The Republican Embrace of the Welfare State

by Andrew C. McCarthy
The establishment GOP has accepted progressivism’s central premise.

Charles Krauthammer has come to my rescue. You see, I’ve been on the receiving end of some spirited reaction since asserting in last weekend’s column that what we commonly call the Republican establishment — i.e., not all individual Republicans but GOP leadership — “is more sympathetic to Obama’s case for the welfare state than to the Tea Party’s case for limited government and individual liberty.” The statement may have been provocative in the sense of expressing a truth that people on the political Right prefer not to talk about. But it was not controversial because it is indisputably true.

This week, Dr. Krauthammer, Washington’s most influential expositor of mainstream GOP thought, obligingly spared me the need to prove my point. He gave as clear an account of the modern Republican conception of “conservatism” as you will find. Fittingly, he did it on the program of progressive commentator and comedian Jon Stewart. Today’s smartest Republicans, self-aware enough to know their core views deviate significantly from those of conservatives in the tradition of Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan, are more likely to say what they think to Jon Stewart. His audience is apt to be receptive, maybe even won over, by a mature progressivism portrayed as what conservatives really think. It is not likely to go over as well with, say, readers of National Review.

Stewart claimed that conservatives are anti-government. Initially, Krauthammer appeared to reject this caricature, replying, “The conservative idea is not that government has no role.” But, alas, when he got around to what the proper role of government is, Krauthammer sounded more like Stewart than Buckley.

To begin with, he largely buys the caricature. It would have been credible, he told Stewart, to have argued that conservatives were anti-government “in the Thirties, when conservatives opposed the New Deal.”

That’s just wrong. Conservatives who opposed the New Deal were not anti-government. They believed, as they believe today, in constitutionally defined, limited government. And “limited” does not mean “small” — where the Constitution assigns the central government an authority, such as national security, it must be as big and strong as necessary to execute that authority.

Having accepted Stewart’s central premise — namely, that what Stewart called the “responsibility of governance” embraces the massive, centralized welfare state — Krauthammer pronounced that today’s conservatives unquestionably accepted

the great achievements of liberalism — the achievements of the New Deal, of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare. The idea that you rescue the elderly and don’t allow the elderly to enter into destitution is a consensual idea [accepted by] conservatives, at least the mainstream of conservatives.

With due respect to Charles, no, the New Deal and the centralized welfare state that is its progeny is accepted by the mainstream of Republicans. What Charles describes, moreover, is as fanciful a portrayal of what the New Deal did as it is of what conservatives believe.

Conservatives, including most of those who were against the New Deal, are not opposed to social welfare for the truly needy. We believe, however, in the constitutional framework, which reserves the promotion of social welfare to the states and the people. Social-welfare policy is not one of what Madison described as “the few and defined” powers delegated to the central government. It is, instead, a paradigmatic power of the sovereign states because, as Madison elaborated, it “concern[s] the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.” The Constitution thus enables Congress to tax and spend for the general welfare — on public goods, related to Congress’s carefully enumerated Article I powers, that benefit all Americans; not on redistributionist schemes that fleece some citizens for the benefit of others.

This is not just sound constitutional federalism, it is good policy. Private charity is reliably based on need; it will target the people whose straits are truly dire. Government, to the contrary, is a poor delivery system for social welfare because redistributions of wealth determined by politicians using the compulsory force of law are inevitably made based on political considerations — buying votes — rather than need.

If welfare policy is made at the state level, there are important disciplines in the equation that can prevent the programs from bankrupting the state and unduly punishing productivity. Economic conditions vary widely in a nation of our size, so welfare programs are best designed and run at the local level, by elected officials directly accountable to the people who live with the consequences — officials who can easily alter the programs if conditions change. States know they are in competition with each other, and if wealth redistribution is too onerous in one state, people and businesses can move to others. States and localities also may not print money, and they have incentives (and often constitutional requirements) to balance their budgets that do not exist at the federal level. At the state level, there can be a sensible balancing of “internal order, improvement, and prosperity.”

This is not so at the federal level, as the last 80 years have affirmed. Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare are not, as Krauthammer contends, “great achievements of liberalism.” They are prosperity killers — and inevitably so. In part, this is because they have little if anything to do with what Krauthammer describes as the “consensual idea” that “you rescue the elderly and don’t allow the elderly to enter into destitution.” If that were the idea that we all agreed on — and assuming for argument’s sake that we similarly agreed that destitution was a concern of the central government — we would establish a transparent welfare program. That is, we would define what “destitute” is and enact a tax commensurate with what was necessary to provide reasonable relief — structured in a manner that gave people incentives to avoid or escape destitution.

The New Deal and its Great Society successor programs, by contrast, are frauds designed to create permanent dependency on government (and fealty to the party of government). They pretend to be insurance programs, not for the destitute but for all Americans, who pay “contributions” and “premiums” into “trust funds” and derive an “entitlement” to “benefits.” By loading everyone onto the gravy train, even if that meant the poor and middle class would subsidize the rich and near rich, progressives hoped to ensure that no one would object to the arrangement — people would just expect to get theirs in due course.

Unlike transparent, accountable welfare programs, however, these “entitlements” never had a sound relation between what was paid in and what was to be paid out. The government, meanwhile, raided the “trust funds” for its sundry profligacies, so the accounts we are deceived into thinking we are paying into — and which would be there for us, compounding interest, if these were not government redistribution programs — do not exist. The result is unfunded liabilities that, even in rosy-scenario analyses, exceed $60 trillion dollars over the next 75 years — around 400 percent of GDP. (Senate Republicans estimate that Obamacare adds another $17 trillion to that tab.)

It is pointless to try calculating a more realistic (i.e., much higher) figure because it is inconceivable that what has been promised could ever be paid. As a retirement program, Social Security is a lousy deal for “beneficiaries.” As health-care programs, Medicare and Medicaid (and soon, Obamacare) combine farcical market practices with poor-quality treatment. And even if these worsening problems could be remedied, the federal welfare state’s central flaw is incorrigible: In the absence of any constitutional grounding, supporters contend that retirement insurance and health care are fundamental rights that the central government must guarantee, not commodities subject to the assumptions of ordinary commerce (i.e., individual choice, controlled by one’s personal resources and priorities). Inexorably, this results in the one-way political ratchet that plagues all redistributionist schemes: Our permanent political class’s sustaining itself by promising more benefits to ever more people and demagoguing all who resist or attempt even the slightest reforms.

There is, furthermore, an equally destructive corollary. Once one accepts the premise of federal control over these matters of social welfare, there is no principled case against federal control over any matters of social welfare. Every aspect of life becomes potentially subject to central-government regulation. And so it has, through a metastasizing federal code and bureaucracy that regulates everything from cradles to graves.

In the Framers’ construct, the states would experiment and compete, developing best practices — or at least practices that best suited the conditions and sensibilities of the local communities. By contrast, there is no disciplining or escaping Leviathan. And if, as is inevitable, federal officials expand their outlandish schemes and promise favored constituencies more than they can deliver, they just borrow or print ever more money: Government borrows from its tapped-out self, monetizing its debts, degrading our currency to reward sloth and punish thrift even as it steals from future generations.

What Dr. Krauthammer calls “the great achievements of liberalism” have undermined the Burkean intergenerational trust at the core of conservatism. As I argued a couple of years ago, in jousting with Pete Wehner, another very smart, mainstream Republican who seeks to redefine conservatism to accommodate the modern welfare state, conservatives revere an enriching cultural inheritance that binds generations past, present, and future. It obliges us to honor our traditions and our Constitution, preserve liberty, live within our means, and enhance the prosperity of those who come after us. The welfare state is a betrayal of our constitutional traditions: It is redistributionist gluttony run amok, impoverishing future generations to satisfy our insatiable contemporaries.

The Republican establishment aspires to preserve the Washington-based entitlement culture. Charles Krauthammer thus suggested that Jon Stewart look to Paul Ryan as the best exemplar of today’s “conservatism.” It made perfect sense. Representative Ryan, as I’ve observed before, has supported creation of the Bush prescription-drug entitlement (adding trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities to our burden), TARP, Keynesian “stimulus” spending, and the auto-company bailout.

Ryan’s proposals are markedly better than Obama’s. Though AWOL on Social Security, he would restructure Medicare to allow younger people the option of transferring into a federally supervised private voucher system. He would also preserve Medicaid, but block-grant it to give states more spending autonomy. And he’d reduce the rate of projected federal spending such that we’d add “only” another $3 trillion to the national debt over the next eight years — less than half as much as the president proposes.

This is not constitutional conservatism. It is moderate statism. Or, to repeat, the current Republican establishment “is more sympathetic to Obama’s case for the welfare state than to the Tea Party’s case for limited government and individual liberty.”

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy.

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