Conservatives and the Welfare State: War or Peace?

by Reihan Salam

James Pethokoukis, echoing AEI President Arthur Brooks, argues that American conservatives have to declare peace on the safety net. Andrew McCarthy, writing at The Corner, takes Charles Krauthammer to task for making a broadly similar case. I recommend reading both arguments side by side. My sympathies are with Pethokoukis’s position, but McCarthy does an able job of making his case.

Recently, a friend of mine observed that conservatives can be divided into roughly three camps with regards to the idea of a federally-financed social safety net: (1) there are those who oppose it on normative grounds and who believe that political efforts should be geared towards rolling it back; (2) there are those who oppose it on normative grounds yet who recognize that its political entrenchment can’t be wished away, and so they believe that political efforts should be geared towards containing its size, restraining its worst excesses, improving it at the margins, and rolling it back when the opportunity presents itself; and (3) there are those who affirmatively believe that the federal government ought to play a role in financing the safety net, yet who are keen to make it as fiscally sustainable, work-friendly, and pro-growth as possible. My impression is that Andrew McCarthy falls in the first category while James Pethokoukis falls somewhere between the second and the third while Charles Krauthammer falls in the third. These differences matter relatively little when conservatives are united in opposition to some new legislative initiative. But they matter a good deal more when the right seeks to unite around a governing agenda, and when sluggish growth creates hard fiscal constraints and social strains.

(There are, to be sure, other cleavages dividing conservatives. One cross-cutting factor is the politics of recognition, which is commonly associated with the left, yet which shapes the outlook of both the left and the right in modern America. For example, I’d guess that I care more about about the future of the U.S. as a diverse but cohesive English-speaking cultural community than other people in the third camp, and this concern informs my views on the laws governing immigration, education, and the labor market, among other things.)