional authorities and has become an 'individual,' but that at the same time he has become isolated, powerless and an instrument of purposes outside of himself, alienated from himself and others ... Positive freedom on the other hand is identical with the full realization of the individual's potentialities, together with his ability to live actively and spontaneously."

Hence, there are two kinds of freedom, one that means the absence of restrictions, a gradual realization of a "laissez-faire" state, and the other meaning a positive realization of the self, the full development of one's individual resources and self-esteem.

The key essence of "Escape from Freedom" is that as long as we only achieve what we may call "passive freedom" (referring to "freedom from what?"), we are lonely and painful. The pain of which may cause a person to willingly subscribe to authoritarian regimes and ideologies for the sake of connecting him or her to the outside world and to gain back some sort of self-esteem. This is a danger of passive freedom, so Fromm. "Active freedom" refers to what we can do while we are free from restrictions (it refers to "being free for what?").

This is likely to carry a salient meaning for today's social policy. Social exclusion, for example, may be regarded to be the outcome of a lack of active freedom. Having a lot of time ("free time"), does not mean for the unemployed and the poor that he or she may go to the shopping mall and buy him-/herself a pair of new shoes, a nice dinner in a French restaurant, or join a university or a computer course. Real freedom also needs power, and opportunity, it needs self-esteem, and social connectedness.

The quest for active freedom may change social policy as we know it. It may refocus on the freedom of choices, the freedom of choosing in between opportunities, the freedom to go to college, the freedom to form a family and to have children, and the freedom to save money for one's retirement and to borrow the very same money when e.g. going to college, buying one's first home, etc.

Not only the individual may strive for more active, i.e. real, freedom, but also the society as a whole. A social policy that focuses on passive freedom alone, may be incompetent with regard to solving a person's real needs (the need for active life development).

Social Policy, hence, may extend its foci to include more social and cultural aspects of people's needs (not solely economic aspects of e.g. income maintenance).

Poverty, may, therefore also be understood to represent a lack of positive freedom, which needs to be addressed by e.g. greater social inclusion; cultural, social, economic and political integration; social and geographic mobility; an increase in educational and employment choices; and a great deal more.

Therefore, policymakers, and academics, may start to integrate the topic of "freedom" more into the already very lively discussion of social rights, human needs, social solidarity, and social justice. Some may even conclude that the transition from "formal (passive) freedom" in social policy-that in the past has primarily focused on income maintenance and eradication of "physical/material" poverty (and less so on "cultural," "social," and "mental" poverty)-to "substantial (active) freedom" would in fact mark the beginning of a new, perhaps century-long struggle aimed at the betterment of society.

And, if we were not to win this forthcoming struggle, we might all become victims of our inner weaknesses, yet again, and choose to submit to authoritarian regimes, rather than suffer from a permanent lack of "active/substantial" freedom (i.e. loneliness, lack of lifetime opportunities, and consequently lack of self-esteem). The book by Erich Fromm was vital in the early 1940s when it was written, and will be so in the future, far into the 21st century. It certainly deserves more attention among social policy circles.

by Christian Aspalter