The flames from Greece’s debt-crisis protests have cast new light on the perils of our own overspending and overborrowing. You know the litany. California is imploding. Public-sector unions there, and across the country, are swallowing budgets. In California alone, pension costs have gone up 2,000 percent in a decade. At the national level, Obamacare has done little to fix — and much to hurt — America’s long-term entitlement mess. Already, America’s structural deficit has tripled since 2007. Economist Price Fishback has just published a paper finding that America spends more on social welfare than socialist Sweden (though we spend it differently).
According to USA Today, “paychecks from private business shrank to their smallest share of personal income in U.S. history during the first quarter of this year,” while government benefits rose to a record high. In fact, government employment is becoming a method of redistributing wealth. In 2009, the federal payroll grew and the number of federal jobs paying over $100,000 a year doubled.
The average federal worker earns over 70 percent more than the average private-sector worker, writes Arthur Brooks in his new book, The Battle: “To find this acceptable, you must agree that the average federal worker is much more productive or deserving than the average person in the private sector.”
Show of hands: Who thinks that’s true?
Yet the Democrats want more. More what? More everything. Even as the economy is starting to grow and many experts think we should trim debt and spending, Democrats want yet another stimulus bill, to extend jobless benefits. (They call them “jobs bills” now.) It turns out that all of that talk of a “temporary” stimulus was just that: temporary talk.
Indeed, the mess we have today is merely the natural result of a century-long battle over the size of government. When it comes to the welfare state, liberals want more, conservatives want less. It seems that nobody ever talks about “enough.”
Except that’s not entirely true. Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) offered an alternative vision of government in his famous “Roadmap.” It was, in the words of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a blueprint for a “conservative welfare state.” The idea was that the truly needy would be taken care of because they are truly needy, but middle-class entitlements would be scaled back for two simple reasons: 1) We cannot afford them, and 2) excessive government meddling in areas such as health care increases costs and wastes money.
Ryan’s blueprint was denounced by liberals as too stingy and largely ignored by much of the Republican leadership, who were happy to just say no to Obama’s plans without offering voters anything serious to say yes to.
William Voegeli, a scholar of impeccable conservative credentials, has joined Ryan’s battle in his book Never Enough, a searing indictment of what he calls the Hundred Years’ War between the party of more and the party of less. Voegeli argues that American voters (including most Republicans) will never fully eradicate the welfare state, because they don’t want to. Therefore, conservatives should make peace with the idea that the federal government should help the truly needy, while rejecting both the sorts of middle- and upper-class entitlements that are bankrupting the country and the kind of government “dole” that breeds bad habits among the poor and able-bodied.
Purist libertarians who see in this argument merely a surrender to liberalism should at least acknowledge that liberals would denounce any suggestion of means testing America’s safety net as cruel cutbacks and a violation of FDR’s “vision,” and that many voters would agree with them. Moreover, the current strategy hasn’t worked. We’ve had a century of nearly uninterrupted growth in the welfare state, even under Ronald Reagan. That alone recommends a new strategy.
Consider Social Security. Liberals are absolutely committed to the idea that everybody should be in the same creaky retirement system. They insist that middle- and upper-class voters must be bribed to support the poor. Warren Buffett gets a Social Security check to ensure everyone does. In fairness, some liberals also claim that a universal entitlement binds us together as a nation. The former claim is cynical, the latter poetic nonsense.
Governments do not generate wealth; they can merely distribute it. The challenge for both liberals and conservatives is simply to define how much distribution is “enough.” What would an acceptable safety net look like? Who should be taken care of by taxpayers and for how long? Paul Ryan offered an answer to that question, and liberals scoffed because they reject the question. There’s no such thing as enough, as far as they’re concerned. That’s what the Greeks thought.
– Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.