Majoritarian systems, rural groups, and (arrested) welfare state development

Date01 March 2020
AuthorMagnus Bergli Rasmussen,Carl Henrik Knutsen
Publication Date01 March 2020
International Political Science Review
2020, Vol. 41(2) 238 –254
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0192512118809106
Majoritarian systems, rural groups,
and (arrested) welfare state
Carl Henrik Knutsen
University of Oslo, Norway
Magnus Bergli Rasmussen
Institute for Social Research, Norway
While some scholars suggest that rural groups contribute to welfare state expansion, we highlight their
incentives to restrain it. The ability of rural groups to achieve this preference hinges on their power
resources, but also on the electoral system. We propose that in majoritarian systems, rural groups can
often veto welfare legislation. In proportional systems this is less feasible, even for resource-rich groups.
Instead, agrarian groups sometimes accept welfare legislation in return for other policy-concessions in post-
electoral bargaining. We illustrate the argument with British and Norwegian historical experiences, and test
the implications using panel data from 96 democracies. We find evidence that resourceful agrarian groups
effectively arrest welfare state development in majoritarian systems, but not in proportional systems. As
expected, the electoral system matters less for welfare state expansion when agrarian groups are weak. The
results are robust to using alternative estimators, measures, samples and model specifications.
Welfare state, social policy, electoral systems, proportional representation, plural-majoritarian systems,
interest groups
We address how rural groups, which often have strong preferences to slow down welfare state
expansion, can either hinder new welfare laws or shape the structure of such legislation when
enacted, contingent on the power resources they hold and the electoral system in place. In majori-
tarian systems, relatively resourceful rural groups can more easily win majorities when electorally
strong or, pressure candidates in undecided districts to work against welfare legislation. Under
Corresponding author:
Carl Henrik Knutsen, Department of Political Science, University of Oslo, Moltke Moes vei 31, Oslo, 0851, Norway.
809106IPS0010.1177/0192512118809106International Political Science ReviewKnutsen and Rasmussen
Knutsen and Rasmussen 239
proportional representation (PR), even resourceful rural groups may have to settle for post-elec-
toral bargaining with urban groups, regarding new welfare legislation. In brief, pre-coalition bar-
gaining in majoritarian systems enables rural groups to more effectively veto policies and maintain
the status quo (limited welfare state) than post-election bargaining under PR. Moreover, stronger
over-representation of rural groups in many majoritarian systems with high malapportionment
further increases the influence of rural groups. Admittedly, this stylized argument masks nuances
in electoral system design and heterogeneous actors subsumed under the heading of ‘rural groups’.
Despite this, we find surprisingly clear patterns in the data, in line with this argument.
Before proceeding, we make two clarifications. First, our argument, following in the tradition
of Flora and Horkheimer (1981), pertains to the likelihood of introducing national-level welfare
legislation in key areas of risk. Hence, our notion of welfare state extension is broad, considering
the existence or non-existence of major programs. We do not directly engage with how the interac-
tion between resourceful rural groups and the electoral system influences the specific make-up and
evolution of welfare programs (e.g. Esping-Andersen, 1990). Hence, we do not address the expan-
sion or retrenchment of welfare services or spending in countries that already have major, national
programs in place.1
Second, we must clarify the relevance, and limitations, of our notion of ‘rural groups’. This defi-
nition encompasses (quite distinct and heterogeneous categories of) citizens located in rural areas.
While families in rural areas are predominantly tied to some form of agricultural production—
indeed, given their strong correspondence in most countries, we use the terms ‘rural groups’ and
‘agrarian groups’ interchangeably—our definition still covers elites, such as landlords; the middle
classes, such as family farmers; and poor peasants. Admittedly, these different sub-groups often hold
quite distinct preferences over issues such as taxation or landholding. Still, one commonality is their
lack of strong exposure to ‘modern-industrial’ labor market risks (Baldwin 1990; Esping-Andersen
1990; Mares 2003). This is partially a result of unemployment being more prevalent in urban and
industrial centers,2 but also reflects that the rural economy has historically fashioned alternative
ways of dealing with labor risks (Kim 2010; Polanyi (2001/1944: 49–50), and continues to do so in
many countries. Their lower exposure to several types of labor market risks means that these actors
are likely to view nationwide social policies as subsidies—which they would likely contribute to
financing through various forms of taxation—for the urban and industrial classes.
Extant studies have suggested that rural interests helped bring about encompassing welfare
arrangements in particular contexts, often drawing on historical developments in Scandinavian
countries (Esping-Andersen, 1990; Manow, 2009). We, instead, highlight that rural interests often
oppose welfare state expansion. Yet, we do agree with these extant studies that rural interests are
important for understanding and explaining variation in welfare policy enactment. Despite indus-
trialization, agrarian groups remained sizeable long into the 20th century even in Organisation for
Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries (and remain sizable in other democ-
racies today), and the literature on interest-group politics highlights the capacities of rural interests
to organize and realize their policy preferences even when moderately sized (e.g. Acemoglu and
Robinson, 2001). But, such capacities may critically depend on the institutional framework (Thies
and Porsche, 2007), including, as we highlight, the electoral system.
We thus bridge two literatures—on welfare state development and on the effects of electoral
institutions. In the latter, different studies (e.g. Iversen and Soskice, 2006; Persson and Tabellini,
2004; Rogowski, 1987) propose that majoritarian systems reduce public spending and concen-
trate resources to local interest groups. We detail how majoritarian systems, more specifically,
help rural interests in affecting welfare policy expansion—both historically (mainly developed
democracies) and currently (mainly less developed democracies). Primarily, we highlight how

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