Politics & Policy

No Angels

Justifying the welfare state by demand is a sure way to keep it around forever.

Wade Horn, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, responded to an item I posted in the Corner a few weeks ago. I wrote:

YUCK, YUCK, YUCK

George W. Bush once again says absurd things about the role of government (nod to Andrew Sullivan):

“[T]he role of government is to stand there and say, ‘We’re going to help you.’ The job of the federal government is to fund the providers who are actually making a difference.”

He was talking about giving federal aid to couples with marriage counseling and the like. I know I’ve said this before, but if Bill Clinton had proposed spending piles of money on marriage counseling–other than for himself–conservatives would have screamed bloody murder about liberal social engineering and whatnot. Now, this might be a good policy compared to others, but it isn’t a policy someone who believes in limited government would advocate. And beyond the specifics of the policy itself, it is not the role of the government to say “we’re going to help you”–unless, say, the Chinese Red Army is encircling your town.

Horn’s full response is here but the important part is this:

All good conservatives want smaller government. To achieve that end, we need a plan. Merely wishing it were so is not a plan. The fact is that children (and adults) living in healthy and stable marriages are less in need of government services. By offering marriage-education services–on a purely voluntary basis–to interested couples whereby they can develop the knowledge and skills necessary to form and sustain healthy marriages, we will help reduce the need for more intrusive government interventions later on.

Granted, this is new work. Nobody knows for sure whether it will succeed. But one thing is certain: Unless we can reverse the decline of marriage, demand for an ever-expanding welfare state will continue. The president’s Healthy Marriage Initiative is no panacea, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Before we get started, let me make it clear that I am not making this up. To prove it, all I ask you to do is take a moment to run your own internal stream-of-consciousness generators long enough to imagine all of the funnier fake letters I could have come up with if I was looking to manufacture bogus dispatches from the Bush administration. I’ll wait.

Okay, now that we got that out of the way, let me say that I am delighted and flattered that Secretary Horn is reading The Corner so closely. Indeed, I hope the blogosphere salutes his willingness to mix it up with the lumpen digerati.

Let me also say he makes a very good case for his side of the argument, though he slightly misstates my own. In part because I haven’t studied some of these programs too closely and in part because I am torn about their merits, I generally leave myself some wiggle room when I make this point. To wit: I wrote that if Bill Clinton “had proposed spending piles of money on marriage counseling–other than for himself–conservatives would have screamed bloody murder about liberal social engineering and whatnot.” And I added that it “might be a good policy compared to others.” In other words, I was trying to tweak conservatives–who normally claim to be for limited government–who now condone a program they would have howled at had it not been put forward by George W. Bush. Perhaps I am wrong about this and the conservatives I am talking about have all been persuaded by Horn’s we-have-to-grow-government-to-cut-it argument.

But I doubt it, if for no other reason than the fact that this is pretty much the first time I’ve heard this argument from the administration, never mind from a rank-and-file conservative. What I have heard are statements like the one above from President Bush in which he talks about how the government must leap when people are hurting and so forth.

And in a sense, Horn is making the exact same case as Bush. In his letter he says that without remedying the declining state of marriage, the “need” and the “demand” for an “ever-expanding welfare state” will increase or continue. According to this formulation–combined with the president’s–the role of the government is to provide whatever services are “demanded” of it. And these services need not be demanded by a majority of voters but merely by that fraction of the whole that feels the “need” for them. After all, it was President Bush who said last Labor Day, “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”

I understand that Horn is on the side of the angels, but I hope he can see how radical a reformulation of conservative dogma this really is. The doctrine of limited government holds that government is, well, limited–that governmental neglect at the federal level is in fact benign. Conservative dogma holds that the people cannot develop the habits of the heart necessary to take care of themselves if they are being taken care of by the government. Moreover, a government that provides services simply because they are demanded is a government that reserves the right to take as much of my property and wealth as it deems necessary to meet the demands of somebody else.

I generally dislike arguments that warn of socialism these days. But if government is obliged to meet the demands of every needy person, what countervailing principle is there to protect the “un-needy” from a government in search of evermore resources to “help” the needy? Surely this limitation is more than pragmatic. Surely there’s a principle that says there are some things the government can’t do even if those things would be good and would help people. Or is the only limitation on government the boundaries of what it can get away with at a given moment?

In a sense, Horn has turned the “if men were angels” formulation on its head. We used to believe that since men are not angels, limited government is necessary. Now it seems to be that until men are made into angels–and by our own hand–unlimited government is required. After all, flawed men will make demands on the government when they are hurting and until those flaws and those pains are remedied, their demands must stir the government “to move.”

If I’m not being clear, my problem is this: As a conservative who believes in limited government I believe Uncle Sam is neither a concierge nor a nanny. The Constitution–rightly understood–does not bind him to solve our problems or kiss the scraped knees of children. Justifying the welfare state by saying that people demand one is the surest way of keeping one around because, sure as shinola, there will always be demand for a welfare state so long as men are not angels. (Also note: While I am opposed to various bad policies, I have no principled objection to letting states and local communities create whatever People’s Paradises they can manage.)

This is not all abstract principle. We know from history that every new program creates constituencies who will fight like hell to prevent a final, program-ending, victory. The war on poverty did much good and much bad, but it didn’t solve poverty in part because those who were invested in the war kept redefining the poverty upwards so they could keep waging war against it. I sincerely doubt that conservative successes in welfare policy–real or imagined–will result in programs being shut down. Rather, they will be emboldened and mount up in search of ever-more ambitious policy goals. “Big government now for smaller government later” strikes me as a naïve bargain.

On the other hand, bigger government now, for better government later, is possible. I’m not such a purist that I don’t see Horn’s point. While I deeply dislike the surrender of principle that says all the welfare state needs in order to be legitimate are the demands of those who want one, I think Horn may be right as a matter of public policy. It is certainly true, in my mind, that the state and community reap very large payoffs by preventing, for example, drug addiction. The social costs of drug addicts are enormous compared to the pennies we spend on public-service announcements–and by the way that would be just as true, if not more so, in a world in which addictive narcotics were legalized.

But let’s take a topic that is less likely to overload my email box with harangues from the legalization crowd. Horn’s boss, Tommy Thompson, was intellectually and politically heroic as governor for pushing through a welfare-reform program in his state that cost more money–and was more activist–than welfare in the short term, but got people off the dole in the long run.

Conservatives are also realists. We understand that it can cost more to get you out of a mess than you spent getting into it (just ask Sandy Berger!). So Horn may be right as a matter of public policy that federally supervised marriage counseling is the best way to nip problems in the bud, fix some of the family erosion cause by 40 years of bad social policy and to reduce demand for the welfare state. I am open to the idea, which is why I’ve never directly denounced the program. (See my speech to the New York Conservative party, for example.) Indeed, whenever I make the point Horn objected to in The Corner, the primary aim isn’t to criticize President Bush but to illustrate for conservatives that political conservatism is changing very rapidly before our eyes and without much of a debate.

I applaud Horn for joining that debate and for saying some things I am very glad to hear–namely that his ultimate goal is a smaller, more limited, federal government. But at the end of the day, I would still trade every dollar of creative social policy for a dollar of budget cuts. Horn may be right that he’s digging us out of the hole left by the Great Society. But I’d rather stick to the adage that when you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging.

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