Raised in an individualistic culture, Americans dislike the concept of the "welfare state" and do not use the term. But make no mistake, the United States has a welfare state, and its future is precarious. The true significance of General Motors' bankruptcy lies more with this welfare state than with the battered condition of American capitalism.

Broadly speaking, the U.S. welfare system divides into two parts -- the private, run by firms; and the public, provided by government. Both are besieged: private companies by competitive pressures; government by rising debt and taxes. GM exemplified the large corporation as private welfare state. In contracts with the United Auto Workers, GM promised high wages, lifetime employment, generous pensions and comprehensive health insurance. All this is ancient history: New workers get skimpier benefits.

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