After the Welfare State

by admin on 06/20/2011 1:01 AM

The moral price of dependence on government is even higher than the financial cost.

That crashing sound you hear? It’s the sound of welfare states in collapse. From Albany to Athens, all but the dimmest observers now recognize that the model we’ve been following has run aground—morally, socially and fiscally. Less clear is what’s going to replace it.

Today, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan gives a hint at the possibilities. Over the next few weeks, the Beltway will consume itself defending or defenestrating his numbers and projections. Yet Mr. Ryan’s budget is less about dollars and cents than the assumption behind them: that the best way to help Americans is to increase their access to the market rather than try to shield them from it.

The implications of that assumption are fleshed out in a prescient essay in the spring issue of National Affairs called “Beyond the Welfare State.” Written by a former White House colleague of mine, Yuval Levin, it argues that the moment is ripe for conservatives to address the primary failure of the welfare state: a vision of man that is too narrow, tethered to a trust in government that is too high.

Conservatives, he says, reject the notion both that capitalism is dehumanizing, and that you increase social solidarity by increasing middle-class dependence on government. A conservative vision would consequently put a premium on upward mobility, promote personal responsibility, and in general regard institutions such as church and family as assets to be embraced rather than obstacles to be overcome. In short, as Mr. Levin says, it would “insist on the distinction between a welfare program and a welfare state.”

You can see what Mr. Levin is driving at in Mr. Ryan’s pitch for Medicare reform. Under the existing system, the government simply pays for its recipients’ health care. The result is an increasingly unwieldy bureaucracy that sets prices, imposes thousands of pages of regulation, and is growing far faster than our ability to pay for it.

Mr. Ryan proposes a simple but dramatic shift: helping people afford private coverage. Under this reformed system, seniors would have their private premiums subsidized, and the poorest would get the largest subsidies. The hope is that over time it would have the opposite effect of the present system. Instead of increasing the dependence of the middle class, it would help make all seniors consumers.

Alas, bringing the middle classes into government programs has been a key aim of the social democratic state. We all know that has helped raise the financial costs to levels we can no longer afford. The moral and social price of expanding government, however, has been even more costly.

In a remarkable blog post at the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead notes that today African-Americans are fleeing the “urban paradises of liberal legislation and high public union membership” for the suburbs and job-creating red states. Another way of putting it is that the progressive policies and programs that were supposed to advance equality and opportunity have instead left blighted communities and blighted lives in their wake. This he calls “the most devastating possible indictment of the 20th century liberal enterprise in the United States.”

It didn’t have to turn out this way. Somewhere along the line, liberals came to accept that the only path to their goals was through government. Huge bureaucracies and powerful constituencies grew up around that idea, turning the private sector into something that existed only to be squeezed for the necessary funding.

Ironically, in their obsession with government, American liberals continue to overlook their greatest strength: their ability to set goals for our society. . .

Liberals tend to oppose even these improvements. Sadly, they’ve become wed to the welfare state’s most debilitating premise—that the sole provider for some of the most important goods and services must be the most inefficient institution in American life: the government. . .

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