Moral Elites and the De-Paradoxification of Danish Social Policy between Civil Society and State (1849–2022)

Anders Sevelsted*

*Corresponding author for this work

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    The article argues that in Denmark during the past 150 years, moral elites have been central in settling paradoxes within social policy by developing ‘classifications’ of citizens and sectors: who are deserving of help and what sector (public or third) should provide care. Contrary to widely held beliefs, historically, there is no logical or practical connection between ‘more deserving’ and ‘state support’. Theoretically, the article integrates elite scholarship and cultural sociology in developing a concept of moral elites’ power from—their sources of moral authority—and power to, the way that they have used their power to classify citizens and sectors. Empirically, the Danish moral elite and its involvement in social policy are analyzed based on secondary as well as primary historical sources. Findings: The development of the Danish moral elite has roots in the administrators of the nineteenth-century absolutist state: the clergy, medical doctors, and lawyers. Educational resources and state affiliation continue to be central to moral elite status. Economists have ascended to the top of the moral elite, while clergymen have dropped out. Three major classifications were developed during the period. ‘Help to self-help’ (late nineteenth century): deserving poor should receive help from private charity, while the public system should deter and discipline. ‘Rights’ (mid-twentieth century): the state should care for all, philanthropy mostly considered stigmatizing. ‘Workfare’ (late twentieth century to present): citizens are considered deserving as long as they are ‘active’, and sectors are considered equal in providing for citizens as long as they reach the economistic goal of activation.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalVOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations
    Issue number3
    Pages (from-to)452-462
    Number of pages11
    Publication statusPublished - Jun 2023

    Bibliographical note

    Published online: 10 August 2022.


    • Voluntarism
    • Welfare state
    • Philanthropy
    • Deservingness
    • Moral elites

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