Painting Conservatism Out of the Corner: A Review of William Voegeli’s Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State

Andrew Sullivan’s recent apologia—or, perhaps, obituary—of conservatism makes at least one very good point:  Modern conservatism has painted itself into a corner.  Concerning the poor and uninsured, for example, Mr. Sullivan rightly observes that “in a society that won’t let people die on the street, these are real and tough problems we cannot just wish away.”  Conservatives who attack the liberal welfare state often reject even the preliminary terms of negotiation.  It is a well worn principle that a state cannot reasonably be expected to make meaningful concessions to an adversary who refuses to recognize its right to exist.

In his 2010 book Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, William Voegeli implores conservatives to recognize this reality.  Against the shapelessness of liberal thinking that makes it so difficult to refute, Voegeli reluctantly acknowledges that conservatives are too enamored by the superiority of their principles to bother with a more pragmatic approach—specifically, Voegeli offers, stipulating to the existence of the welfare state while insisting it “actually produce the intended effect and do so at a reasonable cost.”  Id. at 256-257.  Until conservatives acknowledge the hopelessness of the fight against the concept of the welfare state, they will forfeit their seat at the table to discuss bringing about a sensible welfare state.

This does not mean, Voegeli assures us, that conservatives ought to abandon its critique of the New Deal.  That legacy, Voegeli explains, is “liberalism’s gravest and defining error—the demolition of the legitimacy barriers existing in the pre-1937 Constitution and the refusal to erect any new ones in their place.”  Id. at 267-268.  The New Deal legacy, which remade the American founding upon History instead of Nature, has given us a polity in which “the government’s powers are protean rather than enumerated, the people’s rights subject to perpetual revision rather than inalienable, and the consent of the governed advisory rather than dispositive.”  Id.

Some conservatives, like Mr. Sullivan, stand ready to meet Voegeli’s first challenge and accept the moral and political legitimacy of at least some version of a welfare state.  However, the task requires sobriety.  Like a game of “roller bowler,” over-eagerness to pass either test results in the same unhappy outcome.  Mr. Sullivan’s acknowledgment of the legitimacy of certain welfare state projects fails to prescribe the conditions upon which he might ever reject any welfare state project.  Here’s Mr. Sullivan:

So on taxes today, a conservative would ask: what have we learned about the impact of lower rates over the last two decades – now the lowest as a percentage of GDP since the 1950s? In healthcare, what have we learned about the largely private system the GOP wants to preserve? A conservative would look at home and abroad for empirical answers, acknowledging no ultimate solution but the need for constant reform because society is always changing. On gay rights, a classic social change, he’d ask what a society should do in integrating the emergence of so many openly gay people, couples and families. On foreign policy, he’d move on a case by case basis, not by way of a “doctrine.”

It is this cloak of “case-by-case” analysis that, for lack of any acknowledged principle, defines liberalism.  Mr. Sullivan’s treatment thus sounds less like Calvin Coolidge (“About the Declaration [of Independence] there is a finality that is exceedingly restful”) than Woodrow Wilson (“If you want to understand the Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface”).  FDR joined Wilson’s Progressive disparagement of the American founding based on Nature, explaining that “rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights.”  FDR asserted that “The task of statesmanship has always been the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.”

However, FDR, like today’s liberals, simultaneously and inexplicably also invoked Coolidge’s sentiment about the finality of rights:  “the old ‘rights of personal competency’—the right to read, to think, to speak, to choose and live a mode of life, must be respected at all hazards.”  Concerning this bizarre inconsistency, Voegeli remarks:

This assertion seems to contradict FDR’s argument that rights need to be redefined according to new circumstances, especially changing economic circumstances. By positing that some rights are less malleable than others, however, and by including in the honor roll of rights that must be respected at all hazards the nebulous right to choose and live a mode of life, FDR seeks to secure enormous leverage for the government.

Voegeli at 72-74.

Clearly, FDR did not really mean what he said about rights which “must be respected at all hazards.”  Instead, the “hazard” that justifies disregarding individual rights, FDR explained, is the possibility that respecting those rights might “deprive others of those elemental rights.”  Government’s job, FDR continued, is the “maintenance of balance.”

Yet, he did not explain how or in whose favor that balance will be maintained.  In 1940, Alvin Hansen, one of Roosevelt’s most influential economic advisors, was asked whether “the basic principle of the New Deal [is] economically sound,” to which Hansen replied:  “I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is.”  Voegeli recounts the memoirs of another New Dealer, Raymond Moley, stating:  “To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator.”  Voegeli at 98.

The American Prospect indicated in January 2005 that today’s liberals still don’t know what liberalism “stands for.”  Liberal columnist Michael Tomasky likewise wrote in 2010 that Democrats “have usually tried to hide those beliefs, or change the conversation when the subject arose.”  For his own part, Mr. Tomasky’s explanation of liberalism and its delineation between the two big competing ideas of political theory—liberty and security—leaves much to be desired:

Anybody familiar with Liberalism 101 grasps that there is something deep within liberalism, from its earliest beginnings, that prevents it from degenerating into fascism, and that is its explicit recognition that the state must serve both common purposes and individual liberty. . . . [W]here that collective urge crosses the line into coercion, well, that is where liberals—I mean liberals who know something about liberalism—get off the train, and do their noncoercive best to derail it.”

Mr. Tomasky’s self-validating definition of liberalism is too clever by half, suggesting liberals need not explain how they know where the “line” between legitimate and illegitimate government action is—they just know.  As Voegeli observes, though spirited, Mr. Tomasky “has nothing more to tell us about the ‘something deep within liberalism’ that makes liberals play nice.”  Voegeli at 68-69.  “A government of laws,” Voegeli goes on, “needs to justify its actions with arguments more compelling and respectful to the governed than such ‘because we say so’ pronouncements.”  Id. at 120.

Still, however, some liberals resent the implication that liberalism need offer more than its say so.  Predating conservative blogger Mr. Sullivan’s remark to the same effect, liberal columnist Jonathan Chait explained, “For us, everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody’s education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody’s blue jeans? No. And so on.”  And so on? As Voegeli correctly observes, Mr. Chait’s coda suggests continuation in a direction—that a general rule may be readily discerned by examining the preceding list of particulars.  “But if there are only political particulars, there is no direction, and nothing to be said about how liberalism relates one policy to another or settles conflicts between competing goals.”  Voegeli at 147.  Mr. Chait’s definition of liberalism is simply that general rules are unnecessary or, at least, obstructive and undesirable: if the list of particulars suggests any shared commonalities, it is coincidental and irrelevant.  If adherence to principle forces us to conclude that the sort of government that must provide things we want it to provide (education, health care) must also provide things we don’t want it to provide (blue jeans), then should principle be cast into the flames.  For liberalism, the tradition of showing a decent respect to the opinions of mankind is not worth keeping if it obstructs deeply desired policy objectives.

As a result, liberalism’s rejection of principle makes it “impossible to say which means liberalism will employ; more precisely, it’s impossible to say which ones it will foreswear to avoid violating individuals’ rights or exceeding government’s proper sphere.”  Id. at 102.

Whatever conservatives’ folly in taking a hardline approach against the welfare state, then, American politics cannot suffer the loss of the only mainstream ideology that offers any limiting principle whatsoever.  Conservatives must not abandon its affinity for big ideas even while they must make allowances for certain big government programs.  A conservatism so reformed, Voegeli argues, will find a greater sway with a schizophrenic populace who is “more liberal when answering questionnaires than when casting ballots.”  Id. at 158.

Specifically, Voegeli argues conservatism can beat liberalism at its own “case-by-case” game on issues like affirmative action, education, rent control, housing, and wage laws:

Does affirmative action place minority students in colleges where they’re likely to fail while depriving other applicants of the chance to attend the most challenging schools where they are capable of succeeding? Does rent control drive up the cost of housing, depriving property owners of the same opportunity to profit as any other investor while driving down the quality and quantity of the housing stock? Do minimum wage laws reduce the number of entry-level jobs, making it harder to escape from poverty? Because compassion, by its nature, subordinates doing good to feeling good, these are questions the warm-hearted rarely pursue.

Id. at 140-141.  A system of political thought that accounts for sentiment, then, is implicitly preferable to one that offers nothing but.

Similarly, and symptomatic of liberalism’s failure to define its terms, liberalism cannot offer a clear picture of what “poverty” is or how to know when it has been successfully ameliorated.  Kenneth Minogue in The Liberal Mind explained that the word “has been transmogrified into ‘relative deprivation,’ which assumes that happiness and well-being depend on having most of the things other people have.”  Voegeli recounts that according to Matt Bai writing in the New York Times, “the average income of an American taxpayer in 1929, using today’s dollars, was about $16,000 a year; the entire middle class, in other words, was poor by modern standards.”  Voegeli at 53.  The welfare state by 2007, however, adjusted for inflation and changes in population, spent 15.3 times the amount spent during the New Deal in 1940.  Its proponents ought to offer some indication when its principal objectives can be deemed achieved.

Again, however, liberals might suggest that there is no need to define the end point when economic theory provides an effectively endless supply of revenue.  Lavish government spending on programs is supposedly founded on Keynesian economics, which teaches that pumping government money into the economy increases demand and thus stabilizes prices and stimulates growth, employment, and investment.  However, “[s]pending as much money as possible,” Voegeli explains, “was, in fact, faithful to only one-half of Keynesian theory.”

Macro-economic policy was supposed to be counter-cyclical. Spending furiously was a good idea when the economy was going into a recession, but exactly the wrong remedy when a boom was threatening to cause inflation. The other, expansionary phase of the business cycle needed to be moderated by a combination of higher taxes and lower government spending. This fasting-and-penance part of the Keynesian faith, however, was never as popular with the voting public as the Mardi Gras part and, not coincidentally, has never had any champions among liberal politicians and writers.

Voegeli at 171-172.  This is reason enough to distrust macroeconomic theory in a democracy.  There are always sound enough reasons to spend money on things we like.  When along comes the part of the cycle that demands austerity, however, it seems just as sound for present purposes to elect adherents of a macroeconomic philosophy that pushes austerity further still into the future.  Lord, give us austerity, but not yet.

Liberal macroeconomists have, for the better part of century, sought to render economics inscrutable and beyond the American public’s understanding.  They have done this precisely for the purpose of de-politicizing some of the most important political questions, making politicians unaccountable for running up massive deficits, and generating greater need for ever greater taxes.  All this has resulted in a massive shift of political power to Congress.  (Because every US state other than Vermont has some form of balanced budget amendment, this macroeconomic mojo is less effective at the state level.)

In The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward, conservative economist Bruce Bartlett notes that Keynes had enormous confidence in his ability to manipulate public opinion, and that this was a driving motivation of his work.  As a result, Keynes was not concerned with consistency in his approach to economics:  if the approach he advocated to meet one political challenge was inapposite to another, he showed little reluctance in making the necessary adjustments without regard to consistency among the approaches.  Bartlett explains:

Through the years, many economists have puzzled over the contradictions in Keynes’s work. But there is one thing that ties it all together: his intense desire to influence public policy. As Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky put it, “He invented theory to justify what he wanted to do.” If one goes through the 30 volumes of his collected works, the vast bulk of the material is not technical economics, but articles for newspapers and popular magazines, as well as memoranda and policy papers for government officials. “He was an opportunist who reacted to events immediately and directly, and his reaction was to produce an answer, to write a memorandum, and to publish at once, economist Elizabeth Johnson explains.

. . . .

It is clear that Keynes would often put forward proposals because he thought they would be helpful at a particular moment in time, knowing full well that it would be highly undesirable for them to be maintained for the long term. . . .

The Keynesian model was never meant for consumption by voters.  It was meant to confuse and disorient them so political leaders could govern without having to make their macroeconomic policies economically defensible.  When Dwight Eisenhower’s press secretary expressed concern how the President ought to respond to a sensitive subject, Eisenhower responded “Don’t worry, Jim. If that comes up, I’ll just confuse them.”  One wonders if this is not the  approach in much of Washington politics today.

By rejecting an ideology to determine what government properly should do, and in an age of affluence that obviated the need to determine what government could do, government was free to provide anything else “worth having.”  In 1964, The New Republic stated “If ballet is worth having, as we earlier decided public libraries were worth having, go ahead and provide for ballet, even though there is not sufficient ‘demand’ to make it ‘economic.’ This attitude can obviously be extended from ballet to beautifying the country-side, and in a dozen other different directions.  With all this wealth we can afford to try.”  Politicians like Pat Brown agreed.  During the 1960s, California declined to choose whether to spend on infrastructure or education and heavily invested in both.  When Californians enacted Proposition 13 in 1978 in revolt against skyrocketing property taxes, politicians were once again forced to choose.  The necessity of something drastic like Prop 13 cannot be underestimated: in a political culture that preaches all things are possible through government, there is little basis for denying any beneficent-sounding thing.  This is a lesson that had not been unlearned by 2008 as the federal government continued to advertise that home ownership could be made available to every American through federal policies forcing interests rates down and home prices up.  Without an ideology to tell us when the government should stop pandering to our desires, reality serves as our only backstop, harsh though it is.

In addition to obfuscation through macro-economic policy, Voegeli describes how liberal economics further relies on “turning the skies black with criss-crossing dollars.”  As he explained in the Claremont Review in Spring 2005:

As more and more dollars fly around, the confusion about where all of them start out and end up increases. The dollars often arrive ostentatiously (Social Security checks in the mailbox) but depart surreptitiously (payroll withholding and employer “contributions” to Social Security). This contrast makes it easy for each household to regard itself as a net importer rather than a net exporter of the dollars that make up this green tornado. The ultimate goal is to leave people believing an impossibility: that an enormous but nevertheless finite number of dollars can be vacuumed up and airdropped in such a way that the vast majority of people wind up gaining more than they lose.

Dark skies aid perception management.  While it is not possible for every jurisdiction in the nation to come out ahead in the federal pork lottery, it is possible for them to seem to come out ahead—as Voegeli puts it, “for all of them to look like importers rather than exporters.”  The task is to ensure that the dollars “arrive more conspicuously than they depart.”  Voegeli at 195.  The easiest way to accomplish this is through complexity and confusion.  “[Clarity] is the enemy and confusion the friend of the welfare state. The goal, accordingly, is to make the welfare state as complex as possible.”  Id. at 195-196.

The chaotic maelstrom of dollars explains why so many middle-class Americans support Social Security, a fundamentally crummy retirement program relative to what most middle-class Americans could purchase privately:  They have been dazed and confused into believing they actually benefit from it.  However, “[a] simple program to help poor people,” Voegeli explains, “would make it easy to distinguish the households that are net exporters of dollars from the ones that are net importers. Liberals don’t want to run that risk. They don’t trust the prosperous citizens in the net exporter households to be generous and public-spirited enough to keep voting for welfare programs once it becomes clear to them that they are financing benefits bestowed on others.”  Id. at 197.  Accordingly, “[t]he government provides Social Security and Medicare to people who don’t need them for the sake of people who do.”  Id. at 199.

Both conservatism and liberalism in their modern iterations are fundamentally naïve.  Conservatism preaches that political man can survive on doctrine alone, while liberalism relies on sentiment.  Neither makes sufficient allowance for the fact that he needs both—that man is fundamentally doctrinal and sentimental; rational and moral; metaphysical and empirical.  Conservatism, James Q. Wilson argues, should present “not an argument for a small government or a weak government or a government indifferent to the poor . . . [but] an argument for a fair and competent government.”  Liberalism, for its part, “must abandon the belief that everything is good to do.”  Voegeli at 256.  There is nothing in conservatism that compels its adherents to oppose every government program with a noble purpose.  Once that is accepted, conservatives can more effectively impress upon liberals that, as Wilson puts it, “[i]t is not enough that a program have a noble purpose or a laudable motive; to warrant a claim on resources, it should actually produce the intended effect and do so at a reasonable cost.”

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46 thoughts on “Painting Conservatism Out of the Corner: A Review of William Voegeli’s Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State

  1. Pingback: Painting Conservatism Out of the Corner: A Review of William Voegeli’s Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State

  2. Accordingly, “[t]he government provides Social Security and Medicare to people who don’t need them for the sake of people who do.” Id. at 199.

    I think most liberals would have no problem with means testing.

    As far as the end of you (very interesting) post, are you suggesting that conservatism and liberalism would both benefit from becoming more like one another?

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    • “I think most liberals would have no problem with means testing.”

      I would go one step further, and say that people on both sides of the aisle are strongly for this… and neither are willing to seriously pony up specifics, as doing so can cost them elections.

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      • The main liberal argument against means testing is that “programs for poor people become poor programs.” Soon enough, a means-tested Social Security System will be portrayed as a giveaway to ex-convicts and illegal immigrants (truth be damned) and it’ll be vulnerable for further cuts.

        Nothing in the conservative political playbook suggests this won’t be the first order of business as soon as the well-to-do stop getting checks.

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    • “As far as the end of you (very interesting) post, are you suggesting that conservatism and liberalism would both benefit from becoming more like one another?”

      E.C.,

      I think this is basically right. The task is for each to become more like the other in the right ways. Though it’s become a bad word around some parts, slippery slopes are hard to avoid. It’s easy for conservatives, especially to the extent they share ground with libertarians, to take hardline approaches when it comes to economic rights and the limits of the state. It’s very difficult—some would argue impossible—to give ground on such things without giving up all pretense of maintaining a principled approach. Voegeli’s prescription is not a particularly cheerful or easy one for conservatives, but I think he’s basically right.

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  3. Much to chew on in this post, Tim – nice job. A couple of random initial thoughts, though, and I would be happy to hear how you might respond:

    “Voegeli recounts that according to Matt Bai writing in the New York Times, “the average income of an American taxpayer in 1929, using today’s dollars, was about $16,000 a year; the entire middle class, in other words, was poor by modern standards.””

    I can’t speak for the accuracy of this, but assuming that it is somewhat correct… is this not an argument that the New Deal economics and the welfare state have been a smashing success? (In addition to the fact that we make far more than we were making before, our working conditions are much safer and more pleasant by and large.)

    “For us, everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody’s education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody’s blue jeans? No. And so on.” And so on?”

    Why the incredulous tone? To take a method that conservatives love (at least the am radio variety ones do), let’s make an analogy to your own household. Or actually, in fact, mine. My wife and I believe strongly in the philosophy that our teenage kids will become more rounded and better adults if they are allowed to both experience a great number of things, and are allowed to fail and learn from those failures. Does that mean we should allow them to drink and drive? Does it mean that we allow them to go camping without adults this weekend? Do we allow them to play Call of Duty on a school day? And most importantly, why do we have to choose a uniform “Yes” or “No” answer for all such questions – predetermined before we know the specifics of any given situation? Would our either allowing them to drink and drive or refuse to let them go camping based on the Need To Have A Consistent Ideologically Uniform Answer make us better parents, or worse?

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    • It’s the need to have a consistent ideology, to guide society based on doctrine, that bothers me most about modern american conservatism. Why do these “conservatives” cling onto doctrine so tightly? Why can’t they let go? What are they afraid of?

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    • RTod,

      I’m not taking a position on whether the New Deal was an economic success. For one thing, I don’t know, and there seem to be strong arguments pro and con. More importantly, it’s not central to my post or Voegeli’s book. The relevant question is whether the New Deal is politically or constitutionally defensible. Because it operated at the nadir of constitutional authority, and because it operated in the absence of any other principle besides, and because it resulted, whether by design or not, in permanently changing the constitutional, political, and economic landscape of the nation, I’d say the ongoing scrutiny of the New Deal legacy justified.

      That said, I’m part way into Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal. Though its a few years old, I’ll probably do a review of that book as well, juxtaposing some of the themes from this post.

      As to your second point, the analogy between the state and the household doesn’t hold up for several reasons. The most important reason is that the relationship between parent and child is too dissimilar from the relationship between government and the governed. The right of the parent to control the child does not depend on the wisdom of the parent’s decisions, and thus does not depend on whether the parent can make a reasoned defense of those decisions. In fact, “because I say so,” while trite, is typically the correct response to a complaining child: a child is not entitled to compel an account of a parent’s decision.

      Government, on the other hand, depends for its legitimacy the consent of the government. That consent typically cannot be expected unless an account is made of the government’s actions. Can an account be made if we operate solely on a case-by-case basis? Technically, no, because it suggests that we are remaking the game with each new case. In reality, even a case-by-case approach does not go this quite this extreme. There are times when some principles seem to rise to the surface. This is what is interesting about FDR’s statement that about certain rights that “must be respected at all hazards.” There is clearly something going on under the surface of liberal thinking by which they conduct their “balancing” between liberty and security. However, because government wields such terrible power over us, it are obliged to give reason for its conclusions, even while we need not give such reasons in every instance in private life.

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      • “Government, on the other hand, depends for its legitimacy the consent of the government.”

        1. That’s a brilliant mistake.
        2. What does legitimacy matter, as a difference between parenthood and government?

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        • My goodness, it certainly is!

          The source of legitimacy is of great importance for it instructs the nature of authority. A parent does not need to give any reasons for his decision since its legitimacy is found in the nature of the relationship. Within his jurisdiction, the act of a parent is law simply because it is an act of the parent. Similarly, a king does not need to give reasons for his decision since its legitimacy derives from God. The king’s authority thus depends on his subjects’ satisfaction that the king acts sufficiently in line with God’s will. Generally speaking, however, an act of the king is law simply because it is an act of the king.

          A constitutional government, in contrast, must demonstrate its decisions comport with a constitution based on natural law. In other words, an act of Congress is not “law” simply because it is an act of Congress. Its legitimacy is not the same foregone conclusion as is a parent’s or a king’s, which do not depend on an appeal to right reason.

          Again, all this is to say that it will not do for modern liberalism to refuse to submit the acts of government against an articulable standard.

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    • “My wife and I believe strongly in the philosophy that our teenage kids will become more rounded and better adults if they are allowed to both experience a great number of things, and are allowed to fail and learn from those failures. Does that mean we should allow them to drink and drive? Does it mean that we allow them to go camping without adults this weekend? Do we allow them to play Call of Duty on a school day?”

      “Teenagers should experience a great number of things” is not the same idea as “teenagers should do whatever they want”.

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  4. This essay — and the book it concerns — doesn’t seem to grapple with liberalism as it actually exists in American politics. But I suppose my response is to be expected since I’m not a conservative and the piece/book is clearly written for the choir.

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    • I haven’t read the book, but it’s hard for me to think that a book for conservatives that says you should recognize the welfare state is here to stay is preaching to the choir.

      Still, your point about real life liberalism is a good one.

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    • It also suffers from what we were just talking about on another thread: assuming to know what’s in the mind of your ideological opponent. The amorphous, unrpincipled liberal straw men, while liberals are largely to blame for its existence (since “liberals” is a family resemblance concept), is a nice way of avoiding having to actually address what liberals think, while at the same time painting them as irrational sentimentalists.

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    • Elias and Chris,

      Above, rj wrote this independently, not quoting from my post:

      The main liberal argument against means testing is that “programs for poor people become poor programs.” Soon enough, a means-tested Social Security System will be portrayed as a giveaway to ex-convicts and illegal immigrants (truth be damned) and it’ll be vulnerable for further cuts.

      Nothing in the conservative political playbook suggests this won’t be the first order of business as soon as the well-to-do stop getting checks.

      As it happens, this is precisely one of the points made in the post and in Voegeli’s book toward explaining the “criss-crossing dollars” approach of overcoming the lack of political will in America to sustain the welfare state. Does rj also mischaracterize “liberalism as it actually exists in American politics”? Does he also create a “strawman”?

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      • I don’t think that what I said explains/demonstrates Voegeli’s “criss-crossing dollars” approach. I believe Voegeli claims that the large number of taxes and programs masks the distributional effect of the budget. To an extent, this is true – but if you do the math, it applies to defense boondoggles and corporate tax loopholes more than it does to any liberal notion of redistribution or creating a minimal standard of living. The notion that complex systems make it hard to figure out everything that is going on is neither new nor particularly insightful.

        But does liberal support for means testing really say anything about underlying ideology? Not really. Speaking as a liberal who is made from flesh and blood, not straw, the anti-means testing argument comes from limp responses to decades of demagoguery from the right.* We are willing to give some of the population checks they don’t need so everyone else who really needs it can’t be tarred as a bunch of lazy crackhead Mexicans, or whomever we’ve decided to hate this year (gay Muslim methheads?).

        I don’t think it’s some sort of snowjob to say that assuming perfect targeting is impossible and a program can be overinclusive or underinclusive, it’s completely rational to choose overinclusion to make people feel more of a connection with it.

        Think of the way retail stores deal with shoplifting: they have measures in place to prevent it, but some amount of loss is figured into the bottom line because the extreme measures required to get to zero would make the whole experience so unpleasant that non-shoplifters wouldn’t patronize the store. Let some undeserving people get SS so that everyone else can too.

        * No, that doesn’t mean that liberals have never engaged in demagoguery. Please don’t put words in my mouth.

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  5. “…The New Deal legacy, which remade the American founding upon History instead of Nature”

    As opposed the previous continent-spanning industrial power, which was ‘natural’?

    Frankly, when somebody disses the New Deal, that’s it – they’ve lost any right to be taken seriously.

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  6. I confess I sometimes find “liberal” pragmatism more attuned to my conservative sensibilities than the idea of immutable natural rights. I think rights arose haltingly, tentatively, as a result of custom, habit, and democratic consensus, rather than some schema that was discovered fully-formed. I also think that is a thoroughly conservative sentiment.

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    • So, you’re going with the evolution model and not the creationist? In 2011 Conservative America, I think that makes you a liberal. Which of course is the point of Sullivan’s piece.

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  7. “Voegeli reluctantly acknowledges that conservatives are too enamored by the superiority of their principles to bother with a more pragmatic approach—specifically, Voegeli offers, stipulating to the existence of the welfare state while insisting it “actually produce the intended effect and do so at a reasonable cost.” ”

    But isn’t it true that liberals see any effort at reforming the welfare state as an attack on the welfare state itself? The al-or-nothing approach goes both ways.

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        • Yes, but then that silly thing called reality gets in the way. I can point to numerous examples of Republicans acting like they want to ‘reform’ something when they really want to eliminate it (Paul Ryan, stand up!). On the other hand, what major dumping of money on the poor to buy votes has happened in the last thirty years? The Earned Income Tax Credit? Expanding Medicaid to the federal poverty level?

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            • I’ll agree with you only on this point. Conservatives has reasons to trust actual social democratic liberals like me. However, conservatives have nothing to fear from liberals actually in political office.

              After all, look at the two parties. The DNC while having a trifecta passed Bob Dole’s health care plan, extended the Bush tax cuts another two years, kept the PATRIOT Act fully in place, and failed to pass laws that would help labor (EFCA) or the environment (cap ‘n’ trade).

              To be blunt, my worst fears of what could happen with the Republican’s in office could plausibly happen if they have the House, Senate, and Presidency. The worst fears of what right-wing conservatives fear couldn’t happen anytime in the next decade or two.

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    • “But isn’t it true that liberals see any effort at reforming the welfare state as an attack on the welfare state itself? The al-or-nothing approach goes both ways.”

      I think this often happens in part because many efforts are to chip away at rather than reform many welfare programs. And in many istances where conservatives would claim to be reforming it, i.e. providing the same benefit but by another mechanism, they aren’t necessarily being serious.

      For instance, I can understand the need to cut taxes in various instances, but the idea that we can cut them and not take a hit to revenues is akin to saying that we can get more bang for our buck with medicare simply by putting in less buck.

      I agree though that there are moderate reforms that could be supported with each side reaching out halfway.

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  8. Against the shapelessness of liberal thinking that makes it so difficult to refute, Voegeli reluctantly acknowledges that conservatives are too enamored by the superiority of their principles to bother with a more pragmatic approach

    Can’t help yourself, can you?

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  9. The right complains about what the left does; the left complains about what the right won’t let them do. Evidence in this very combox.

    “Compassionate conservatism” was a big laugh. Per Harry Truman with colors reversed, they’ll vote for the genuine article instead of a fake Democrat everytime. [Clinton, Obama.]

    Voegeli’s right on the question of limits. Ask a lefty what a “fair” limit on taxation is, he won’t answer, because he’s fine with 90%. The lefty sees Robin Hood as a moral hero. Rob the rich until they ain’t rich anymore. As for the poor, nothing is too good or too much for them. There is no limit to the taxation, there is no limit to the redistribution.

    As for the abstractions, FDR blew up the concept of rights as negative liberty [get off my back] with “freedom from want,” which is an invention of a positive liberty that can never be satisfied. Welfare is no longer the charity of one’s fellow citizens, but a “right.”

    http://www.gettingfoodstamps.org/index2.htm

    In the real world, only a libertarian would let his fellow citizen starve. [J/K] But entitlements as rights means somebody else has to pay for them. This is the dynamic that’s hitting the fan not just in the US, but in social democrat Europe.

    It’s fine when there are a lot more Peters than Pauls, but many societies are approaching the 50/50 mark. The welfare state is less than 100 years old, and the acid test of its sustainability is about…what time is it?…………..now.

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  10. Nowhere in this argument do you address the problem of inherited wealth. You lament “history” over “nature”, yet in Nature, there is no inheritance beyond the genetic and the inter-personal. Unlimited duration of private property is in this sense, completely “unnatural.”

    So, let’s assume a different model: beyond basic self-sufficiency of your children, you have no rights after death.

    You can pass on your house and a small amount of land. Everything else goes into a pool. Effectively, this allows a tax rate of 0%, with an inheritance tax of 100%. There is no impingement on individual freedom: the perfect libertarian utopia. So why aren’t libertarians arguing for this?

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