Magazine | May 17, 2010, Issue

A Government without Bounds

Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, by William Voegeli (Encounter, 280 pp., $23.95)

William Voegeli believes in the power of the simple question. Voegeli is one of conservatism’s best contemporary writers on the topics of liberals and the welfare state, and he notes that the former have a long history of insisting that the latter is too small, too miserly, too inadequate. His new book begins by asking: What would count as enough? “All the bitter accusations about the insufficiency of our social programs must point to a criterion of sufficiency, defining a completely adequate welfare state.”

Except that, he discovers, they don’t. Liberalism has no such “limiting principle.” Its agenda, like that of Samuel Gompers, is always: “More.” The tax code is never sufficiently progressive. The government is never meeting enough human needs. One might think that as a country grows richer it would need a welfare state less and less. But that thought is rarely voiced in a politics influenced by liberalism, which constantly finds new needs for government to meet and can find no reason not to meet them. “We’re in favor of a lot of things and we’re against mighty few,” said Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Voegeli takes liberalism, particularly in the persons of Woodrow Wilson and FDR, to have given the United States a Second Founding precisely to overcome the confining limits that the design of 1787 had placed on the central government. This re-founding put history in the place of nature. Rejecting the idea of a fixed human nature and thus of unalterable truths about government based on that nature, progressives instead sought a government that would be supple enough to answer history’s ever-changing call.

Subsequent liberal theorists have not replaced the old limits with anything very specific. Liberal academics have devised elaborate theories justifying welfare states — typically, Voegeli writes, welfare states “bigger than those that any country has ever seen.” Liberals involved in practical politics have shunned these ideas. “People who call themselves Rawlsians . . . are always candidates for the faculty senate, not the U.S. Senate.”

Formulating liberalism’s mission as the provision to all of the preconditions for a good life, as some liberals have done, is no answer: It just raises another equally baffling question. It provides no help at all in identifying a basis for liberals ever to reject a claim that people have a right to be assisted in acquiring something that those people have identified as necessary to the good life. Liberal treatments of “community” and “the common good” have if anything made the problem worse. Voegeli refers to Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s 1957 pronouncement that liberals would have to attend to “spiritual unemployment” as urgently as they once did the economic kind.

Some liberals have decided to make a virtue of their lack of any grand theory that would require certain government interventions while excluding others. Liberalism can, they say, make case-by-case determinations about which interventions to seek. Voegeli quotes one proponent of ad hocracy denying that liberals support larger government as “an end in itself.” They favor it only “if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives.” As Voegeli points out, there will almost always be “some reason” to believe that: “A test that no program ever fails isn’t much of a test.”

Voegeli continues, “In the 78 years since FDR promised to try one method, and ‘if it fails, admit it frankly and try another,’ there is not one clear instance of a welfare state program that liberals by consensus came to regard as a failure, to be frankly admitted and abandoned.” Programs have ended only “as a result of political victories by their opponents.”

#page#When voters impose limits on government, such as caps on taxes, liberals tend to say that they are overreacting. Voegeli makes a nice point in response: “Liberals are in a weak position to complain that the voters resort to sweeping, indiscriminate measures to curtail government spending. Since liberalism itself offers no criteria to distinguish between more and less deserving programs, it’s churlish to abuse the voters for coming up with the wrong answer, when they received so little guidance from liberals about how to find the right one.”

Conservatives, by contrast, have articulated clear limits to what the government can do. But they have failed to get these limits enacted. The voters are not libertarian enough to adopt them. Conservatives’ fallback strategies have been equally unavailing. Voegeli goes to some lengths to demonstrate what the last 30 years should make clear: that whatever the other merits of tax cuts, they do not seem to restrain spending. Nothing seems to work. “Liberal victories advance liberalism; conservative ‘victories’ postpone liberalism.”

So we’re left with a stalemate. Liberals, lacking limits, also lack a way to pay for all the things they want. Conservatives cannot deny them those things. Voegeli concludes by urging a grand bargain in which liberals accept limits and conservatives accept the welfare state. He favors means-testing: There is no good reason, he thinks, that the federal government should send Social Security checks to Warren Buffett.

Most liberals have opposed means-testing because they fear its political consequences. If the upper middle class sees itself as paying into Social Security for no reward, then it will stop supporting Social Security. It will become first a program for the poor and then a poor program. “Liberals distrust their own forensic abilities as much as they distrust the decency of their fellow citizens.” They’re wrong on both counts: Voegeli believes that voters would support means-tested assistance to the poor and unlucky, especially after a century of liberalism. He does not place much weight on a moral consideration: That our welfare state is designed to foster an illusion among voters ought to be considered more problematic than it usually is.

Voegeli also raises, in order to dismiss, a possible conservative objection to means-testing: that it would represent an undesirable concession that the programs to be means-tested should exist in the first place. He ignores what might be a more potent objection on the right: that means-testing would make the welfare state more redistributive than it now is. In terms of what they pay in and what they get out of the federal government, the affluent would get a worse deal if Social Security were means-tested. There are persuasive answers to this complaint, but they assume — as Voegeli implicitly does — something contrary to the current mood of conservatism: that the redistributive character of the welfare state is far from its worst feature.

Voegeli is oddly emphatic in writing that ending the welfare state should not be even a distant goal of conservatives. They will never undo the election of 1936. He is perfectly aware that almost no Republican politicians and very few conservative voters seek any such goal; that is part of why the goal is too utopian to be maintained. Perhaps a lingering suspicion that conservatives still harbor the goal impedes their political success. But what more would Voegeli have conservatives do to dispel that suspicion?

And, while insisting that liberalism needs limits, Voegeli does not go very far in spelling out what they would be, beyond means-testing. Perhaps he considers that a job for liberals. Anyone who reads his fine book will be able to predict that they will not do it.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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