Motive attribution and the moral politics of the welfare state

This article explores the moral politics of the welfare state and the social conflicts that underlie them. We argue that existing research on the moralism of redistributive and social policy preferences is overly one-dimensional, with a longstanding concentration on attitudes toward welfare state beneficiaries. To widen our understanding of the phenomenon, we introduce the concept of motive attribution: that is, how people answer the question “what drives others to take the positions that they hold?” Doing so allows us to shift the subject of moralistic attitudes, with a move toward uncovering what citizens think of those who hold a given social policy stance. The article then lays out a first systematic overview of motive attributions using an original dataset built from nationally representative surveys conducted in ten Western democracies. Comparing responses across these countries, we draw out important cross-national differences in ascribed motives, including within welfare state regime types.