Jonah, the argument between universal and means-tested programs is one I recall from the glory days of Thatcherism. The (pre-Blair) Labour Party was fanatically opposed to means-testing precisely because it diminished the philosophical basis of the entitlement. If you provide a winter fuel allowance to the poor, you’re saying that from time to time a small proportion of the citizenry will find themselves in difficulty and it’s appropriate for the government to provide emergency relief. If you provide a winter fuel allowance to everybody, you’re basically establishing heat as a new universal human right to be guaranteed and provided by the government.
In Britain, the left understood this wasn’t an argument about the budget but about the basic legitimacy of the big-government project. Obama, both with Joe the Plumber and Charlie the TelePrompTer Reader, seems to incline more to the latter view.
But, even if you take Ross Douthat’s doubtful proposition that means-testing is really just “spreading the wealth around”, by any reasonable measure government already takes more than enough money to do that. If Obama were talking about “spreading the government’s [as he sees it] wealth around” (rather than Joe’s) in a more effective way, he could easily say that.
Take a friend of mine. He’s a multi-multi-multi-millionaire with homes in several countries. He happened to start a family late in life. So (as he told me over lunch a few weeks ago), because he sired two children when he was over 62, the government sends him 800 bucks per kid every month. In effect, because their dad’s getting on a bit, the state classifies them as junior seniors and rewards them with a pension. My chum is a bloated plutocrat who uses 800-dollar bills (the one with Chester Arthur on) to light his cigars, but nevertheless the government insists he needs a helping hand. Why? It’s not about “means”, it’s about the end – about advancing the primacy of government. When Obama tells Charlie Gibson it’s for “purposes of fairness”, that’s what he means: in a “fair” society, we are all, de jure, wards of the state.