The Plank

Conservatism And The Welfare State

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It's two days old now, but William Voegeli's piece in the Wall Street Journal on conservatism and federal
spending is well worth a read. It addresses what is now perhaps the bedrock
dilemma for the American center-right: given that there's simply no political
constituency for meaningfully shrinking the size of government, is it better
for conservatives to make their peace with the welfare state and seek to
limit its reach, or recommit to a gratifying (if ultimately likely futile)
crusade against its legitimacy in the first place? Voegeli makes a head fake in
the direction of accommodation:

 

Conservatives can make a Tocquevillian appeal to the voters'
enlightened self-interest: if we're going to have a welfare state--and we
are--let's go about it as intelligently and soberly as possible. Let's be measured
in our expectations for what the welfare state can accomplish, and clear-eyed
in our awareness of the damage it can do. …

The conclusion toward which such arguments point is that a
nation wealthy enough to have a welfare state is wealthy enough to have lots of
people who don't need most of what the welfare state provides. Conservatives
who make peace with the New Deal accept the legitimacy of government programs
to help the small minority of citizens who are chronically unable to fend for
themselves and the larger minority occasionally and transitionally unable to do
so. …

 

Unenlightened self-interest keeps everyone invested in
social insurance programs, even those who would come out ahead by
self-insuring. By contrast, "If conservatives could design their ideal
welfare state, it would consist of nothing but means-tested programs,"
says [Berkeley political scientist Paul] Pierson, which is basically right.

In the end, though, Voegeli seems to sour on this line of
reasoning and take the side of the purists urging an all-out rhetorical attack
on the philosophical rationale of the New Deal. His reasoning is that the 2005
Social Security debate demonstrated that Democrats will never assent to means-testing
and will simply take conservative concessions as an opportunity to push for
even more government:

 

Liberals reasonable enough to be swayed by arguments about
the moral and material prerequisites of the welfare state wouldn't be liberals
in the first place. … Democrats, for example, crushed the Bush Social Security
proposals in 2005 by doing nothing, offering nothing, and saying nothing that
even acknowledged the need for entitlement reform. … Cogent arguments about the
welfare state's optimal use of its allotment of the economy are of no interest
whatsoever to liberals who spent decades working to increase that allotment.
Any "reforms" of the welfare state that reprivatize any of those GDP
points, or lead to any destination other than the public sector's acquisition
of additional ones, are dead-on-arrival overtures.

 

The problem is that this is not at all a fair
characterization of what happened in 2005. Republicans controlled the entire federal
government and had frozen Democrats out of the policymaking process; they
showed no interest whatsoever in supporting the actual, means-tested safety-net
programs (health-care vouchers for the uninsured, an expansion of wage
subsidies, more funding for failing schools, and so forth) that Democrats would
rightfully demand in exchange for ending the universality of entitlements. The
choice on the table for Democrats was not between universal entitlements and a
more robust, better targeted welfare state; it was between universal
entitlements and, say, more tax cuts for the rich. Of course no responsible
liberal--even those who, like me, agree with the broad outlines of Voegeli's
critique of current social spending--would agree to publicly engage with Bush
administration on such grounds, and thankfully none did. The enduring popularity
of Social Security was the Democrats' only source of political leverage, and
it's absurd to suggest that they should have given it up in exchange for
nothing.

 

If Republicans demonstrate a genuine willingness to work
with Democrats to reform the welfare state so that it performs it core
functions without approaching European levels of taxation, they'll find plenty
of Democrats eager to join them. But as long as they keep trashing government
and denying that it can ever play a constructive role in creating a fairer,
more just society--and listening to the current crop of GOP presidential
candidates does not generate much optimism in this regard--the status quo is
likely to prevail. It has to be a Matt Miller-esque grand bargain or nothing's
going to happen (except, of course, that the cost of current programs will continue to balloon).

 

--Josh Patashnik

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