The Contribution of the Capability Approach to a Theory of Sustainable Welfare Society

Wednesday, 13 July 2016: 14:45
Location: Hörsaal 11 (Juridicum)
Oral Presentation
Jean-Michel BONVIN, Université de Genève, Switzerland
Francesco LARUFFA, Humboldt University, Germany
Since the crisis of post-war social compromises started in the 1970s, the main challenge for European welfare states has been that of finding normative principles capable not only of orienting the direction of reforms but also to generate the democratic support needed to implement them. After three decades of neoliberal hegemony, since the late 1990s the discourse on welfare reform in Europe has been increasingly influenced by the social investment approach (SIA). This seems able to tackle some of the most pressing challenges of European welfare states such as the emergence of new social risks and the transition to a post-industrial economy. Yet, the SIA seems to ignore another crucial challenge, namely the ecological one. Indeed, the main goal of the SIA is to re-find the lost path to economic growth, despite the fact that this has proved to be ecologically unsustainable. This article contributes to the conceptualization of a “sustainable welfare society” exploring the extent to which Amartya Sen’s capability approach (CA) can constitute a valuable alternative to the SIA in providing a normative framework for welfare reform that reconciles the social and the ecological dimensions. In fact, the main advantage of the CA is that of focusing on human wellbeing rather than on economic growth in assessing social progress. This allows asking a different question from the SIA: instead of looking for a return to economic growth the issue becomes that of finding ways that allow the achievement of human flourishing without economic growth. Sen’s critique of mainstream economics, accused of “commodity fetishism”, will be the starting point for criticizing those dominant economic approaches to welfare reform such as the SIA. These are narrowly focused on the material dimensions and thus tend to ignore those aspects linked both to environmental sustainability and human wellbeing.