Magic Accounting
From the May 14, 2012, issue of NR.


This effort to rig the political contest over the welfare state wouldn’t be quite so objectionable if liberalism had a history of candor regarding the welfare state’s costs. The two most recent Democratic presidential nominees, however, upheld a long tradition of disingenuousness about the price tag of their party’s agenda. Both promised, repeatedly and categorically, that the federal government could meet all the obligations it had assumed over the 20th century, and then add many new ones to further the cause of social justice, while exempting more than 95 percent of the population from any kind of federal tax increase.

Having been assured their entire lives that moderate taxes would somehow sustain generous welfare-state benefits, the Times subjects in Chisago County come by their cognitive dissonance honestly. Unlike the Obama administration, they regard with alarm the prospect of rising federal indebtedness as far ahead as the eye cannot see. They are looking for a way out of a burning building that was designed without exits.

Ever since the late Irving Kristol introduced the concept of the “conservative welfare state” into our political discussions, people have argued about what it means. To some critics, left and right, it’s a contradiction in terms. A useful way to understand the idea, however, is to say that conservatives who want to cut the welfare state down to size want to cut it down to a particular size, one where the programs’ expenditures equal but never exceed the revenues generated by the taxes that liberals have told us the welfare state will require. Right-sizing the welfare state until it balances with that revenue stream means, as in the budget proposals Representative Paul Ryan has advanced, big cuts and big changes, such as turning Medicaid into block grants to the states, and Medicare into a means-tested voucher program for buying private health insurance.

It’s fair to say that Democrats have not received Ryan’s framework warmly. Speechwriters and editorialists have ransacked thesauruses for the censorious mot juste, with “cruel,” “cold-blooded,” and “savage” leading the field.

What’s more interesting is the response we haven’t heard. After 80 years of clearing their throats, liberal politicians still can’t summon the language or the courage to make a simple, candid argument:

Every nation in the world with the kind of welfare state we want for America pays for it by taxing a large majority of its citizens far more heavily than we do. To pretend we can do otherwise is to invite our countrymen to indulge a fantasy rather than call on them to make a serious commitment. Building the welfare state we need means most Americans are going to have to pay significantly higher taxes. No one likes such taxes, of course, but the reality is that they’ll fund an array of government programs that leave all of us better off than we will be with the rudimentary welfare state we’re forced to live with if we insist on a much lower tax burden.

There. Was that so hard? The Ryan framework challenges Democrats to show some confidence in their agenda, their own powers of persuasion, and Americans’ ability to listen to reason. If, instead, they remain committed to magic realism as a method of public finance, they’ll betray an infantile denial far worse than anything in Chisago County.

— William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, the author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, and a visiting scholar at the Salvatori Center at Claremont McKenna College. This article appears in the May 14, 2012, issue of National Review.