NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Why the Welfare State Looks Like a Free Lunch

Peter H. Lindert

NBER Working Paper No. 9869
Issued in July 2003
NBER Program(s):   DAE

The econometric consensus on the effects of social spending confirms a puzzle we confront in the raw data: There is no clear net GDP cost of high tax-based social spending on GDP, despite a tradition of assuming that such costs are large. The paper offers five keys to this free lunch puzzle. First, the costly forms of transfers usually imagined have not been practiced by real-world welfare states. Second, better tests confirm that the usually imagined costs would be felt only if policy had strayed out of sample, away from any actual historical experience. Third, the tax strategies of high-budget welfare states are more pro-growth and less progressive than has been realized. Fourth, the work disincentives of social transfers are so designed as to shield GDP from much reduction if any. Finally, we return to some positive growth and well-being benefits of the high social transfers, and suggest how democratic cost control relates to budget size.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w9869

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