Double Standard: Social Policy in Europe and the United States

James W. Russell, Double Standard: Social Policy in Europe and the United States (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).

For those already sympathetic to the cause, James W. Russell’s Double Standard offers much to confirm suspicions and support intuitions. The “cause” in question is the role of state institutions in providing various social services to the public. Arguing that “the state is the only institution strong enough to counter the market’s natural tendency to heighten inequality” (68), Russell advocates inclusive social policy along the lines of Western European countries. Taking as his focus the United States and the original fifteen members of the European Union, plus Switzerland and Norway, Russell traces the developments and outcomes of social policy on unemployment, health care, education, immigration and, among others, crime.

Although Russell could have gone further in analyzing differences between European and American social policy, the book nonetheless can serve as a valuable introductory resource. Double Standard is generally well written, clear, and, particularly in its latter two-thirds, effectively presents and contextualizes data on Western European and US social policy. The criticisms that can be levelled at the book have more to do, perhaps, with what it leaves out than with what it includes.

The meat of Russell’s argument really begins in Chapter eight, “Social Cohesion and Inequality” (nearly half way through the book). In this chapter he argues that “a capitalist society can function quite well with equality of opportunity; it could not with equality of outcome” (65). The general idea here seems to be that capitalism can, in theory, accommodate a situation wherein all start from relatively equal positions – having the same opportunities for education, employment, access to services and so on. What individuals do with such opportunities, according to the free market advocate, determines (often unequal) outcomes. Of course, one of the necessary features for the initial equality would be a lack of class distinction, and all that accompanies it, yet such distinctions are part and parcel of a capitalist socio-economic order. The point here is that inequality is endemic to capitalism; in order for there to be “winners” there have to be “losers.” Capitalism may be able to accommodate a theoretical starting point featuring equality of opportunity (think of John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” for example), but it certainly cannot maintain it. Laissez-faire capitalism not only exacerbates such inequality, but thrives on it and this, in Russell’s view, is one of its primary failings.

Russell explores several policy alternatives aimed at reducing and redressing such inequalities. In some sense, these all amount to various forms of income redistribution. Noting that income inequality is lower for public-sector employees (whose wages are set by the state), Russell argues that Western European countries experience less differential because of larger public-sector work forces. From this, Russell moves on to discuss other direct state interventions, such as minimum wages and labour laws, eventually concluding that “the mixed nature of economies in Europe and the United States constrains the power of the state to directly regulate pay and income differentials” (70). The more easily implemented and universal “solution” is increasingly socialized consumption of needed goods and services. The idea is that social goods, such as health care, education, or child care, should be decommodified and, rather than being sold on the open market, offered to workers as part of a “social wage.” This is financed via an increasingly progressive tax system that redistributes income from the highest paid to the lowest. It is this latter model that has been largely adopted in Western Europe, rejected by the United States, and which Russell advocates.

This chapter exemplifies Russell’s book at its best. In it, the author briefly sets the historical stage, provides the relevant ideological framework, and then presents a compelling argument anchored in supporting data. In contrast to these strengths, Double Standard does suffer from at least three significant difficulties. The first is perhaps best described as conceptual, the second methodological, and the last ideological.

It is difficult to determine just how Russell conceives of his project and to what audience the work is directed. In the preface, Russell concedes that “socialism is off the present world stage as a complete model” (ix). From this the reader can gather that Russell’s intended audience is not dyed-in-the-wool socialists, but rather reformers of various stripes, such as those who have given up on the revolution or, perhaps more importantly, those of a liberal capitalist persuasion. In the case of the latter group, some of Russell’s basic assumptions certainly need further explication and defence. In particular, the assumption that “social inclusion” is a generally shared goal seems somewhat problematic, especially in the United States, where, as Russell himself suggests, there is a widespread view “that people are fundamentally responsible for their fates in the competitive struggle” (83).

The second major difficulty in Double Standard is frequent and sometimes repetitive forays into intellectual, political, and economic history. Of course, this is not to say that such history is irrelevant, but Russell’s asides offer little that is new, and are in some cases misleadingly cursory, overlooking important questions that his project raises. The most pressing of these is why it is that, drawing on the same intellectual tradition (as Russell describes it), the United States and much of Western Europe came to such startlingly different conclusions on matters of social policy. Russell cites Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and others, all Europeans, linking their thought to current ideology, but provides little in the way of explanation as to how the same tradition produced two competing and in many ways opposed ideological perspectives. Russell does mention, along Weberian lines, the influence of Calvinism in America (48, 60), as opposed to the legacy of Catholic-dominated hierarchy including the notion of noblesse oblige in Europe. However, he also argues that much of the immigration to the United States has been from “developing” nations, rather than from predominantly white, largely Calvinist or Protestant European regions. While early immigrants and policymakers in the United States may to some extent have been guided by Calvinist doctrine, Russell’s own figures suggest this is no longer the case and has not been for quite some time. In light of this, some deeper explanation of the ideological divergence is needed.

Lastly, I see an ideological dilemma in Russell’s book. As noted above, social inclusiveness forms a major plank in his platform, but there are at least two points on which he treads dangerously close to policy that would likely reduce inclusiveness. On the issue of increasing public-sector employment, Russell notes that “in both Europe and the United States, public wage differentials are significantly lower than private employment differentials” (68). He makes a strong argument for the benefit of increased public employment, while also arguing the inescapability of private employment. However, if public employees enjoy less income differential and, therefore, more social inclusion, what becomes of private sector workers, particularly those not belonging to unions? The danger seems to be that the public sector as a whole may come to constitute an elite relative to the majority of the labour force.

A similar critique can be made of Russell’s seeming endorsement of elitist university education. On the question of education in the United States, Russell wonders “whether it is necessary for a majority of post-secondary students to attend universities” (112). Necessary for what? In simply economic or production terms, it is not necessary, but, as Russell is at pains to demonstrate in a previous chapter on unemployment, finances are not the only means of exclusion. If, as Russell argues, one of the significant impacts of unemployment is the feeling of social exclusion (96), similar problems seem likely if individuals are denied the ability to participate in the intellectual life of their society. Even if most Americans who seek higher education do so largely for the sake of higher incomes, barring access to would-be students hardly seems a means by which to increase social inclusiveness.

Despite its problems, none of the above criticisms detract from the importance of Russell’s overall project. Though flawed or perhaps incomplete in some respects, Russell’s analysis makes a valuable contribution to this body of literature, particularly for readers new to the topic. The book is broadly accessible, interesting, and thought-provoking. Double Standard answers several important questions and, perhaps equally important, helps to pose even more.

Reviewed by Cory Fairley, PhD student in History
University of British Columbia

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