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Conservatism And The Welfare State

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