Welfare World

Rich Lands and Poor: The Road to World Prosperity
Gunnar Myrdal
New York: Harper and Row, 1958

“Considering that he is Secretary-General of the Economic Commission for Europe and hence immersed in European problems,” one of the early reviewers wrote of the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal’s An International Economy (1956), “one of the striking features . . . is that so much of it is directed toward problems of underdeveloped areas.”1 And just as he completed that work he was already on the road to Egypt, where, at the National Bank in October 1955, he gave the lectures that later became Rich Lands and Poor: The Road to World Prosperity (1958).2 The same year as that book appeared, Myrdal gave the Storrs lectures at Yale Law School for 1958, which took up what he defined as the central challenge of the age: scaling up the welfare state to the world stage.

Already in International Economy he had used the phrase “welfare world.” Myrdal’s impression that the construction of the national welfare state in the global north was to all intents and purposes accomplished may strike recent observers as nothing short of quaint—aware as they are of the the severe limitations of the political economy of the welfare state, not to mention its slow-moving destruction since. But whatever its faults, the welfare state, in Myrdal’s view, was the revolutionary basis on which an even more revolutionary welfare world was to be imaginable. “We see no limit to the further perfection of our national communities,” he wrote, with steady growth locked in, political democracy effective, and equality of opportunity achieved (more or less).3 The sheer fact that once unbelievable dreams had already come true allowed hope to conquer skepticism: “In their lifetime the proponents of what is now almost unanimously acclaimed were obnoxious to many—sometimes to most—of their compatriots, but some of them now have statues erected to their memory by grateful nations.”4 Why not the world?

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