Substantive commitments: Reconciling work ethics and the welfare state in Norway

Tower Center Associate Dr. Kelly McKowen wrote about how among some policymakers and elites, it is common sense that human behavior is rational and guided by material self‐interest. In turn, this view underpins the idea that cash transfers and social services, if made too generous, risk distorting economic incentives, diminishing the “work ethic” and fostering a “culture of dependency.” The Nordic countries, however, pose a significant empirical challenge to this common sense, as they feature both comprehensive welfare systems and high rates of employment, labor force participation, and surveyed “employment commitment.” What remains unclear is the nature of this commitment, how it is cultivated at the level of everyday life, and what its broader scholarly and policy implications might be. This article, based on sixteen months of fieldwork among the unemployed in Oslo, Norway, argues that the country’s distinctive “social democratic” welfare regime endows formal wage labor—as opposed to the labor process itself—with meanings and values that make having a job central to shared ideas of social personhood and moral life. This “employment ethic” is affirmed, my unemployed interlocutors show, by experiences of worklessness. The article concludes by suggesting that a focus on the moral dimensions of contemporary welfare regimes points the way toward a generative, “neosubstantivist” economic anthropology. Read more here.