An International Dilemma: The Postwar Utopianism of Gunnar Myrdal’s Beyond the Welfare State

Beyond the Welfare State: Economic Planning and Its International Implications
Gunnar Myrdal
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960

Gunnar Myrdal’s Beyond the Welfare State appeared in 1960, two years after he delivered the Storrs Lectures on “Economic Planning in the Western Countries” at Yale Law School. Myrdal had become widely known in the United States as the author of An American Dilemma (1944), which had been cited in the landmark 1954 desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education.1 Where An American Dilemma sought to show white American liberals that the conduct of race relations was in conflict with the universal ideals animating their political culture (the “American Creed”), Beyond the Welfare State sought to alert the same elites that the conduct of Western states toward the developing postcolonial world suffered from an analogous conflict. Domestically, Myrdal claimed, the history of the welfare state represented a stage in the incremental realization of the values of liberty, equality, and solidarity. Internationally, however, it marked the continuing intensification of economic nationalism and the failure to allow these same values to guide foreign policy. Beyond the Welfare State was a compilation of almost a decade of reflections on economic development and the postwar international order.2 Judging by Myrdal’s contacts at Yale, it was aimed at a liberal audience that, in the late 1950s, perceived America’s relationship to the postcolonial world to be at a critical juncture. A true solution to this international dilemma, Myrdal claimed, had to look “beyond the welfare state”: rather than dismantling hard-won welfare protections, Western states had to learn how to refine and coordinate their economic interventions so that these ceased to be incompatible with the economic development of postcolonial nation states. The intrinsic economic nationalism of the welfare state could not be suppressed, Myrdal concluded, so it had to take a more “enlightened” form (286). From this perspective, Myrdal’s dilemma in Beyond the Welfare State was an international one not only because it pertained to foreign policy but also in the sense that the history of attempts to theorize an “enlightened” form of economic nationalism is not an exclusively American one.

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About Isaac Nakhimovsky

Isaac Nakhimovsky is assistant professor of history and humanities at Yale University. His first book, The Closed Commercial State: Perpetual Peace and Commercial Society from Rousseau to Fichte (Princeton, 2011), examined the legacy of eighteenth-century hopes of bringing about the moral transformation of economic relations. He has also collaborated on a new edition of Johann Gottlieb Fichte's Addresses to the German Nation (Hackett, 2013), long considered a key text in the history of nationalism. He is currently working on an intellectual history of the post-Napoleonic order and its enduring significance.