“Liberalism,” said Garrison Keillor in 2004, “is the politics of kindness.” The statement summed up the sentiment of countless other liberals, from Mario Cuomo to President Barack Obama (kindness is “what binds us together”).
Statements like these are meant to distinguish liberalism from non-liberalism, which is—according to liberals such Paul Krugman—“infected by an almost pathological mean-spiritedness.” Unlike conservatives and libertarians, Berkeley linguist George Lakoff has written, “progressives care about others as well as themselves.”
Krugman and Lakoff fail the ideological Turing test, which gauges whether someone criticizing another political perspective understands it well enough to represent it accurately. If you can’t even summarize your opponent’s viewpoint correctly, then when you argue against it you are actually arguing against something else: a straw man. Conservatives and libertarians certainly want to see others flourish and lead happy, productive lives. They simply think liberals have sketched a flawed path to that goal.
In a new book due out next month, William Voegeli strives to trace that path and thereby better understand the liberal philosophy of compassion. But Voegeli, the senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, strives to understand it in order to critique it—which is evident from his tongue-in-cheek title: The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion.
Progressives have a problem, he argues in the early pages. Civic institutions having been divorced from religion a couple of centuries ago, liberals find it difficult to offer a good account of why an individual virtue should become a nationally governing principle. Secular liberalism, he says, “proclaims the brotherhood of man while rejecting the fatherhood of God.” Consequently, liberals extol compassion as an end in itself, a trump card that defeats all other arguments without needing any supporting arguments of its own.
But this raises as many questions as it answers. For example: Liberal policies designed to help some people will often harm others. Yet “practitioners of the politics of kindness lose little sleep over those whose suffering is the collateral damage of liberal policies, such as whites denied educational or career opportunities because of affirmative action programs.” A tax levied to help the poor grows burdensome on those who pay it, and so on. Compassion, then, necessarily becomes selective rather than universal. But selective compassion carries a lot less moral weight than the universal kind.
The political philosophy of kindness is highly selective in another sense as well: It is focused almost entirely on rendering aid to the American poor and lower middle classes—which are, in the global context, still extraordinarily well-off. Voegeli notes that in the Congo, 77 million people endure life with a per capita GDP of just $400 per year. Yet American liberalism pays almost no attention to their suffering, preferring instead to focus almost exclusively on further improving the lot of Americans who already have clean clothes, decent housing, running water, abundant food, and luxuries like microwaves and cellphones that the Congolese can only dream of. Why?
We also should ponder (though Voegeli doesn’t) why so many liberals seem so eager to impose compassion through coercion. The welfare state relies on confiscatory taxation, which is backed up by the threat of violence. No matter how much private good you do, American liberals insist you first do good as they define it, and do it their way—or else.
Voegeli also asks at length why progressives who profess to care deeply about the welfare of others often seem so indifferent to whether welfare programs actually work as intended. If the goal is to help the suffering, then liberals should be more outraged than anyone else when a government program that spends billions on that objective fails to deliver. Instead, it is conservatives and libertarians who raise the alarms. This, Voegeli says, reveals liberal self-regard: Those who preach about compassion do so “less because they care about helping than because they care about caring.” They preach compassion not to render aid so much as to feel virtuous.
Progressives probably would retort that the conservatives and libertarians are crying crocodile tears: They raise alarms about the failure of Program X not because they want Program X to succeed, but because they want it to go away altogether. So any liberal who raises concerns about Program X’s efficacy is not helping the cause of compassion, but undermining it by giving ammunition to its enemies.
To this conservatives and libertarians might respond that, if (say) local charities could deliver certain services more effectively and at a lower cost, then nongovernmental, hence noncoercive, institutions should do more of the work of social kindness. Even simple cash transfers, such as a negative income tax, might be better since (as Voegeli writes) when government “gives people money, people receive the money it gives them. But when it gives them Head Starts or Model Cities,” the frequent failure of programs to work as intended means “they often wind up with something less than a head start or a model city.”
The liberal rebuttal to that might echo the words of The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, whom Voegeli quotes: Charity itself “is not economic justice”; rather, “the absence of economic justice … makes charity necessary.”
This, however, suggests that charity—or kindness, or compassion, or some similar synonym—is not really the bedrock upon which liberal political philosophy stands after all. Compassion in this case is simply a bandage, while the true bedrock of American liberalism is justice. But justice, as everyone knows, can often seem the furthest thing from kind.
More conservatives should read William Voegeli. National Review Online’s Jonah Goldberg says Voegeli “may be the most valuable, engaging and original critic of liberalism writing today.” Two current articles demonstrate why he merits such superlatives.
Andrew Sullivan’s recent apologia—or, perhaps, obituary—of conservatism makes at least one very good point: Modern conservatism has painted itself into a corner. Concerning the poor and uninsured, for example, Mr. Sullivan rightly observes that “in a society that won’t let people die on the street, these are real and tough problems we cannot just wish away.” Conservatives who attack the liberal welfare state often reject even the preliminary terms of negotiation. It is a well worn principle that a state cannot reasonably be expected to make meaningful concessions to an adversary who refuses to recognize its right to exist.
In his 2010 book Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, William Voegeli implores conservatives to recognize this reality. Against the shapelessness of liberal thinking that makes it so difficult to refute, Voegeli reluctantly acknowledges that conservatives are too enamored by the superiority of their principles to bother with a more pragmatic approach—specifically, Voegeli offers, stipulating to the existence of the welfare state while insisting it “actually produce the intended effect and do so at a reasonable cost.” Id. at 256-257. Until conservatives acknowledge the hopelessness of the fight against the concept of the welfare state, they will forfeit their seat at the table to discuss bringing about a sensible welfare state.
This does not mean, Voegeli assures us, that conservatives ought to abandon its critique of the New Deal. That legacy, Voegeli explains, is “liberalism’s gravest and defining error—the demolition of the legitimacy barriers existing in the pre-1937 Constitution and the refusal to erect any new ones in their place.” Id. at 267-268. The New Deal legacy, which remade the American founding upon History instead of Nature, has given us a polity in which “the government’s powers are protean rather than enumerated, the people’s rights subject to perpetual revision rather than inalienable, and the consent of the governed advisory rather than dispositive.” Id.
Some conservatives, like Mr. Sullivan, stand ready to meet Voegeli’s first challenge and accept the moral and political legitimacy of at least some version of a welfare state. However, the task requires sobriety. Like a game of “roller bowler,” over-eagerness to pass either test results in the same unhappy outcome. Mr. Sullivan’s acknowledgment of the legitimacy of certain welfare state projects fails to prescribe the conditions upon which he might ever reject any welfare state project. Here’s Mr. Sullivan:
So on taxes today, a conservative would ask: what have we learned about the impact of lower rates over the last two decades – now the lowest as a percentage of GDP since the 1950s? In healthcare, what have we learned about the largely private system the GOP wants to preserve? A conservative would look at home and abroad for empirical answers, acknowledging no ultimate solution but the need for constant reform because society is always changing. On gay rights, a classic social change, he’d ask what a society should do in integrating the emergence of so many openly gay people, couples and families. On foreign policy, he’d move on a case by case basis, not by way of a “doctrine.”
It is this cloak of “case-by-case” analysis that, for lack of any acknowledged principle, defines liberalism. Mr. Sullivan’s treatment thus sounds less like Calvin Coolidge (“About the Declaration [of Independence] there is a finality that is exceedingly restful”) than Woodrow Wilson (“If you want to understand the Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface”). FDR joined Wilson’s Progressive disparagement of the American founding based on Nature, explaining that “rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights.” FDR asserted that “The task of statesmanship has always been the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.”
However, FDR, like today’s liberals, simultaneously and inexplicably also invoked Coolidge’s sentiment about the finality of rights: “the old ‘rights of personal competency’—the right to read, to think, to speak, to choose and live a mode of life, must be respected at all hazards.” Concerning this bizarre inconsistency, Voegeli remarks:
This assertion seems to contradict FDR’s argument that rights need to be redefined according to new circumstances, especially changing economic circumstances. By positing that some rights are less malleable than others, however, and by including in the honor roll of rights that must be respected at all hazards the nebulous right to choose and live a mode of life, FDR seeks to secure enormous leverage for the government.
Voegeli at 72-74.
Clearly, FDR did not really mean what he said about rights which “must be respected at all hazards.” Instead, the “hazard” that justifies disregarding individual rights, FDR explained, is the possibility that respecting those rights might “deprive others of those elemental rights.” Government’s job, FDR continued, is the “maintenance of balance.”
Yet, he did not explain how or in whose favor that balance will be maintained. In 1940, Alvin Hansen, one of Roosevelt’s most influential economic advisors, was asked whether “the basic principle of the New Deal [is] economically sound,” to which Hansen replied: “I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is.” Voegeli recounts the memoirs of another New Dealer, Raymond Moley, stating: “To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator.” Voegeli at 98.
The American Prospect indicated in January 2005 that today’s liberals still don’t know what liberalism “stands for.” Liberal columnist Michael Tomasky likewise wrote in 2010 that Democrats “have usually tried to hide those beliefs, or change the conversation when the subject arose.” For his own part, Mr. Tomasky’s explanation of liberalism and its delineation between the two big competing ideas of political theory—liberty and security—leaves much to be desired:
Anybody familiar with Liberalism 101 grasps that there is something deep within liberalism, from its earliest beginnings, that prevents it from degenerating into fascism, and that is its explicit recognition that the state must serve both common purposes and individual liberty. . . . [W]here that collective urge crosses the line into coercion, well, that is where liberals—I mean liberals who know something about liberalism—get off the train, and do their noncoercive best to derail it.”
Mr. Tomasky’s self-validating definition of liberalism is too clever by half, suggesting liberals need not explain how they know where the “line” between legitimate and illegitimate government action is—they just know. As Voegeli observes, though spirited, Mr. Tomasky “has nothing more to tell us about the ‘something deep within liberalism’ that makes liberals play nice.” Voegeli at 68-69. “A government of laws,” Voegeli goes on, “needs to justify its actions with arguments more compelling and respectful to the governed than such ‘because we say so’ pronouncements.” Id. at 120.
Still, however, some liberals resent the implication that liberalism need offer more than its say so. Predating conservative blogger Mr. Sullivan’s remark to the same effect, liberal columnist Jonathan Chait explained, “For us, everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody’s education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody’s blue jeans? No. And so on.” And so on? As Voegeli correctly observes, Mr. Chait’s coda suggests continuation in a direction—that a general rule may be readily discerned by examining the preceding list of particulars. “But if there are only political particulars, there is no direction, and nothing to be said about how liberalism relates one policy to another or settles conflicts between competing goals.” Voegeli at 147. Mr. Chait’s definition of liberalism is simply that general rules are unnecessary or, at least, obstructive and undesirable: if the list of particulars suggests any shared commonalities, it is coincidental and irrelevant. If adherence to principle forces us to conclude that the sort of government that must provide things we want it to provide (education, health care) must also provide things we don’t want it to provide (blue jeans), then should principle be cast into the flames. For liberalism, the tradition of showing a decent respect to the opinions of mankind is not worth keeping if it obstructs deeply desired policy objectives.
As a result, liberalism’s rejection of principle makes it “impossible to say which means liberalism will employ; more precisely, it’s impossible to say which ones it will foreswear to avoid violating individuals’ rights or exceeding government’s proper sphere.” Id. at 102.
Whatever conservatives’ folly in taking a hardline approach against the welfare state, then, American politics cannot suffer the loss of the only mainstream ideology that offers any limiting principle whatsoever. Conservatives must not abandon its affinity for big ideas even while they must make allowances for certain big government programs. A conservatism so reformed, Voegeli argues, will find a greater sway with a schizophrenic populace who is “more liberal when answering questionnaires than when casting ballots.” Id. at 158.
Specifically, Voegeli argues conservatism can beat liberalism at its own “case-by-case” game on issues like affirmative action, education, rent control, housing, and wage laws:
Does affirmative action place minority students in colleges where they’re likely to fail while depriving other applicants of the chance to attend the most challenging schools where they are capable of succeeding? Does rent control drive up the cost of housing, depriving property owners of the same opportunity to profit as any other investor while driving down the quality and quantity of the housing stock? Do minimum wage laws reduce the number of entry-level jobs, making it harder to escape from poverty? Because compassion, by its nature, subordinates doing good to feeling good, these are questions the warm-hearted rarely pursue.
Id. at 140-141. A system of political thought that accounts for sentiment, then, is implicitly preferable to one that offers nothing but.
Similarly, and symptomatic of liberalism’s failure to define its terms, liberalism cannot offer a clear picture of what “poverty” is or how to know when it has been successfully ameliorated. Kenneth Minogue in The Liberal Mind explained that the word “has been transmogrified into ‘relative deprivation,’ which assumes that happiness and well-being depend on having most of the things other people have.” Voegeli recounts that according to Matt Bai writing in the New York Times, “the average income of an American taxpayer in 1929, using today’s dollars, was about $16,000 a year; the entire middle class, in other words, was poor by modern standards.” Voegeli at 53. The welfare state by 2007, however, adjusted for inflation and changes in population, spent 15.3 times the amount spent during the New Deal in 1940. Its proponents ought to offer some indication when its principal objectives can be deemed achieved.
Again, however, liberals might suggest that there is no need to define the end point when economic theory provides an effectively endless supply of revenue. Lavish government spending on programs is supposedly founded on Keynesian economics, which teaches that pumping government money into the economy increases demand and thus stabilizes prices and stimulates growth, employment, and investment. However, “[s]pending as much money as possible,” Voegeli explains, “was, in fact, faithful to only one-half of Keynesian theory.”
Macro-economic policy was supposed to be counter-cyclical. Spending furiously was a good idea when the economy was going into a recession, but exactly the wrong remedy when a boom was threatening to cause inflation. The other, expansionary phase of the business cycle needed to be moderated by a combination of higher taxes and lower government spending. This fasting-and-penance part of the Keynesian faith, however, was never as popular with the voting public as the Mardi Gras part and, not coincidentally, has never had any champions among liberal politicians and writers.
Voegeli at 171-172. This is reason enough to distrust macroeconomic theory in a democracy. There are always sound enough reasons to spend money on things we like. When along comes the part of the cycle that demands austerity, however, it seems just as sound for present purposes to elect adherents of a macroeconomic philosophy that pushes austerity further still into the future. Lord, give us austerity, but not yet.
Liberal macroeconomists have, for the better part of century, sought to render economics inscrutable and beyond the American public’s understanding. They have done this precisely for the purpose of de-politicizing some of the most important political questions, making politicians unaccountable for running up massive deficits, and generating greater need for ever greater taxes. All this has resulted in a massive shift of political power to Congress. (Because every US state other than Vermont has some form of balanced budget amendment, this macroeconomic mojo is less effective at the state level.)
In The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward, conservative economist Bruce Bartlett notes that Keynes had enormous confidence in his ability to manipulate public opinion, and that this was a driving motivation of his work. As a result, Keynes was not concerned with consistency in his approach to economics: if the approach he advocated to meet one political challenge was inapposite to another, he showed little reluctance in making the necessary adjustments without regard to consistency among the approaches. Bartlett explains:
Through the years, many economists have puzzled over the contradictions in Keynes’s work. But there is one thing that ties it all together: his intense desire to influence public policy. As Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky put it, “He invented theory to justify what he wanted to do.” If one goes through the 30 volumes of his collected works, the vast bulk of the material is not technical economics, but articles for newspapers and popular magazines, as well as memoranda and policy papers for government officials. “He was an opportunist who reacted to events immediately and directly, and his reaction was to produce an answer, to write a memorandum, and to publish at once, economist Elizabeth Johnson explains.
. . . .
It is clear that Keynes would often put forward proposals because he thought they would be helpful at a particular moment in time, knowing full well that it would be highly undesirable for them to be maintained for the long term. . . .
The Keynesian model was never meant for consumption by voters. It was meant to confuse and disorient them so political leaders could govern without having to make their macroeconomic policies economically defensible. When Dwight Eisenhower’s press secretary expressed concern how the President ought to respond to a sensitive subject, Eisenhower responded “Don’t worry, Jim. If that comes up, I’ll just confuse them.” One wonders if this is not the approach in much of Washington politics today.
By rejecting an ideology to determine what government properly should do, and in an age of affluence that obviated the need to determine what government could do, government was free to provide anything else “worth having.” In 1964, The New Republic stated “If ballet is worth having, as we earlier decided public libraries were worth having, go ahead and provide for ballet, even though there is not sufficient ‘demand’ to make it ‘economic.’ This attitude can obviously be extended from ballet to beautifying the country-side, and in a dozen other different directions. With all this wealth we can afford to try.” Politicians like Pat Brown agreed. During the 1960s, California declined to choose whether to spend on infrastructure or education and heavily invested in both. When Californians enacted Proposition 13 in 1978 in revolt against skyrocketing property taxes, politicians were once again forced to choose. The necessity of something drastic like Prop 13 cannot be underestimated: in a political culture that preaches all things are possible through government, there is little basis for denying any beneficent-sounding thing. This is a lesson that had not been unlearned by 2008 as the federal government continued to advertise that home ownership could be made available to every American through federal policies forcing interests rates down and home prices up. Without an ideology to tell us when the government should stop pandering to our desires, reality serves as our only backstop, harsh though it is.
In addition to obfuscation through macro-economic policy, Voegeli describes how liberal economics further relies on “turning the skies black with criss-crossing dollars.” As he explained in the Claremont Review in Spring 2005:
As more and more dollars fly around, the confusion about where all of them start out and end up increases. The dollars often arrive ostentatiously (Social Security checks in the mailbox) but depart surreptitiously (payroll withholding and employer “contributions” to Social Security). This contrast makes it easy for each household to regard itself as a net importer rather than a net exporter of the dollars that make up this green tornado. The ultimate goal is to leave people believing an impossibility: that an enormous but nevertheless finite number of dollars can be vacuumed up and airdropped in such a way that the vast majority of people wind up gaining more than they lose.
Dark skies aid perception management. While it is not possible for every jurisdiction in the nation to come out ahead in the federal pork lottery, it is possible for them to seem to come out ahead—as Voegeli puts it, “for all of them to look like importers rather than exporters.” The task is to ensure that the dollars “arrive more conspicuously than they depart.” Voegeli at 195. The easiest way to accomplish this is through complexity and confusion. “[Clarity] is the enemy and confusion the friend of the welfare state. The goal, accordingly, is to make the welfare state as complex as possible.” Id. at 195-196.
The chaotic maelstrom of dollars explains why so many middle-class Americans support Social Security, a fundamentally crummy retirement program relative to what most middle-class Americans could purchase privately: They have been dazed and confused into believing they actually benefit from it. However, “[a] simple program to help poor people,” Voegeli explains, “would make it easy to distinguish the households that are net exporters of dollars from the ones that are net importers. Liberals don’t want to run that risk. They don’t trust the prosperous citizens in the net exporter households to be generous and public-spirited enough to keep voting for welfare programs once it becomes clear to them that they are financing benefits bestowed on others.” Id. at 197. Accordingly, “[t]he government provides Social Security and Medicare to people who don’t need them for the sake of people who do.” Id. at 199.
Both conservatism and liberalism in their modern iterations are fundamentally naïve. Conservatism preaches that political man can survive on doctrine alone, while liberalism relies on sentiment. Neither makes sufficient allowance for the fact that he needs both—that man is fundamentally doctrinal and sentimental; rational and moral; metaphysical and empirical. Conservatism, James Q. Wilson argues, should present “not an argument for a small government or a weak government or a government indifferent to the poor . . . [but] an argument for a fair and competent government.” Liberalism, for its part, “must abandon the belief that everything is good to do.” Voegeli at 256. There is nothing in conservatism that compels its adherents to oppose every government program with a noble purpose. Once that is accepted, conservatives can more effectively impress upon liberals that, as Wilson puts it, “[i]t is not enough that a program have a noble purpose or a laudable motive; to warrant a claim on resources, it should actually produce the intended effect and do so at a reasonable cost.”
If the American Conservative, National Review, and the Weekly Standard would cooperate in selecting a book of the year, William Voegeli’s narrative explaining why neither rising living standards nor a conservative movement that has achieved more than a few electoral successes has been able to roll back the expansion of the welfare state, Never Enough, should be in the running. Unlike any recent assessment of American political culture, Never Enough offers a rare combination of empirical data, political philosophy, and policy analysis that not only exposes the intellectual bankruptcy of liberalism but also explains the inability of conservatives and Republicans to beat their opponents in the struggle over the federal government’s role as social engineer.
Among his achievements, Voegeli, a fellow at the Henry Salvatori Center at Claremont McKenna College, examines the economy that Ronald Reagan transformed with a new set of eyes, claiming that its asymmetrical growth pattern has made the conservative project of limiting government much harder, a conclusion that will not please economic conservatives, whether supply-siders or libertarians, who resent any questioning of their agenda. How his challenge to the conservative status quo relates to the memoir of Robert B. Carleson, Government Is the Problem, may not be clear. Yet the account of an unheralded lieutenant of Governor and President Ronald Reagan who achieved some success in decentralizing the welfare system vindicates Voegeli’s recommendation—bound to cause a ruckus during a time of Tea Party euphoria—that conservatives work with rather than dismiss as illegitimate the welfare legacy of the New Deal.
Voegeli, of course, holds off from these conclusions until the end of the book, after he puts a full set of cards on the table. That impressive hand begins with demonstrating, using historical tables of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to track a modified version of its “Human Resources” category of federal government outlays, that spending on public welfare programs was 15.3 times greater in 2007 than it was in 1940 after adjusting for inflation and population growth, representing a 4.14 percent real annual growth rate. Moreover, using OMB data on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), he finds that the portion of economic growth devoted to Human Resources spending grew steadily as well. So while he calculates the underlying annual growth rate of the economy at 2.44 percent in real terms, Human Resources spending—as a portion of that expanding GDP—experienced a 1.81 percent annual increase. “The pie got steadily bigger, as did the portion of the pie devoted to the welfare state,” he notes. Indeed, because of that expansion in social spending, the welfare state has become the “primary thing the federal government does,” having surpassed federal outlays on “National Defense” forty years ago, in 1971.
Documenting the same pattern in the twelve industrialized countries that participate with the United States in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Voegeli poses the riddle that drives his research: Why has increased prosperity and higher living standards led to welfare expansion rather than welfare curtailment?
No serious consideration . . . seems to have been given to the idea that greater prosperity had significantly increased the number of households who could provide for their medical care, education, economic security and retirement largely by relying on their own resources, thereby reducing the need and justification for the government to provide for these needs by transferring wealth from some people to others.
The rest of his book explores the forces that have pressed, and continue to press, for social programs ad infinitum, as societies like the United States have grown wealthier: “The supply-side forces are the politicians, writers and activists advancing the view that social justice and decency require a bigger welfare state. The demand-side forces are the ones that move voters . . . to approve not only the steady increase in welfare state outlays . . . but the corresponding increase in taxes and regulations.”
The Inverse of Conservatives
As the data demonstrate how the liberal welfare state has grown astronomically by every measure, Voegeli uncovers another hidden reality: that liberals, who repeatedly claim that the public safety net in the United States remains ever-so stingy, are animated not by principle or ideals but by gut impulse, as captured by the book’s title, Never Enough. Here the Claremont scholar portrays liberals as the inverse of conservatives, who can’t fight enough among themselves about big ideas because they believe ideas matter. Even the American Prospect and theNew Republic concede this point—that liberals lack a coherent political philosophy. Quoting Jonathan Chait of theNew Republic, who claims that liberalism is “less of an ideology than the absence of one” and a “rejection of ideological certainty,” Voegeli believes this helps explains why the left turns policy goals into legal “rights,” as did FDR in his 1944 State of the Union address, and refuses to set boundaries around what government can do (or can do effectively), continually moving the goal posts further away so that their objectives are never fully reached. Wherever a liberal program fails, the solution is always more liberalism, not less.
Yet whatever it lacks for in political theory, the left more than compensates in policy success, again the inverse of conservatives. Voegeli suggests that liberals are remarkably shrewd, perhaps even dishonest, not only by keeping whatever big ideas they do have within the confines of the faculty lounge but also by manipulating voter perceptions by exaggerating the benefits of the welfare state and understating its costs. In a chapter worth the price of the book, “Liberalism’s Continuing Inability to Make Payroll,” Voegeli explores the “huge disparity between the welfare state liberals want to build and the tax system they are prepared to call for.” Building on Bertrand de Jouvenel’s The Ethics of Redistribution (1952), Voegeli calculates that a European-style welfare state in the United States, where no family income would fall below 200 percent of poverty levels (or about $40,000)—the goal of most liberals—would not be achieved even if all income in excess of $150,000 were taxed at 100 percent.
While no Democratic politician dares to call for such confiscatory taxes to secure this “right” to the means of a good life, liberals have continued to sell their project by “blackening the skies with criss-crossing dollars,” persuading states, counties, municipalities, and households that they can come out ahead by sending money and receiving it back from Washington, D.C. Citizens and localities may think they are a net importer of resources, yet “the total amount imported by the states, cities, etc. will always be less than the total amount exported” because the middle man—the federal government—demands his cut. Consequently, the liberal project requires obfuscation at every level:
Simplicity promotes clarity, while complexity promotes confusion. Liberals could have chosen otherwise, but have consistently acted like people who believe that clarity is the enemy and confusion the friend of the welfare state. The goal, accordingly, is to make the welfare state as complex as possible. A complex welfare state will have many ambitions, many initiatives to advance them, and will not be fastidious about programs overlapping or duplicating one other. This proliferation increases the number of voters who identify themselves as the beneficiaries of at least one government program. The tax and regulatory systems, meanwhile, should also be as baroque as possible. Such complexity increases the number of voters who can guess at what they pay for the welfare state, and increases the likelihood that their guesses will fall well below the actual amount.
Why conservatives have been unable to outfox the liberals at their game remains the enduring question. The Claremont fellow does concede that, since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, the pattern of an expanding welfare state has slowed considerably, as the portion of GDP devoted to Human Resources spending has remained largely flat, meaning that welfare spending has only increased in lock step with, not at a faster pace than, economic growth. Nonetheless, as measured by per-capita, inflation-adjusted federal outlays, spending on Human Resources increased at an annual rate of 0.90 percent under Reagan; 5.23 under Bush 41; 1.49 under Clinton, and 3.03 under Bush 43. Among the reasons why conservatives have only “postponed” the advance of liberalism or settled for its slower growth is that they, like eager salesmen, have oversold the benefits of tax cuts and economic growth.
Voegeli bases his assessment on Congressional Budget Office income data that make clear that the much-touted supply-side revolution led by the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43 tax cuts delivered dramatically more for the upper-middle class than for the working-middle class, doing little to help conservatives expand their electoral market share. “These tax cuts,” claim Voegeli, “were hardly of a sort to significantly improve the lives—or earn conservatives the political loyalty—of the households making up [the bottom] three-fifths of the income distribution.” Noting that after-tax income of the middle quintile household increased just 21 percent in real terms between 1979 and 2005, Voegeli observes: “It’s doubtful that a political coalition for limited government can be purchased so cheaply.”
The Missing Piece
Voegeli deserves praise for taking on a sacred cow of conservatives, but his argument would be stronger had he included in his calculus the social and demographic changes since the 1970—especially the retreat from marriage and the breakdown of family life, that drive welfare, social, and health-care spending—a dynamic at work in Western Europe as well as this side of the Atlantic. More than any other variable, the decline of the social sector that is independent of both state and market deserves far more consideration as the answer that solves the riddle of a society growing ever more prosperous yet in need of ever-more federal guarantees of well-being, “fairness,” and income security. It may also explain why the lower 60 percent of the income distribution, where family breakdown is more prevalent (and more consequential economically) than it is in the higher-income groups that have done extremely well since the Reagan era, have been less receptive to a conservative agenda that largely ignores these changed social realities.
This is not the only oversight of Never Enough. Like most conservatives, Voegeli lumps together the New Deal and the Great Society as two pieces of the same welfare pod, overlooking the substantive differences between the two that conservatives could exploit for their own advantage. Compared to the social engineering that LBJ initiated, the measures of the New Deal represent a conservative approach to welfare. The benefit structure of Social Security, for example, reinforces and upholds the married-parent family as the basic social and economic unit. To this day, as Lawrence Mead has pointed out, these programs retain the concept of reciprocity: beneficiaries receive no assistance unless they have paid into the system, while their benefits are determined in part by their “contributions” and by number of dependents. The entitlements of the Great Society are just the opposite. Except for Medicare, which was built off the New Deal model, the initiatives launched by LBJ are “means-tested” and contain no element of reciprocity; furthermore, their perverse benefit structures have rewarded illegitimacy and worked to displace marriage and fathers from low-income families, paving the way for the social meltdown since 1970. One might say the Great Society turned wine into water by undoing the pro-family achievements of the New Deal that helped America become the envy of the world at mid-century.
The recognition of these stark differences might help Voegeli in his attempt to persuade conservatives to rethink their ideological and constitutional objections to the welfare state. What he terms “a quixotic, self-marginalizing gesture”—especially extended by libertarians and Tea Party true believers—of imagining that the United States can return to a pre-New Deal era has painted conservatives into a corner, he laments, limiting their ability to formulate meaningful reforms of the sort that the late Irving Kristol envisioned, proposals that would be taken seriously among lawmakers and which would make the welfare state less problematic and more effective. “There can be no conservative welfare state if conservatives insist there can be no constitutional welfare state,” Voegeli warns, claiming that conservatives would find greater success in holding their constitutional powder for assaulting the regulatory state, not the welfare state. Those meaningful welfare reforms may center less around the means testing that Voegeli believes offers promise and more around making Great Society programs, especially Medicaid, look more like New Deal programs by infusing them with reciprocity and marriage incentives, as well as indexing Social Security and Medicare taxes by marital status and family size, much like the treatment of income taxes.
The Carleson Contribution
Other reforms, especially of means-tested welfare, could take their inspiration from the late Robert Carleson, whose Government Is The Problem reveals the insights of a conservative practitioner of welfare policy who designed and implemented reforms. Carleson warrants attention because he was first to deliver measurable results as the architect of Ronald Reagan’s welfare reforms in California, the precursor to reforms in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Utah as well as the replacement of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in 1996. Moreover, he reminds those who seek a more efficient and effective welfare system of the vested interests, entrenched at both state and federal levels, that seek to preserve the status quo. His book offers a taste of the fierce resistance, even from Republicans, that Carleson experienced as director of the California department of social welfare, U.S. Commissioner of Welfare, member of Reagan’s White House staff, and player in the 1996 legislation.
These in-the-trench experiences only confirmed Carleson’s hearty endorsement of Governor Reagan’s quip that welfare reform is too important to be left to the social workers. So when the governor appointed a welfare taskforce that resulted in the Welfare Reform Act of 1971, he made sure that the welfare-social services complex had no seat at the table. In Reagan and Carleson’s view, that establishment was the problem; it expanded the caseload by broadening eligibility for benefits to include the non-needy, feeding the explosion of welfare spending that threatened the solvency of the state. But by reforming the system from the outside, Carleson’s plan achieved the first reduction in state welfare rolls in a generation (by 300,000 recipients), saved California from bankruptcy, and yielded a real increase in benefits to the truly needed.
Government Is the Problem also reveals Carleson’s preference for what he calls a Jeffersonian over a Hamiltonian approach to government, or for the welfare system that the United States enjoyed before the advent of the Great Society, when the federal role was modest and states and localities were the main players. Because Social Security is marginal to his discussion, Carleson can honestly claim that the United States did not really have a welfare state in the immediate postwar era. Nonetheless, to the degree that the United States did have a welfare system, decentralization gave states greater discretion in running federal programs like AFDC, an arrangement that checked means-tested welfare spending, which did not become a growth industry until the mid-1960s.
Carleson therefore stresses the importance of reversing the “federalization” of welfare that the Great Society accomplished both legislatively and judicially and returning control to the states to allow what he was able to accomplish in his native California. Seeing the states as “laboratories of democracy,” he makes a strong case against all Washington directives, from guaranteed income schemes like the Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan to the greater federal controls called for by Heritage Foundation analyst Robert Rector when TANF was set up in 1996. He likewise calls for consolidating a host of programs through finite block grants to the states, like TANF but with no strings attached, rather than open-ended entitlements, like Medicaid and the old AFDC, to allow states maximum flexibility in fashioning programs to serve the truly needy.
Carleson’s insights are all well and good; yet reading his short memoir in a time of fiscal, economic, and social crisis bears witness to the inconvenient truth that while conservatives may have won a few welfare battles, they are not winning the war. Liberalism continues to advance as if the reforms of 1971 or 1996 hadn’t happened. Even if discretionary federal spending were trimmed back to 2008 levels, a target of the GOP, the welfare state would remain largely intact. That’s why Voegeli’s case for a “conservative welfare state,” especially if qualified by socially conservative ideals that graced the New Deal, needs to be taken more seriously by Republicans and conservatives than did Irving Kristol’s similar plea nearly twenty years ago.
Liberalism, once dominant in American politics, has for decades been in retreat. Even with Democrats in control of two branches of government, liberalism today is locked in a standoff against a deeply flawed conservatism. How did it come to this? That is the underlying question of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, a thought-provoking book by William Voegeli, a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College and a former program officer at the conservative John M. Olin Foundation.
Voegeli argues that the public’s loss of confidence in liberalism is rooted in a failure by liberals to define the limits of government. “Liberal rhetoric,” Voegeli points out, “never engages in this issue: what would be the size and nature of the welfare state that was not contemptibly austere, that did not urgently need a larger budget and a broader agenda?” Since liberals haven’t set limits on government, voters have been forced to do so instead. At the same time, many conservative ideologists advocate what amounts to the complete dismantling of the welfare state (a course of action that Voegeli, himself a conservative, considers neither viable nor decent). The result has been demoralizing gridlock.
Voegeli contends that much of the trouble began with Franklin Roosevelt in a 1932 speech that is sometimes called the New Deal Manifesto. “The task of statesmanship,” Roosevelt declared, “has always been the re-definition of [unalienable] rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.” Having claimed such power, FDR and his allies devised a “second Bill of Rights,” included in which was the right to a living wage, the right to a decent home, the right to adequate medical care, the right to a proper education, and the right to protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accidents, and unemployment. These rights, FDR suggested at times, were drawn from each individual’s “right of equality in the pursuit of happiness.”
By doing this, says Voegeli, the architects of the New Deal were creating a “living Constitution.” In the past, the “interpretation of a Constitution of enumerated powers meant to secure inalienable rights had been a matter of applying timeless principles to changing circumstances,” writes Voegeli. “A living Constitution denied the existence of timeless principles” and left the power of government, potentially, entirely open-ended and without limit.
Many liberals recognize the perils of mutable “rights” secured by ever-expanding government, but, says Voegeli, they tend to devote their energies to justifying the expansion of government rather than indicating where it all stops. For example, some liberals mount an appealing defense of the welfare state by evoking the greater common good, a line of argument that focuses on the need to harmonize individual rights with the larger public interest. Voegeli correctly observes, however, that this approach fails to set any premises either for defining what the greater common good should be or for setting appropriate boundaries on it.
Having established liberalism’s continuing tendency to expand the state, Voegeli proposes an alternative vision for the role of government in our economic lives. It starts with the premise that “a decent society is obligated to prevent the small minority of citizens who are chronically unable to fend for themselves, and the larger minority occasionally and transitionally unable to do so, from leading miserable lives.” It is to this minority of citizens, says Voegeli, that government assistance must be available, not to the more fortunate majority. While Voegeli offers no precise agenda, it’s fair to deduce that in his ideal polity programs like Social Security and Medicare, which now go to everyone, would be subject to means testing. Many other programs, such as welfare assistance or federal aid to education, would be more seriously means-tested than they now are. These positions are not inconsistent with some Tea Party rhetoric and indeed are reasonably close to the “roadmap” for future cuts in government that Rep. Paul Ryan, the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, has been touting to much fanfare in conservative circles.
Who is in “the small minority” that Voegeli describes, however, isn’t clear, nor is it explained why a decent society is obliged to assist the worst off and no one else. If liberals fail to outline a principle by which to limit the welfare state, so too, arguably, does Voegeli. Still, since liberals clearly call for a larger welfare state than conservatives do, Voegeli can perhaps be excused for placing the onus solely on liberals to explain where it ends. As for conservatives, their task, as Voegeli sees it, is to insist that liberals spell out when “the welfare state has done all we can expect of it and can no longer be beneficially expanded … or make them pay a political price for refusing to.”
In one sense, Voegeli’s call to conservatives is unnecessary: liberalism has already paid a severe political price for its shortcomings, to the political advantage of its opponents. Still, the nation would be far better off if liberals, instead of losing elections, would meet the challenge Voegeli lays down: to set forth a liberal vision of the welfare state that does the job and at the same time establishes clear limits on itself, all with an eye to the bedrock founding principles of the nation.
To accomplish this, liberals must return to the notion of liberty, or freedom. Liberty is the nation’s guiding value, and its principles, grounded in natural law, are what still lie at the heart of modern liberalism. They undergird the most fundamental liberal ideals and delineate both the role of and limits on liberal governance.
Perhaps the most ancient natural right of freedom is that of economic independence. Only if you can earn your daily bread without undue dependence on the consent of others can you really have freedom of action. That’s why freedom and economic independence are intertwined. To philosopher John Locke, economic independence in the natural condition meant having sufficient access to the commonly owned earth to provide the usual living of the time through one’s own efforts. Locke believed strongly in the ownership of private property, but the right was expressly bounded, based upon enough and as good being left for all others.
While the conditions Locke placed on the ownership of private property in the context of liberty are no longer as well remembered as they should be, they were well understood at the time of the nation’s founding. To Thomas Jefferson, the natural right of independence required that each man have sufficient means to earn a decent livelihood through his efforts. To this end, Jefferson advocated that government grant a fifty-acre homestead from the public lands, enough to support a customary livelihood, to each and every citizen who had never possessed such. As for the Declaration of Independence, the most famous of the self-evident truths contained in Jefferson’s own drafting of the Declaration asserted that “all men are created equal and independent.” The newly enacted Bill of Rights of Virginia and several of the other states proclaimed this same idea. George Washington, James Madison, and John Adams all held similar views. Abraham Lincoln later brought Jefferson’s vision to statutory life through passage of the Homestead Act and other reinforcing federal economic programs.
FDR’s declarations of rights were therefore less radical than Voegeli seems to believe. Rather than inventing new rights, or undoing old ones, Roosevelt was simply applying the unalienable natural rights of liberty as understood by Locke, leading Founders, and Lincoln to new conditions. The frontier had long since been closed. “Fifty acres and a mule” could no longer be offered to every willing citizen. Modern Americans needed alternative ways to achieve the economic independence upon which genuine freedom relies. “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” Roosevelt declared in advancing the “second Bill of Rights.” “Liberty requires opportunity to make a decent living according to the standard of the day, a living which gives a man not only enough to live by, but also something to live for.”
Such principles had to be translated into a concrete course of action. Lacking land for the millions of Americans who were shut out of work by market forces, Roosevelt created something else: a modern welfare state. The expanded role of government would counter the expanded role of remunerative employment and market conditions in the post-frontier era. If most workers were to be the employees of someone, then they must have not only effective education and training available to them, but also sufficient employment opportunities to earn at least a minimally customary living and get ahead. In cases of a dearth of opportunity, there must be provision to tide over those without work. For those especially vulnerable to market caprice, such as the old or the infirm, some form of social security should be made available. In keeping with the principles of freedom, all programs, as much as possible, were to be tied to individuals’ own work history, as unemployment insurance and Social Security both exemplify.
Roosevelt understood that economic independence also included the right of every man to secure the fruits of his labor. The vaunted Adam Smith, who strongly influenced the Founders, expressed the principle this way: “It is but equity that they who feed, cloath, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed, and lodged.” Market forces often diverge from this principle, and, in such cases, only government can serve as a corrective mechanism, by, among other things, setting minimum wages, establishing wage subsidies, encouraging and enforcing collective bargaining to help pay keep up with workers’ productivity, and instituting progressive taxation. These actions might raise the hackles of conservatives, but freedom relies on basic societal equity, which includes the principle that sufficient economic opportunity be available to all. The New Deal was an attempt—often successful, sometimes not—to restore this first principle of freedom after decades of erosion by economic injustices that had developed during industrialization and intensified during the Great Depression.
With respect to the degree of action taken by the state, there is a crucial principle of liberty that speaks to the appropriate size of government. The principle is that government must intervene no more than required to get the job done. Freedom is harmed when government taxes or regulates its citizens more than is necessary, such as if indiscriminate funding formulas were to send federal tax dollars to school districts that are already well-off. By the same token, however, freedom is harmed when government taxes or regulates less than is necessary to meet a principle, such as when schools are left without enough money to purchase updated textbooks or standard equipment. In sum, freedom does not call for small government. Rather, it calls for the smallest government that remains able to fulfill the principles of freedom. That is what the ideal of “limited government” means. Recall that the Founders themselves replaced the weak Articles of Confederation with a far more extensive and powerful federal government based on a consensus that more government was necessary for more freedom.
Voegeli surely agrees with the notion of government being as large but no larger than needed. That is why he proposes means-testing many of the benefits provided by today’s welfare state—to make sure that only those in need, and not those without need, get assistance. When we step back to examine the functioning of our markets as a whole, however, we see that Americans by the scores of millions do not enjoy the economic freedom envisioned by the Founders. While the welfare state must do no more than is necessary to remedy this problem, it must also do no less.
And the problem is severe indeed. More than one-quarter of all employed Americans—nearly 40 million workers—are paid under $11 per hour, which is to say less than what is widely considered to be the lower limit of a living wage. The vast majority are white and aged twenty-five to sixty-four, many of them with some education beyond high school. Even in the good times, the proportion of employed workers paid less than a living wage hasn’t dropped beneath 20 percent in over forty years. Then there are Americans who are doing even worse: those with no work at all. Today, the unemployed make up another 10 percent of U.S. workers. Finally, there are some 10 million workers who are employed only part-time, even though they seek and need full-time work. Unless we are to regard fully one-third of all workers in the American labor force as undeserving, there is an immense gap between Jefferson or Lincoln’s understanding of true liberty—under which every willing citizen has access to the proverbial fifty acres—and the reality left by market forces.
If that isn’t dire enough, we must also consider what the averageAmerican worker, the man (or woman) in the middle, has had to contend with. He has gotten almost no real pay increase since 1973—barely 10 percent over those thirty-seven years—despite an 80 percent improvement in worker productivity during that same time. Not only did this fuel the escalating debt that caused the present economic crisis, as the economy came to rest upon a foundation of swelling debt in place of rising pay; it also violated Adam Smith’s principle about equity, under which a worker enjoys the fruits of his labor. It was during this stretch that the average annual pay of the top 1 percent of Americans rose from $194,000 to $576,000 as measured in today’s dollars, a real pay rise of greater than 180 percent and a growth rate eighteen times faster than for the average worker. Just as happens when the minimum wage is raised at the bottom end (which conservatives tend to oppose), the billions in salary increases at the top end are passed on to consumers in the prices they are charged. To support the skyrocketing hike in annual compensation for the top 5 percent, which now costs a cool $1 trillion more than in 1973, the average American household pays a hidden premium of thousands of dollars per year today even as its own wages have flatlined.
All of this is to say that untrammeled market forces have failed the most basic principles of freedom. Perhaps this was to be expected in an era of a mounting oversupply of labor, brought on by the baby boom and its shadow, combined with a steep decline in union power. But with such a wide chasm between the routine operation of market forces and the fundamental principles of freedom to which Jefferson and Lincoln—and Roosevelt after them—were deeply committed, it is difficult to means-test or focus existing assistance programs much further. Consider some of the most important programs: temporary welfare assistance; wage subsidies to boost pay (the Earned Income Tax Credit); unemployment benefits; food stamps; school nutrition; housing aid; federal aid to education; job training; and health care assistance from programs outside of Medicare. All of these programs are already means-tested and directed primarily to Americans in the bottom third of the income ranks. They also account for a fair proportion of welfare-state spending.
What is mainly left to be considered, then, are two welfare-state giants: Social Security and Medicare. In principle, means-testing them could save many billions of dollars. But, again, principles must eventually be translated into real-world policies, and here the specifics are crucial. Unfortunately, Voegeli gives few details. Would all workers continue to pay in, as they do now, but only some receive benefits? Even if Social Security payments were restricted to those with gross incomes of under $50,000 in retirement, that would still leave about 90 percent of Social Security recipients eligible for full benefits—and wouldn’t cut anything close to what Voegeli seems to have in mind. Or would we reduce the size of benefits across the board? That would cause serious hardship to the majority of households, whose wages haven’t grown for decades and who have therefore been unable to build significant additional savings for retirement.
And, what of Medicare? In its absence, the access it offers to medical care for the elderly, perhaps the highest-risk group, would be far beyond the financial means of all but a very small proportion of households. Of course, one money saver would be to create incentives to guide our health care spending toward treatments that actually work for patients. The Obama administration advocated doing precisely that, but conservatives cavalierly scuttled it, claiming that it would result in government death panels. So much for discipline and efficiency in government!
If Washington were to tax the nearly $1 trillion in pay hikes to the top 5 percent at a rate of 50 percent and to crack down on tax fraud and offshore tax evasion (which by themselves cost hundreds of billions in tax revenues annually), the combination would suffice to address the structural deficit we currently face, including resolving the long-term financing issues of both Medicare and Social Security. In addition, it would leave enough revenues with which to bolster the creation of millions of new good private-sector jobs and public-sector infrastructure employment. That, along with a more solid minimum wage, encouragement of collective bargaining, and more effective use of the government’s contracting power, would start to bridge the gap between the age-old principles of American liberty and the way all too many Americans are now treated by the economy. Sufficient resources to complete the job, and possibly even permit some tax reductions, would result from applying the axiom of freedom that government must be large enough to achieve its proper ends, but no larger. That axiom would be the basis for overdue cuts in areas ranging from health care outlays and farm expenditures to military spending.
Or do we want to leave matters as they are now? Do we want to continue paying as consumers for outsized salaries while ignoring the confining economic struggles that average Americans have been enduring for decades? Do we want to live with such danger to both our liberty and our economy? That’s the choice now facing us. That’s the choice Voegeli ignores. And that’s the choice that liberals, in the name of liberty, are best endowed to make. John E. Schwarz is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos in New York City; professor emeritus of political science at the University of Arizona; and author of Freedom Reclaimed: Rediscovering the American Vision.
Never Enough is an analysis of the history, politics, and economics of liberalism. You’ll find nothing better. William Voegeli’s perceptions are keen, and his wry humor exposes the liberal bent for espousing contradictory positions simultaneously.
Voegeli’s thesis is that liberalism has no limiting principle. As Samuel Gompers once famously said, “We do want more, and when it becomes more, we shall still want more.” Liberals insist that government must do more to help the poor, provide economic security, develop social justice — fill in the blanks — but they are unable to say how much more is enough.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson said, “We’re in favor of a lot of things and we’re against mighty few.” That’s about as rigorous as the liberal theory of the welfare state ever gets.
The author reviews the premises and strategies that accompanied the growth of the welfare state, as well as conservatives’ (unsuccessful) efforts to thwart it. In the first chapter, he defines and measures the growth of America’s welfare state and compares it to thirteen other democratic nations. The information may surprise, but it will not bore.
Voegeli traces liberal policies and strategies that began with Woodrow Wilson and were enshrined by FDR. He writes that despite Roosevelt’s losing the battle to pack the Supreme Court with liberal justices, the Court began doing his bidding even before he was able to appoint a majority of its members. Beginning in 1937, the Court
dismantled every one of the constitutional impediments to government activism. … The New Deal changed America’s Constitution from one where the powers of government are enumerated into one where they were innumerable.
Wilson and Roosevelt sought to replace the Constitution that confined government with a more malleable “living constitution.”
The interpretation of a constitution of enumerated powers meant to secure inalienable rights had been a matter of applying timeless principles to changing circumstances. A living Constitution denied the existence of timeless principles; its fundamental principles changed as the nation’s economic and social circumstances changed.
In the popular vernacular: “If you have a problem, government has a program.” Pete Stark’s and Nancy Pelosi’s disdain for the idea that the Constitution limits their legislative prerogatives is the result.
Roosevelt’s genius was to present progressive goals as an expansion, rather than subversion, of constitutional principles. While claiming to be faithful to the Constitution, Roosevelt enlarged it to encompass a vast array of new economic and social “rights” that were not inalienable, but bestowed by government. According to the first national chairman of Americans for Democratic Action, “It is the job of government to widen the chance for development of individual personalities. It is not enough for society to guarantee the physical survival of its inhabitants; it must nourish the dignity of an individual human being.”
Voegeli comments, “Given such expansive understandings of the government‘s obligation to its citizens, it’s no surprise that FDR insisted — and liberals have availed themselves of — the right to discover new rights.”
If Roosevelt accomplished liberal goals by oratorical misdirection, those who followed him used other means. The author describes the transformation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from “a law requiring all citizens to be treated equally to a policy requiring that they be treated unequally as one of the most audacious bate-and-switch operations in American political history.”
Senator Hubert Humphrey assured opponents that “Title VII [of the act] prohibits discrimination … it says that race, religion and national origin are not to be used as the basis for hiring and firing,” However, President Johnson charted a different course when he announced “the next and the more profound stage in the battle for civil rights” is “equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
President Clinton extended this logic in 1995 by citing a study showing that although white males “make up 43% of the work force,” they “hold 95%’ of senior management positions in the nation’s largest companies.” Thus, Voegeli observes:
The percentage of Puerto Rican orthodontists should equal the percentage of Puerto Ricans in the population, so that a Puerto Rican is as likely as anyone else to be an orthodontist, and an orthodontist is as likely as anyone else to be a Puerto Rican.
The welfare state expands because poverty, in the liberal lexicon, is a relative term. Its present-day meaning is quite different from the economic dislocations of the Great Depression.
According to a federal study, “91% of households classified as poor in 2001 owned color televisions, 74% had microwave ovens, 55% VCRs and 47% dishwashers.” Far from indicating a need to reconsider taxpayer support, one liberal pundit averred they these people are poor because “they live in a society in which many families also possess DVD players, cell phones, desktop computers, broadband Internet connections…”
If the economic trends of the past seven decades continue for the next seven and beyond, however, then it’s only a matter of time before the vast majority of poor people own second and third homes equipped with broad band Internet access, and can drive their SUV’s to get to them.
Merely equalizing incomes is not sufficient, either. Liberals must solve the problems of obesity, bullying, lack of self-esteem, and whatever else is essential to “nourish dignity of an individual human being.” Voegeli writes, “in the logic of limitless liberalism the individual’s pursuit of happiness has been transformed into the government’s burden of delivering it.”
Liberals’ emotional attachment to “doing good” as justification for doing anything (they think) needs doing runs aground on their refusal to contend with the problem of paying for all this goodness. The author observes:
The welfare state manages people’s perceptions of its costs and benefits to encourage them to believe an impossibility: that every household can be a net importer of the wealth redistributed by the government.
The liberal response to the question of paying for the welfare state has been a protracted exercise in intellectual dishonesty, borne of a conviction that the question doesn’t need to be answered if it can be made to go away. Liberals have, generally, been happy to tell people what they want to hear[.]
The program “will pay for itself” (as President Obama claimed about the health care bill). Or the money will come from “the very rich and big corporations.” These responses, however, cannot withstand even cursory scrutiny.
Liberalism eschews the idea of having to decide between more and less deserving programs and, when confronted with economic reality, either frames the outlays as “investments” we cannot afford not to make or identifies opponents as “greedy bigots,” or worse.
Voegeli, however, sees the real danger of the ever-expanding welfare state as more profound than its unsustainable economics. He concludes that its worst aspect is the threat that it poses to the very existence of self-government.
The danger liberalism poses to the American experiment comes from its disposition to deplete rather than replenish the capital required for self-government. The operation of entitlement programs leaves the country financially overextended, while the rhetoric and rationale for those programs leave it politically overextended. They proffer new “rights”, goad people to demand and expand those rights aggressively, and disdain truth-in-advertising about the nature and scope of the new debts and obligations those rights will engender. The moral and social capital required by the experiment in self-government is the cultivation, against the grain of a democratic age, of the virtues of forbearance, resolve, sacrifice, and restraint. …
For self-government to be viable, both citizens and rulers must regard themselves as custodians who will determine whether self-government endures, rather than as consumers of what government provides and redistributes.
It is not possible for a review to do justice to Never Enough. Voegeli’s book should be read in full, preferably by both political camps. The author’s lucid and engaging style makes that a pleasure, not a hardship. He explains how we got to where we are, and suggests a way out of “the hundred years war … between left and right over the growth of the welfare state — a war the left has been slowly winning.” He offers not a way back to where we started, but the possibility of a future.
William Voegeli has bad tidings for advocates of limited government and low taxes: There is no endgame when it comes to the liberal agenda.
If tomorrow, liberals in Congress, state legislatures, and town councils all across the nation raised taxes and increased spending in order to fund every single item on every special-interest wish list, would social-justice nirvana have arrived? No.
Within hours, some liberal would find an unmet need – perhaps a champagne shortage due to the previous day’s celebrations – that only a new government program could address.
It gets worse: Voegeli says that despite conservatives’ good-faith efforts to halt or reverse the growth of government, those attempts have been largely ineffective.
None of this will be news to tea partyers or like-minded folks. Maybe they haven’t expressed these concerns as eloquently and authoritatively as Voegeli does in his new book, Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, but they have long understood the sentiment. In fact, the book’s explanation for how America got to this point is in sync with the concerns raised regularly at tea parties.
“Liberalism’s irrepressible drive for an ever larger welfare state without limit arises from at least two premises upon which the left no longer reflects: the elevation of compassion to a political principle (albeit with other people’s money), and the erosion of meaningful constitutional limits on government on account of the imperatives of the idea of Progress,” Steven F. Hayward says in the foreword.
Voegeli follows up: “[B]ecause compassion is an emotional response rather than a moral principle, it defeats every attempt to make wise choices about which sufferers do and don’t deserve governmentally dispensed solace.”
A benefit might begin for Americans at or below the poverty level. But then what of those just above the poverty level? How can we exclude them? If the criterion is compassion, on what grounds do you stop expanding a program? 200 percent of the poverty level? 300?
Of course, the more people covered, the larger the constituency for continuing the program.
And don’t even think of cutting the program’s budget. Even talk of slowing its growth will be met with howls of outrage. Republicans learned this lesson with Medicare in the 1990s – and turned the tables in the recent health-care debate.
Welfare-state godfather Franklin Roosevelt once suggested that failed programs could be shut down, but that has never happened, Voegeli says.
“There is not one clear instance of a welfare state program that liberals by consensus came to regard as a failure, to be frankly admitted and abandoned,” he writes.
Even under Ronald Reagan, who scaled back government somewhat, spending on what Voegeli terms “human resources” grew 0.90 percent. That’s far less than under most presidents, but still an increase.
“Reagan’s ‘triumph’ was to yield ground more slowly than any other political leader in the battle that conservatives consider their central mission,” Voegeli writes.
Reagan learned that Americans really like those programs they complain about funding. So a Crazy Eddie libertarian approach to government – “Everything must go!!” – isn’t likely to be successful at the polls.
“In exchange for a lottery player’s chance at wiping it out entirely, such conservatives forfeit any prospect of placing the welfare state on sounder footing, financially, functionally, or philosophically,” Voegeli says. Thus liberals “will have the unfettered ability to chart its future course.”
I suspect that message might trouble some tea partyers who equate compromise with surrender or see almost all government programs as unconstitutional. But note that Voegeli isn’t saying to give up the fight for liberty, self-government, or free markets. He’s just saying that not all fights rise to constitutional-crisis level, and that it’s tough to fight when sidelined – as the GOP and conservatives are today in Washington.
It’s especially important to get in the game now. Crippling deficits have the attention of Americans as never before, and many are open to a serious alternative to the nation’s unsustainable fiscal course. Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) has one, the Road Map for America’s Future (www.americanroadmap.org), a comprehensive approach to entitlement, budget, spending, and tax reform. The safety net he outlines is different from the current one, but it doesn’t bankrupt the country. The Congressional Budget Office said the plan would “make the Social Security and Medicare programs permanently solvent [and] lift the growing debt burden on future generations . . .”
The Never Enough crowd naturally doesn’t want the limits that Ryan proposes. That’s enough of an endorsement for me.
Have American progressives rejected the belief in natural rights that inspired the American Founding, in order to worship History with a capital “H” while putting as many of their fellow citizens as possible on the dole? That’s the claim of the small group of followers of the late philosopher Leo Strauss who have become Glenn Beck’s historians. Now the columnist George Will, who should know better, has joined the television demagogue Glenn Beck in the Orwellian project of rewriting American history in order to demonize liberalism.
In a review of “Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State” by William Voegeli, editor of the Claremont Review, Will endorses the outlandish claims of the Straussian school. According to Will, we must choose between “two Princetonians — James Madison, class of 1771, and Woodrow Wilson, class of 1879.” Madisonian conservatives believe that government should “protect the exercise of natural rights that pre-exist government, rights that human reason can ascertain in unchanging principles of conduct and that are essential to the pursuit of happiness.” In contrast, Wilsonian progressives believe that History with a capital “H” “rather than nature, defines government’s ever-evolving menu of rights — entitlements that serve an open-ended understanding of material and even spiritual well-being.”
If Will and Voegeli are to be believed, Franklin Roosevelt and “Lyndon Johnson, an FDR protégé,” both “repudiated the Founders’ idea that government is instituted to protect pre-existing and timeless natural rights, promising ‘the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order …’” The result of this repudiation of natural rights by American liberals, Voegeli writes, is a welfare state “blanketing the skies with crisscrossing dollars.” According to Voegeli, “Lacking a limiting principle, progressives cannot say how big the welfare state should be but must always say that it should be bigger than it is.”
Will and Voegeli repeat two now-familiar claims of Straussian propaganda. First, FDR, LBJ and modern liberals have rejected the idea of “pre-existing and timeless natural rights.” Second, they have favored putting as many people as possible on the dole. The historical record makes it clear that both accusations are libels.
It is true that Woodrow Wilson, like many other political scientists in the early 1900s, was influenced by German scholarship that emphasized cultural and social evolution and rejected the Lockean tradition of natural rights liberalism as outmoded and “Newtonian.” But as Derek Webb points out in an important essay titled “The Natural Rights Liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Economic Rights and the American Political Tradition” (2007): “Roosevelt, unlike many of his Progressive predecessors, self-consciously grounded his defence of economic rights in the philosophical, historical, and constitutional principles of early American liberalism.”
Was Roosevelt repudiating the American Founding when he told Democrats in Philadelphia in 1936: “This is fitting ground on which to reaffirm the faith of our fathers; to pledge ourselves to restore to the people a wider freedom; to give to 1936 as the founders gave to 1776 — an American way of life.” The goal of the New Deal, he explained, was “to preserve to the United States the political and economic freedom for which Washington and Jefferson planned and fought.” What do George Will and William Voegeli think that FDR meant by “reaffirm,” “restore” and “preserve”?
Was Hubert Humphrey at the 1948 Democratic national convention repudiating the ideals of the Declaration of Independence when he helped provoke a walk-out by Southern segregationists who opposed the party’s civil rights plank? “To those who say, my friends, to those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years too late! To those who say, this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!” If George Will and William Voegeli do the math, they will discover that 172 years before 1948 was … 1776.
Do the Straussians believe that Martin Luther King, Jr. repudiated the ideals of the Declaration of Independence? In his “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” in 1963, he wrote: “Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist — ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist — ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August of that year, King famously said: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”
Will and Voegeli imply that when Roosevelt spoke of renegotiating the social contract to acknowledge new economic rights, he was throwing out the previous American understanding of natural rights. This is a deliberate misreading of what FDR said. Roosevelt observed: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” Far from being heretical, Roosevelt’s sentiment was taken for granted by early American statesmen like Jefferson, whose goal of “economic security and independence” was promoted by encouraging the ownership of small farms and pre-industrial shops.
Roosevelt argued that small-government Jeffersonianism made sense in a society of farmers: “The happiest of economic conditions made that day long and splendid. On the Western frontier, land was substantially free. No one, who did not shirk the task of earning a living, was entirely without opportunity to do so.” Industrialization and urbanization, however, made a new “economic constitutional order” necessary, if the unchanging ideals of the American revolution were to be achieved in modern conditions.
The goal of the New Deal was, among other things, to save the relatively recent innovation of large-scale corporate capitalism, which was unknown to the Founders: “We did not think because national government had become a threat in the 18th century that therefore we should abandon the principle of national government. Nor today should we abandon the principle of strong economic units called corporations, merely because their power is susceptible of easy abuse.” This is not the language of a radical, and indeed FDR told the Democratic State Convention in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1936: “The true conservative seeks to protect the system of private property and free enterprise by correcting such injustices and inequalities as arise from it. The most serious threat to our institutions comes from those who refuse to face the need for change. Liberalism becomes the protection for the far-sighted conservative … I am that kind of conservative because I am that kind of liberal.”
The Straussian claim that American liberals since the New Deal have repudiated the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, then, is nothing more than a smear, like calling Barack Obama a socialist or fascist. What about Voegeli’s claim, seconded by George Will, that liberals have a limitless appetite for addicting Americans to welfare?
Here, too, the historical record contradicts right-wing propaganda. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson detested what both called “the dole.” In 1935 FDR asked Congress to replace relief payments with public employment programs:
The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers. The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief.
I am not willing that the vitality of our people be further sapped by the giving of cash, of market baskets, of a few hours of weekly work cutting grass, raking leaves or picking up papers in the public parks. We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.
Like his mentor Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, who headed the National Youth Administration work program in Texas in the 1930s, supported workfare, not welfare, for the able-bodied poor. Describing the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which promoted jobs and training for the poor, Johnson said: “This is not in any sense a cynical proposal to exploit the poor with a promise of a handout or a dole. We know — we learned long ago — that answer is no answer … We are not content to accept the endless growth of relief rolls or welfare rolls.” When the bill was being drafted, Johnson ordered one aide, Lester Thurow, to remove any cash support programs, and told another aide, Bill Moyers, “You tell [Sargent] Shriver, no doles.”
The Rooseveltian liberal preference for public jobs over cash grants for the poor was shared by the patron saint of natural rights liberalism, John Locke, who in the 1690s proposed that the deserving poor be employed at public expense. Will and Voegeli to the contrary, liberals in the Rooseveltian tradition have always favored public work programs like Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps and Johnson’s Job Corps and Volunteers in Service to America as an alternative to welfare payments to poor people able to work. It is conservatives who have consistently opposed public work programs. When FDR’s National Resources Planning Board in 1943 proposed using a permanent public works program as an alternative to cash relief after the war, conservatives in Congress killed the agency and buried the report. In 1984, when Congress, led by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, created the American Conservation Corps, modeled on the Depression-era CCC, President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill.
Reagan’s veto was ironic, because in the 1930s his father, Jack Reagan, had been the head of the WPA in Dixon, Ill. Reagan remembered the WPA fondly: “Now, a lot of people remember it as a boondoggle and … raking leaves … Maybe in some places it was. Maybe in the big city machines or something. But I can take you to our town and show you things, like a river front that I used to hike through once that was swamp and is now a beautiful park-like place built by WPA.”
It is true that in his 1972 presidential campaign, George McGovern supported the idea of a guaranteed income or “demogrant,” a proposal that Johnson had rejected. But the idea of a guaranteed income or negative income tax was proposed by none other than the libertarian economist Milton Friedman in the conservative magazine National Review in 1967. After defeating McGovern, Nixon adopted the negative income tax as his own proposal. When it was rejected by Congress, a modified version of the negative income tax in the form of the Earned Income Tax Credit became the preferred welfare program of the Ford and Reagan administrations and of Bill Clinton, a center-right Democrat who broke with the New Deal tradition on this as on other subjects. Recently, Charles Murray wrote an entire book proposing to replace welfare programs with a guaranteed income.
What accounts for the infatuation of conservatives like Milton Friedman and Charles Murray with giving cash to the poor instead of providing them with public works jobs like the WPA job that rescued Reagan’s father from unemployment in the Great Depression?
Friedman and most other economists on the American right, like neoclassical economists in general, do not think about the economy as Roosevelt and Johnson did, in terms of republican citizenship and the dignity of labor. Chicago School economists are utilitarians. For them, poverty is by definition a lack of money and the simplest way to cure it is to write checks to the working poor or the non-working poor. Writing checks involves less bureaucracy than public works programs that add to our national infrastructure or increase our quality of life. The Lockean republican objection of Roosevelt to cash relief — “We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination” — is alien to the value system of utilitarian economics.
Of course there are reasons other than ideology why conservative elites prefer a negative income tax to public jobs programs or a higher minimum wage. The guaranteed income, like the earned income tax credit, functions as a subsidy to the employers and customers of low-wage labor. These programs obey the First Commandment of Crony Conservatism: privatize the benefits while socializing the costs. The EITC is a massive subsidy of businesses and consumers in the low-wage South by American taxpayers in other regions. That is why the EITC has been the favorite antipoverty program not only of conservatives but also of center-right Democrats from the South like Bill Clinton, Lloyd Bentsen and Russell Long.
This strategy of direct or indirect taxpayer subsidies for starvation-wage enterprises is the opposite of the one announced by FDR in 1933: “No business which depends for its existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.” While acknowledging a minor role for a limited EITC, liberals in the New Deal tradition prefer a combination of a living wage with public works programs to mop up any incidental unemployment caused by a living wage. And the case for WPA-style public works programs for the long-term unemployed in today’s near-Depression grows stronger by the day.
As long as the Straussian school consisted of a small group of uninfluential scholars who spoke mainly to one another, it could do little harm to the republic. But now that their attempt to rewrite American history in the service of contemporary conservatism is being broadcast to the world not only by demagogues like Glenn Beck but also by serious public intellectuals like George Will, the Straussians must be refuted. America does not need to choose between James Madison and Woodrow Wilson. But it does need to choose between Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover. And we know which side George Will, William Voegeli and the Straussians are on.
Today, as it has been for a century, American politics is an argument between two Princetonians — James Madison, Class of 1771, and Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879. Madison was the most profound thinker among the Founders. Wilson, avatar of “progressivism,” was the first president critical of the nation’s founding. Barack Obama’s Wilsonian agenda reflects its namesake’s rejection of limited government.
Lack of “a limiting principle” is the essence of progressivism, according to William Voegeli, contributing editor of the Claremont Review of Books, in his new book “Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State.” The Founders, he writes, believed that free government’s purpose, and the threats to it, are found in nature. The threats are desires for untrammeled power, desires which, Madison said, are “sown in the nature of man.” Government’s limited purpose is to protect the exercise of natural rights that pre-exist government, rights that human reason can ascertain in unchanging principles of conduct and that are essential to the pursuit of happiness.
Wilsonian progressives believe that History is a proper noun, an autonomous thing. It, rather than nature, defines government’s ever-evolving and unlimited purposes. Government exists to dispense an ever-expanding menu of rights — entitlements that serve an open-ended understanding of material and even spiritual well-being.
The name “progressivism” implies criticism of the Founding, which we leave behind as we make progress. And the name is tautological: History is progressive because progress is defined as whatever History produces. History guarantees what the Supreme Court has called “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”
The cheerful assumption is that “evolving” must mean “improving.” Progressivism’s promise is a program for every problem, and progressivism’s premise is that every unfulfilled desire is a problem.
Franklin Roosevelt, an alumnus of Wilson’s administration, resolved to “resume” Wilson’s “march along the path of real progress” by giving government “the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.” He repudiated the Founders’ idea that government is instituted to protect pre-existing and timeless natural rights, promising “the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.”
He promised “a right to make a comfortable living.” Presumably, the judiciary would define and enforce the delivery of comfort. Specifically, there could be no right to “do anything which deprives others” of whatever “elemental rights” the government decides to dispense.
Today, government finds the limitless power of dispensing not in Madison’s Constitution of limited government but in Wilson’s theory that the Constitution actually frees government from limitations. The liberating — for government — idea is that the Constitution is a “living,” evolving document. Wilson’s Constitution is an emancipation proclamation for government, empowering it to regulate all human activities in order to treat all human desires as needs and hence as rights. Unlimited power is entailed by what Voegeli calls government’s “right to discover new rights.”
“Liberalism’s protean understanding of rights,” he says, “complicates and ultimately dooms the idea of a principled refusal to elevate any benefit that we would like people to enjoy to the status of an inviolable right.” Needs breed rights to have the needs addressed, to the point that Lyndon Johnson, an FDR protege, promised that government would provide Americans with “purpose” and “meaning.”
Although progressivism’s ever-lengthening list of rights is as limitless as human needs/desires, one right that never makes the list is the right to keep some inviolable portion of one’s private wealth or income, “regardless,” Voegeli says, “of the lofty purposes social reformers wish to make of it.”
Lacking a limiting principle, progressivism cannot say how big the welfare state should be but must always say that it should be bigger than it currently is. Furthermore, by making a welfare state a fountain of rights requisite for democracy, progressives in effect declare that democratic deliberation about the legitimacy of the welfare state is illegitimate.
“By blackening the skies with crisscrossing dollars,” Voegeli says, the welfare state encourages people “to believe an impossibility: that every household can be a net importer of the wealth redistributed by the government.” But the welfare state’s problem, today becoming vivid, is socialism’s problem, as Margaret Thatcher defined it: Socialist governments “always run out of other people’s money.”
Wilsonian government, meaning (in Wilson’s words) government with “unstinted power,” is hostile to Madison’s Constitution, which, Madison said, obliges government “to control itself.” Thus our choice is between government restraint rooted in respect for nature, or government free to follow History wherever government says History marches.
The flames from Greece’s debt crisis protests have cast new light on the perils of our own overspending and overborrowing. You know the litany. California is imploding. Public sector unions there, and across the country, are swallowing budgets. In California alone, pension costs have gone up 2,000% in a decade. At the national level, ObamaCare has done little to fix — and much to hurt — America’s long-term entitlement mess. Already, the structural deficit has tripled since 2007. Economist Price Fishback has just published a paper finding that America spends more on social welfare than socialist Sweden (though we spend it differently).
Meanwhile, this newspaper recently reported that “paychecks from private business shrank to their smallest share of personal income in U.S. history during the first quarter of this year,” while government benefits rose to a record high. In fact, government employment is becoming a method of redistributing wealth. In 2009, the federal payroll grew and the number of federal jobs paying over $100,000 a year doubled.
Since the recession began, the private sector cut 8.5 million jobs (more than 7% of the workforce) while local governments cut 141,000 (less than 1%). Moreover, the average federal worker earns over 70% more than the average private sector worker, writes Arthur Brooks in his new book The Battle: “To find this acceptable, you must agree that the average federal worker is much more productive or deserving than the average person in the private sector.”
Yet the Democrats want more. More what? More everything. Even as the economy is starting to grow and many experts think we should trim debt and spending, Democrats want another stimulus bill, to extend jobless benefits. (They call them “jobs bills” now.) It turns out that all of that talk of a “temporary” stimulus was just that: temporary talk.
Indeed, the mess we have today is merely the natural result of a century-long battle over the size of government. When it comes to the welfare state, liberals want more, conservatives want less. It seems that nobody ever talks about “enough.”
Except that’s not entirely true. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., offered an alternative vision of government in his famous “Roadmap.” It was, in the words of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a blueprint for a “conservative welfare state.” The idea was that the truly needy would be taken care of because they are truly needy, but that middle-class entitlements would be scaled back for two simple reasons: 1) we cannot afford them, and 2) excessive government meddling in areas such as health care increases costs and wastes money.
Ryan’s blueprint was denounced by liberals as too stingy and largely ignored by much of the Republican leadership, who were happy to just say “No” to Obama’s plans without offering voters anything serious to say yes to.
William Voegeli, a scholar of impeccable conservative credentials, has joined Ryan’s battle in his book Never Enough, a searing indictment of what he calls the Hundred Years’ War between the party of more and the party of less. Voegeli argues that American voters (including most Republicans) will never fully eradicate the welfare state because they don’t want to. And so conservatives should make peace with the idea that the federal government should help the truly needy, while rejecting both the sorts of middle- and upper-class entitlements that are bankrupting the country and the kind of government “dole” that breeds bad habits among the poor and able-bodied.
Time for a new strategy
Purist libertarians who see merely a surrender to liberalism should at least acknowledge that liberals would denounce any suggestion of means testing America’s safety net (as will many voters). Moreover, the current strategy has witnessed a century of nearly uninterrupted growth in the welfare state, even under Ronald Reagan. That alone recommends a new strategy.
Consider Social Security. Liberals are absolutely committed to the idea that everybody should be in the same creaky retirement system. They insist that middle- and upper-class voters must be bribed to support the poor. So Warren Buffett gets a Social Security check to ensure everyone does. In fairness, some liberals also claim that a universal entitlement binds us together as a nation. The former claim is cynical, the latter poetic nonsense.
Governments do not generate wealth; they can merely distribute it. The challenge for both liberals and conservatives is simply to define how much distribution is “enough.” What would an acceptable safety net look like? Who should be taken care of by taxpayers and for how long? Paul Ryan offered an answer to that question, and liberals scoffed because they reject the question. There’s no such thing as enough. That’s what the Greeks thought.