It is easy to mock Rush Limbaugh’s gushing over Trump’s maternity and child-care plan as some sort of political masterstroke. One can just as easily imagine today’s Rush Limbaugh rationalizing Nixon’s announcement of across-the-board wage-and-price controls as an act of genius, and liberals had already killed the free economy, and Republican price controls are better than Democratic price controls, and we’re all Keynesians now anyway, and blah, blah, blah. But for all of Limbaugh’s cynicism, there is something to learn.
Welfare reform was the last great conservative policy victory. It is worth thinking about how it happened. Charles Murray and George Gilder were the most acute critics of welfare policy, but their proposals for sharply reducing benefits were never going to happen. Politically, if the choice had been between simply reducing benefits or not reforming welfare at all, welfare would have stayed unreformed.
Welfare reform was built around the work requirement and eligibility time-limit proposals of Lawrence Mead. Mead specifically argued that welfare should not be understood as a question of big government versus small government. It was a deal between able-bodied recipients and society. Society had a right to expect the able-bodied to seek to become self-supporting in return for aid. Cutting government wasn’t the point. Mead made the point that work requirements involved making the government more demanding and less libertarian.
This kind of thinking was not new to conservatives. Almost 50 years ago, James Burnham wrote, in National Review that a welfare state was an inevitable part of modern society and that, “by indiscriminate resistance to welfarism, conservatives have indirectly nurtured the welfare state.” In the 1970s, Irving Kristol wrote in the Wall Street Journal that, since we were going to have a welfare state regardless, what we needed was a pro-responsibility, conservative welfare state.
That is the kind of thinking we need now — only not about AFDC, but about health-care markets and the withdrawal from work and marriage among prime-age, low-skill males. Someone is going to do something about those issues — even if only just to make things worse. Simply playing defense means that we are going to inadvertently nurture left-wing answers to these social problems (whether those answers come from elderly Democrats or from an entertainer-turned-demagogue matters only to the blindest of partisans.)
Lawrence Mead built his welfare reform around work. We could do the same around today’s problems, while also doing what, sadly little, government can do to aid family formation.
The ideas are out there. They could include wage subsidies for low-earners, ending marriage penalties in the tax code and the welfare state, tax credits for catastrophic health insurance so that people who work have access to reliable health care, stricter eligibility rules for disability, relocation vouchers, and blowing up the state job-licensing regimes so that it becomes easier to get training to get a job. Basically, what the people over at National Affairs have been proposing for years.
Some of these ideas might prove to be better than others, but the purpose should be to make it a little easier for people in the lower half of the income distribution to earn a living and raise their families. My suspicion is that such a set of policies would find favor with both white, working-class Trump voters and with some right-leaning African-American and Hispanic voters who think of Trump as a racist lunatic.
We can offer the voters a more pro-work, pro-family, and pro-opportunity welfare state that would (incidentally) be much smaller and less socially destructive than the one that would be offered by the Left. A conservative welfare state might even be a precondition for a politics of solvency. If we force people to choose between conservative indifference and the Left’s expensive answers, we shouldn’t be surprised if they eventually choose a course that will bankrupt our country.
One final word. If conservatives can’t come up with an American nationalism that can simultaneously speak to the interests and the social legitimacy of both white wage earners and recent immigrants (and their children), then nothing else matters. Working-class whites won’t want to hear about a conservative welfare state (or anything else) from another Jeb Bush, and right-leaning non-whites won’t want to hear about it from another Donald Trump.