The Agenda

Searching for Irving Kristol

I really enjoyed David Brooks’ latest column for the New York Times. As we’ve discussed, I’m not sanguine about political efforts to foster a moral awakening, due in part to rapid cultural change since the 1980s. But I agree with David that contemporary conservatives could learn a great deal from Irving Kristol, and I see conservative reformism as a successor to Kristol’s brand of domestic policy thinking.  

Consider, for example, how Irving Kristol might have reacted to the Republican emphasis on short-term fiscal consolidation over job growth, in light of his 1976 remarks on “The Republican Future“:

If the Republican party were capable of thinking politically–i.e., thinking in terms of shaping the future–it would realize that its first priority is to shape the budget, not to balance it. Then it could go to the electorate with the proper political questions: How do you want the budget balanced? By more taxes for more governmental services? Or by lower taxes, lower governmental expenditures and incentives for the citizen to provide for his own welfare.

Granted, the state of health entitlements has deteriorated considerably since then, and I don’t doubt that we need structural reform. Kristol spoke to what entitlement reform ought to look like:

The basic principle behind a conservative welfare state ought to be a simple one: Wherever possible, people should be allowed to keep their own money—rather than having it transferred (via taxes) to the state—on condition that they put it to certain defined uses.

This brings to mind Andrew Biggs’ “A New Vision for Social Security,” in which the AEI scholar backs transforming Social Security into a flat universal benefit and a universal retirement savings account. The end result would be a system that would better provide for older Americans, yet that would also be more fiscally sustainable and growth-enhancing, as it would encourage increased labor force participation. More broadly, Kristol explained the place of a welfare state in a society like ours:

The idea of a welfare state is in itself perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy–as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind if they are to cope with many of their problems: old age, illness, unemployment, etc. They need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it. The only interesting political question is: How will they get it?

This is not a question the Republican party has faced up to, because it still feels, deep down, that a welfare state is inconsistent with such traditional American virtues as self-reliance and individual liberty.

The United States has grown more urbanized and our post-industrial economy more knowledge-intensive and sophisticated since Kristol wrote his essay, and a changing labor market and family disruption have increased the demand for social expenditures. The GOP electoral constituency, meanwhile, has aged considerably, and support for Medicare and Social Security among conservative Republicans is quite high as a result. Other federal social programs, however, are met with intense skepticism. This skepticism is often well-placed, and the right response to programs that really do undermine self-reliance and individual liberty may well be to eliminate or consolidate or devolve them. But it is important to acknowledge that not all programs undermine self-reliance and individual liberty, e.g., wage subsidies are designed to entice low-wage workers into the labor market, a crucial first step if these workers are eventually to climb the economic ladder to self-sufficiency. Wage subsidies are a paradigmatic example of a conservative welfare state initiative, and when well-designed they can do a great deal to strengthen the social foundation of a free enterprise economy by making it more inclusive.

In “Social Reform: Gains and Losses” (1973), Kristol offered thoughts on an alternative to the Great Society:

One wonders what would happen if all the money spent on Great Society programs had been used to institute, in however modest a way, just two universal reforms: (1) children’s allowance, as already described, and (2) some form of national health insurance? My own surmise is that the country would be in much better shape today. We would all –including the poor among us—feel that we were making progress, and making progress together, rather than at the expense of one another.

Yes such reforms are expensive and technically “wasteful,” in that they distribute benefits to all, needy or not. But to stress this aspect of the matter is to miss the point: Social reform is an inherently political activity, and is to be judged by political, not economic or sociological, criteria. When I say social reform is “political,“ I mean that its purpose is to sustain the polity, to encourage a sense of political community, even of fraternity. To the degree that it succeeds in achieving these ends, a successful social reform—however liberal or radical its original impulse –is conservative in its ultimate effects. Indeed, to take the liberal or radical impulse, which is always with us, and slowly to translate that impulse into enduring institutions which engender larger loyalties is precisely what the art of government, properly understood, is all about.

The following is Kristol on the children’s allowance:

It is a fact that one of the main reasons many families in the United States are poor is because their incomes are too low to support both parents and children—especially when, as is the case, poor families tend to be somewhat larger than average. The children’s allowance simply gives every family a very modest sum (say $15 or $20 a month) for each child. To the poor family, this will mean a significant increase in annual income. For the more affluent family, especially if these allowance are classified as taxable income, it means a more or less marginal bonus. Everybody benefits, but the poor benefit far more than the rich. Moreover, the program creates no disincentives: The poor have as much reason as ever to strive to become less poor, since they lose practically nothing by doing so.

Despite the fact that the program seemed to be working well in other countries, the idea of children’s allowances never got a favorable hearing in Washington or in reform circles. To some extent, this was because many middle-class liberals, worried about population growth, regarded it as “pro-natalist,” though the evidence is overwhelming that, in countries that have such a program, people’s decisions to have children are unaffected by the prospect of such modest allowances. More important was the fact that that the program was bound to expensive—costing anywhere form $10 to $20 billion a year, depending upon the scale of the allowances—and there was no such money in the budget. True, one could have begun the program with very small allowances, increasing them gradually over the years; but this would not have achieved the goal the reformers had their eyes set on, which was to abolish poverty now.

Above all, however, the idea of children’s allowances did not commend itself to reform-minded Washington because it seemed to clearly “uneconomical” and “inequitable.” What was the sense, it was asked, of having a universal program which gave money indifferently, to those who needed it and those who didn’t? Why gives children’s allowances to the middle class and the affluent, who could take care of themselves? Why not give the money only to the poor? And so was born the “War on Poverty”—and, I would say, one of the great reform disasters of our age.

Kristol goes on to offer a sophisticated discussion of the disincentives created by means-tested benefits, which made it “positively irrational to try to move up a notch or two along the income scale.” His discussion of the potential virtues of a children’s allowance is dated, as it reflects an era in which family structure had yet to go through its dramatic transformation and the collapse in male labor force participation had yet to take place. It’s hard to say how a children’s allowance might have played out. It is important to note, however, is that Kristol saw it as an alternative to more intrusive, heavy-handed anti-poverty interventions, which risked fostering dependency.

I don’t think Irving Kristol was right about every policy controversy in his day. But I do think he was asking the right questions — about the kind of society we want, and what it might take to get there. And that’s why I think we have much to learn from him. 


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