Human Rights and the Welfare State: An Exploratory History of Social Rights in the Postwar Netherlands


During the Second World War the concepts of welfare state and human rights were both developed to a significant extent – as part of a future ordering of the world. Although contested, the concept of the welfare state continues to be a predominant approach to ordering society in Western Europe.1 The concept of human rights also received new attention during the war. After 1948, when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in particular during the 1970s, it became increasingly common to refer to this framework.

Although there appear to be interesting entanglements in the history of these concepts the relationship between the two has hardly been investigated. To mention just two entanglements: a) both the welfare state and human rights seem to be part of a humanitarian narrative in which human dignity and equality play a leading role and (b) whereas the concept of the welfare state was generally quite popular until the 1970s and unpopular after this decade, for the concept of human rights it was the other way around.

In this paper I will first investigate such entanglements by combining elements of the historiographies of human rights and of the welfare state. After describing some main features from these historiographies I will focus in particular on the historiography of the social rights of migrants in the Netherlands.2 In the second place I will investigate the use of the social rights concept in Dutch political debates after the Second World War, because this concept has been used in the contexts of both human rights and the welfare state.3 Such analysis involves a historicization of the concept of social rights: instead of following the definitions of social rights in the literature, as I do in the case of the social rights of migrants, my investigation focuses on how historical actors have used social rights.

For the Dutch case, I will argue that human rights and welfare provisions have been put into separate compartments. This separation can be explained through analyzing how the relation between individual and community was framed since the Second World War. In the first decades after the war the so-called ideology of personalism, in which the individual was seen as embedded in society, was important for both the concept of human rights and the concept of the welfare state. Because of this common ground there was no need to base the welfare state on human rights or vice versa. Since the 1970s human rights and the welfare state were no longer part of the same ideology, but they had both to do with a renewed belief in the autonomous individual. This belief enabled the human rights movement in fighting violations of individual freedoms worldwide and inspired neoliberalism to fight the welfare state. By investigating the Dutch case, this paper will deepen our understanding of how relations between the state, individuals and humanity were framed in postwar Europe and how this framing has since affected the in- and exclusion of people in the welfare state.

Allied Alternative of Welfarism

In literature on the development of the welfare state since the Second World War, human rights are rarely mentioned.4 If we look at the literature about human rights we soon encounter the ‘welfarist’ use of human rights in the revisionist work of scholars like Samuel Moyn. In his book The Last Utopia Moyn argues that it is only since the 1970s that human rights have been defined as liberal freedoms based on individual dignity and protected by international law. Moyn therefore rejects long-term histories of human rights traced back to the French Revolution. Moreover, he relativizes the importance of human rights in the aftermath of the Second World War. Of course the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was crafted in 1948 and the concept has since then been used, but not yet on the scale and with the same meaning as it has had since the 1970s. In analyzing the use of the concept from the Second World War to the 1970s, Moyn distinguishes the ‘welfarist’ use of human rights as an important one besides the anticolonial use in terms of the national self-determination of former colonies.5

What does the ‘welfarist’ use of human rights mean? According to Moyn, human rights in the 1940s were part of what the Allies saw as an alternative for Hitler’s warfare state: ‘human rights were most often simply synonymous with the central wartime promise of Allied leaders for some sort of social democracy.’6 With ‘some sort’ Moyn refers to the vague character of the welfarist consensus that ‘most of all reflected a brief and unprecedented moment of agreement that unregulated capitalism could not be allowed to bring the world low again.’ After the war, Moyn continues, ‘the general consensus did not help at all in the decisive choice between models, whether of government regulation or of social protection.’7 As Marco Duranti has shown, socioeconomic rights were even excluded in the European Convention of Human Rights.8 Nevertheless, thanks to the Cold War the ‘West’ agreed for some decades about the importance of socioeconomic rights. Alain Supiot has pointed out the importance of the International Labour Organization (ILO) conference in Philadelphia in 1944: according to Frederick Cooper, Supiot ‘sees in it a model that shaped social policy in and beyond Europe for some forty years – one in which human dignity was seen as a value to be protected and enhanced.’9 With the exception of the ILO, the welfarist consensus was always about socioeconomic rights on a national basis.10 So we can see that both human rights and the (national) welfare state were part of the West’s ideological alternative for Hitler’s warfare state, and later Stalin’s social state. This alternative was sometimes formulated in universalistic language, but nevertheless took the national state as its dominant framework.

Personalism as a Common Source?

Can we trace a more profound entwinement if we look at a more specific case, namely the postwar Dutch welfare state? The Dutch welfare state was, thanks to several social laws promoted by Catholic-Social Democratic government in the 1950s and 1960s, a mixed system with on the one hand Bismarckian, wage-related arrangements and on the other Beveridgian, uniform national insurance payments at a guaranteed minimum income level.11 The development of this system is often described as a development from social security as a charity gift to social security as a right guaranteed by the state, a right that was recorded in the Dutch constitution in 1983.12 However, the concept of social rights, let alone human rights, seems irrelevant in the discussions about and realization of the welfare state. A simple search in the digitally available political debates shows an increase in the use of the concept of human rights since the 1970s, when the Dutch welfare state had already been established. The term ‘social rights’ was used mainly around 1980 in the discussion as to whether social rights should be part of the constitution.13 The debate about the constitution is of course an interesting discussion, but the modest use of the concept social rights in other years suggests that social rights do not play an important part in discussions about welfare state provisions. Politics were not carried out in terms of rights, perhaps because Dutch sobriety allowed no space for the ‘transcendent claim’ that seemed associated with the idea of rights.14

A closer look at the concept social rights in Dutch political debates (before 1980) shows that when the concept is used, it is often done in debates about foreign and developmental policy in which other rights are also mentioned. Social rights are also used when it comes to the rights of migrants – as will be discussed below. When the concept is used in the context of the welfare state, it is mainly by communist and catholic politicians. Communists referred to social rights in a negative sense, namely when social rights were ‘attacked’ by government policy. Catholics in the 1940s and 1950s argued a few times for the addition of social rights as a new fundamental right to the constitution: this is probably not a coincidence.

As shown in the recent literature about both human rights and the welfare state, Christians and in particular Catholics were very important for the development of both of these concepts in the aftermath of the Second World War. In many countries – certainly in the Netherlands – the welfare state is unthinkable without the support of the Catholic community. As shown by Moyn, Catholics were also one of the main supporters of the concept of human rights in the period around the declaration in 1948.15 Often underestimated in secular histories about human rights and social-democratic histories of the welfare state, Catholics were key players in both fields thanks to a shift in political ideology towards Christian democracy. The rise and atrocities of totalitarian and ‘statolatry’ regimes brought Catholic political thinkers to so-called personalism, with notions like human dignity and human rights as an alternative to both (fascist) corporatism and liberal atomism.16 The human person, set center stage in personalism, implied community on the one hand, but on the other hand protection against the community. In this light the plea by Dutch Catholic politicians for social rights as fundamental rights could be interpreted as a way to protect the dignity of human beings.

Probably, the personalist conception points refers back to an older concept of human dignity, or the sacredness of the human person, that is used by politicians in the national context of the welfare state and in the international context of human rights. This discourse is of course not limited to Catholics, but in the case of the Netherlands there is at least one person, a Catholic, who makes it easy to link these two contexts. The Catholic politician Marga Klompé worked on human rights at the United Nations shortly after the war before she became minister of the Department of Welfare Work. She herself saw a ‘clear link’ between these jobs because everywhere people need to be prepared to live with each other and do something for each other.17 With the ‘clear link’ she suggested that her framing of the human person, an individual embedded in society, was both helpful for her work at the UN as it was for her job as minister of Welfare Work. More research is needed to reconstruct the concept of human dignity that has determined her thinking and that of others on different issues.

Welfare Chauvinism?

Another case in which we may expect an entanglement of human rights and the welfare state concerns the social rights of migrants. From the very beginning a connection can be seen between the idea of human rights and the enormous movement of people shortly after the war.18 Refugees and migrants challenge national (welfare) states to determine who may or may not claim social rights. In Dutch political debates, as already mentioned, social rights were sometimes used when speaking of ‘foreigners’ or migrants. A reference to human rights is missing here, but it is striking how self-evident the availability of social rights for migrants was in the 1970s and 1980s. This applies to politicians from different parties, as is confirmed by the following historical analysis of Dutch welfare chauvinism.

In the welfare state literature of the last decade there is increasing attention to what is called the phenomenon of welfare chauvinism, a concept that refers to the tendency to exclude ‘strangers’ from the ethnically homogeneous welfare state. Welfare chauvinism has until now hardly been investigated from a historical perspective. I will here follow the analysis of Willemijn van der Zwaard about welfare chauvinism in the postwar Dutch welfare state. Van der Zwaard investigated the in- and exclusion of (labor) migrants in the period 1945-1965 in the cases of the Unemployment Act (1952), Old Age Pensions Act (1957) and the National Assistance Act (1965). In the first two acts everyone (Dutch citizen or not) who had contributed to the system was included, and in the last act non-Dutch citizens were excluded. The increase of labor migrants and their families beginning in the 1960s called for new legislation. Van der Zwaard therefore investigates the discussions about the Foreign Workers Employment Act (1975). She still observes an inclusive and non-discriminatory tendency, but the pursuit to reduce labor migration led to restrictions on employment permits: ‘in order to receive full freedom at the labor market, furthermore, paid work had to be continuously performed for a period of three years. In practice, this troubled the social and juridical position of legal foreign employees during these first three years.’19

Besides this, on the one hand general migration policy was sharpened after the Oil Crisis in 1973, but on the other hand the Netherlands, influenced by other countries and by lobby groups including churches that defended equal treatment, gave legal status to illegal guest workers. As shown by Saskia Bonjour, Dutch policy reflected a broader equal treatment of migrants as natives in the 1970s. This can be explained, as historians Lucassen and Lucassen have done for the Netherlands, by the cultural revolution of the 1960s with its emphasis on equality and by the growing (shameful) consciousness of the atrocities of colonialism and the Second World War, and in particular the Holocaust. The ideal of equality and related antiracism was of course part of a broader societal development.20 This explanation points towards a specific interpretation of equality when it comes to the social rights of foreigners: these rights were not conferred for reasons of social-economic equality or social justice, but for ethnic equality.

Looking at the Dutch approach to the social rights of migrants, we have to conclude that human rights did not play a significant role. In general migrants were included in the Dutch welfare state, but not with reference to human rights – although an ideal of human equality obviously played a role. Did this change after the 1970s? Before further analysing the Dutch case, I will sketch general developments with regard to human rights and the welfare state since that time.

Individualism as Friend and Foe

As already mentioned, the 1970s were a turning point for both human rights and the welfare state. Human rights became a very important instrument to protest against violations of individual human dignity and freedom, especially by dictatorial regimes.21 At the same time the concept of the welfare state was increasingly criticized, especially from a neoliberal angle. Economic decline set in motion a process of welfare retrenchment. Moreover, the welfare state was criticized because it was likely to make citizens passive and lead to excessive bureaucracy.22 Are these developments entangled?

This is what a recent essay by Moyn suggests. He points to the resemblance between the human rights and neoliberal movements: ‘both contemplated an individualistic and globalizing remedy to what they regarded as the pathologies of a national welfarism too committed to the values of collectivity and sovereignty, and not least when it came to the postcolonial developmentalist state.’ Moyn not only observes parallels between neoliberalism and human rights, but he also problematizes this parallel. According to Moyn the ‘real trouble about human rights when historically correlated with market fundamentalism is that they are unambitious in theory and ineffectual in practice’: human rights ‘simply have nothing to say about [socioeconomic] inequality.’23

As we saw in the period up to the 1970s, human rights and the welfare state hardly met each other ‘in practice,’ but seem to be rooted both in personalism or in the concept of human dignity. In the period after the 1970s we can see growing emphasis on individualism as a source for both human rights and neoliberalism. Because the welfare state is one of the concepts most criticized by neoliberals, human rights and the welfare state seem further away from each other than ever. Nevertheless, their histories are indirectly related.

One of the unintended consequences of the welfare state is its effect on political parties and their supporters. Postwar welfare states had, according to Ido de Haan, ‘created individual choice and moral liberties, which undermined not just the ideological basis [of Christian Democracy] but also the more organizational footing of more conservative welfare states.’ Many civil society organizations, related to Christian Democratic parties and churches, changed from ‘bulwarks of Christian social power’ to ‘subsidized fortresses of professional interest.’ In the case of Social Democracy, the welfare state ‘obliterated the working class base of social democratic parties’ and the new social movements of feminists, ecologists, gay and peace activists were not automatically related to Social Democracy.24 The welfare state treated citizens equally and therefore, as Pierre Rosanvallon puts it, ‘individuals would need to be “desocialized” – separated from their families, their inheritances, and their personal contexts.’25 Bluntly said, the welfare state often started with personalism but ended with individualism. The changing role of political parties, which is of course not determined only by the welfare state, is part of societal change in many countries in Europe and in America: ‘heavy’ communities with an all-embracing ideology changed into or were replaced by ‘light’ communities of individuals organized around one issue. This change has enabled the enormous growth of the human rights movement, which can be seen as an attractive ‘light’ community. For many people human rights became their new ideology or religion, or a new way of doing their religion.26

Human Rights or Welfare Chauvinism?

Except for this entanglement in the 1970s, we may have to agree with Moyn about the divergence of human rights and the welfare state (or social justice) after this decade. I will illustrate this with some cases from Dutch history, which also help to further explain the separate pathways. In general we can observe among Dutch people a great commitment to human rights movements. As recent research has shown, human rights were mainly used to point to abuses of human dignity and freedom abroad. Human rights were seen as ‘rights for others,’ as Barbara Oomen has convincingly shown, and were hardly applied within the Dutch borders.27 Elsewhere I have analysed how Dutch disability activists have since the 1980s tried to frame disability as a human rights issue, but until recently this framing has not been very successful.28

In recent years, welfare systems have come a long way. For example, nowadays, people who are unable to work as a result of a permanent, long term, or short term disability are entitled to disability insurance payments that can provide financial support. Those who get permanently injured can make a claim because of what happened to them — click here to learn more about the process, advice for those who get rejected, and much more. Anyway, the reason the welfare system needed this improvement is because being unable to work can have huge consequences, but disability insurance payments can provide a lifeline. Correspondingly, accessing disability insurance has never been simpler. Anyone with access to the internet can search for a disability insurance quote online and compare a wide range of different options in minutes. It will therefore be interesting to see what else the future holds for disability insurance.

When it comes to social rights, Oomen points to the revised constitution of 1983, stating: ‘they are generally formulated in a programmatic manner – “the government takes care of” – and cannot be invoked in court by citizens.’ This means ‘that people in the Netherlands, for the more precise specification of their social rights, have had to rely on international treaties like the ICESCR [International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights].’29 As we look to the use of the concept of social rights, we see no significant changes since the 1970s. The concept is hardly used and when it is used it has mainly to do with foreign policy. More research is needed, but also in debates about the welfare state from the 1970s until now the terminology of social rights has not often been used to claim social justice. Human and social rights and welfare provisions have been put into separate compartments: rights seem useful for judging and helping the rest of the world, but within the nation state the Dutch in general seem not to need them.30

But what happens when the world comes in? I will finish with the case of the social rights of refugees. In this case the concept of social rights is sometimes used, as when NGO’s in recent years have tried to claim the social rights of so-called undocumented children.31 More noticeable, however, is the use of the concept of the welfare state against ‘strangers,’ the already mentioned phenomenon of welfare chauvinism. Despite all the (neoliberal) criticism of the welfare state, we can observe chauvinism when it comes to the issue of to whom the welfare state belongs. This chauvinism is not only part of right wing politics, but as Lucassen and Lucassen have suggested, the left has also played its part.32 The authors tend to consider the equal treatment of ‘strangers’ in the 1970s as an exception to more exclusive framings of the national welfare state.

More research is needed here, but without doubt the tide since the 1980s and in particular the 1990s is turning: Van der Zwaard shows the increase of a perception ‘that access to the Dutch welfare provisions should be fundamentally connected to the right to stay in the Netherlands as such’; with the Linking Act in 1998 this connection became legally established. Not only was social security related to the legal right to stay, but social welfare policy was also used as an instrument to fight illegality. The social rights of temporary migrants were also scaled down.33 Parallel to this development the Dutch welfare state was in general restructured, resulting in more wage-related and fewer citizen-related arrangements. Legal strangers (mainly EU-citizens) were therefore often included in the welfare state system, but this has become more difficult during the last decade.34 Nevertheless, it is the 1990s that can be seen as a decade in which the Netherlands switched from generous to restrictive immigration politics. This can easily be illustrated, as Edward Koning did, by two quotes: one of the responsible ministers in 1996 who stated, ‘I can only conclude that as far as [foreigners’ policy] is concerned there certainly is a foundation of solidarity in our society’ and her successor in 2009 who said, ‘Our social safety net [is] meant to support citizens of this country […] The youth is our future. But we are talking about Dutch youth, youth that grows up here, and is raised in accordance with Dutch norms and values and according to our culture.’35


In this paper I have explored the relation between human rights and the welfare state by combining the historiographies of these two concepts and by investigating the use of the concept of social rights in Dutch political debates after the Second World War. For the period up to the 1970s I have argued that the concepts of human rights, social rights and the welfare state were hardly used in relation to each other in the Dutch national context. On an international and ideological level this was more often the case: human rights and the welfare state were part of a Western ideology, connected through personalist ideas and the rejection of fascism and communism. Social rights could be part of this ideology, but were also claimed by the Soviet Bloc.

Since the 1970s human rights and the welfare state have been more difficult to connect. Individualism replaced personalism and inspired a human rights movement to fight violations of individual freedoms as well as neoliberalism to fight the welfare state – in both cases with success. Although the concepts of human rights, social rights and the welfare state were still hardly used in relation to each other in the Dutch case, since 2000 social rights have more often been related to human rights or the welfare state in debates about migrants. On the one hand NGO’s refer to human rights to claim the social rights of migrants, and on the other hand some politicians use the welfare state to deny the social rights of migrants. In November 2015 the Dutch minister of Finance, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, argued for a mini-Schengen because ‘they [refugees] blow up our welfare state.’36

Recently, Omri Boehm quoted in his New York Times blog the concept “universal citizen rights,” used by Angela Merkel with regard to refugees, and stated that “the fact that her contradictory reference to universal citizen-rights went virtually unnoticed is a sign that we have all managed to internalize the reduction of humans into citizens. That’s the reduction with which Europe is now facing the refugees.”37 Boehm’s plea for rethinking our existing political categories deserves support, also from historians who can – much more precisely than I have done – write the histories of these categories and the (un)intended consequences of their use.


  1. The author would like to acknowledge the generous support of the European Research Council’s “Consolidator Grant for Rethinking Disability” under Grant Agreement Number 648115.
  2. Immigration as factor in welfare systems is hardly investigated. See Stephen Castles and Carl Ulrik Schierup, “Migration and ethnic minorities,” in Francis G. Castles et al. (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Welfare State (Oxford University Press: Oxford 2010): pp. 278-291.
  3. Moreover, the history of social rights is in its infancy. See Malgorzata Mazurek and Paul Betts, “Preface: When Rights were social,” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, 3:3 (2012): pp. 291-295.
  4. Cf. Ido de Haan, “The Western European Welfare State beyond Christian and Social Democratic Ideology,” in Dan Stone (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2012): pp. 299-318.
  5. Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2010). Cf. Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: London, 2005).
  6. Moyn, Last Utopia, 52.
  7. Moyn, Last Utopia, 64.
  8. Marco Duranti, “Curbing Labour’s Totalitarian Temptation: European Human Rights Law and British Postwar Politics,” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, 3:3 (2012): pp. 361-383.
  9. Frederick Cooper, “Afterword: Social Rights and Human Rights in the Time of Decolonization,” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, 3:3 (2012): pp. 472-493.
  10. Samuel Moyn, “Human Rights and the Age of Inequality,” in Doutje Lettinga and Lars van Troost (eds.), Can Human Rights Bring Social Justice? (Amnesty International Netherlands: Amsterdam, 2015): p. 14.
  11. Frits Noordam, “Sociale zekerheid 1950-2000,” in Jacques van Gerwen and Marco H.D. van Leeuwen (eds.), Studies over zekerheidsarrangementen. Risico’s, risicobestrijding en verzekeringen in Nederland vanaf de Middeleeuwen (Nederlandsch Economisch Historisch Archief: Amsterdam/Den Haag, 1998): pp. 807-853.
  12. W.P.M. Dols and A.H.M. Kerkhof, “De Algemene Wet Bijzondere Ziektekosten. Debatten en ontwikkelingen tot 1987,” in Karel-Peter Compagne (ed.), Tussen volksverzekering en vrije markt. Verzekering van zorg op het snijvlak van sociale verzekering en gezondheidszorg 1880-2006 (Aksant: Amsterdam, 2008): pp. 709-794.
  13. This is drawn from the site (30 October 2015), and the search terms “mensenrechten”, “mensen rechten” (two words), “rechten van de mens” and “sociale rechten,” “sociale grondrechten.” The ‘closer look’ is based on the analysis of the 166 “sociale rechten” hits.
  14. Cooper, “Afterword,” 474.
  15. Kees van Kersbergen and Philip Manow (eds.), Religion, Class Coalitions, and Welfare States (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2009); Samuel Moyn, Christian Human Rights (University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadephia, 2015).
  16. Moyn, Christian Human Rights.
  17. Piet de Rooy, Ons stipje op de waereldkaart. De politieke cultuur van Nederland in de negentiende en twintigste eeuw (Wereldbibliotheek: Amsterdam, 2014): pp. 233-234.
  18. Mentioned by Cooper, “Afterword,” based on Daniel Cohen, “The ‘Human Rights Revolution’ at Work: Displaced Persons in Postwar Europe,” in Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (ed.), Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2011): p. 45-61.
  19. Willemijn van der Zwaard, Welfare Chauvinism. A critical history of the universal Dutch welfare state, Master thesis (Utrecht University, 2014), digital version available at:
  20. Leo Lucassen and Jan Lucassen, “The Strange Death of Dutch Tolerance: The Timing and Nature of the Pessimist Turn in the Dutch Migration Debate,” The Journal of Modern History, 87:1 (2015): pp. 72-101.
  21. Moyn, Last Utopia.
  22. Ido de Haan and Jan Willem Duyvendak (eds.), In het hart van de verzorgingsstaat. Het ministerie van Maatschappelijk Werk en zijn opvolgers (CRM, WVC, VWS) 1952-2002 (Walburg Pers: Zutphen, 2002).
  23. Moyn, “Human rights.”
  24. De Haan, “Western European Welfare State.”
  25. Pierre Rosanvallon, “How to Create a Society of Equals?,” Foreign Affairs, available at: (January 8, 2016).
  26. Peter van Dam, “Constructing a Modern Society Through ‘Depillarization’. Understanding Post-War History as Gradual Change,” Journal of Historical Sociology, 28:3 (2015): pp. 291-313.
  27. Barbara Oomen, Rights for others. The Slow Home-Coming of Human Rights in the Netherlands (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2013).
  28. Paul van Trigt, “A blind spot of a guiding country Human Rights and Dutch Disability Groups Since 1981,” Moving the Social, 53 (2015): pp. 87-102.
  29. Oomen, Rights for others, 285-286.
  30. Van Trigt, “Blind spot.”
  31. Oomen, Rights for others, 291-308.
  32. Lucassen and Lucassen, “Strange Death.”
  33. Edward Anthony Koning, Selective Solidarity. The politics of immigrants’ social rights in Western welfare states, Dissertation (Queen’s University: Kingston, Ontario, 2013).
  34. Van der Zwaard, Welfare chauvinism; Koning, Selective Solidarity.
  35. Koning, Selective Solidarity.
  36. Article available at: (January 8, 2016).
  37. Omri Boehm, “Can refugees have human rights?,” The New York Times, article available at: (November 2, 2015).