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Two Cheers for the Welfare State

April 16th, 2011 at 4:28 pm David Frum | 224 Comments |

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This is the final installment in David Frum’s series on Yuval Levin’s “Beyond the Welfare State.” Click here to read the entire series.

In the interval since I started this response to Yuval Levin’s important piece in National Affairs, the Ryan budget plan has been approved by the House of Representatives on a near-total party line vote. Ideas like those endorsed by Yuval Levin are now the formal position of the Republican party. My guess is that the party’s presidential nominee will attempt to tip-toe away from that position in 2012, but who knows? Anyway, it will not matter. President Obama’s billion-dollar campaign will ensure that Republicans are thoroughly identified with it.

So Yuval Levin’s proposition is the proposition that Republicans will take to the country. Perhaps that is as it should be. Since the economic and electoral disasters of 2006-2009, Republicans have veered in a sharply libertarian direction. Why not put that new direction to the test of democracy? Perhaps Paul Ryan is right, and Americans (or anyway: voting Americans) have abruptly changed their minds during this economic crisis about their expectations from government.

I’ll admit: I’ve also changed my mind during this crisis, but in the opposite direction.

There’s an interesting rotation of ideologies here between Yuval Levin and me. Yuval Levin is one of the brightest rising stars in the intellectual tradition of Irving Kristol. Kristol famously championed a conservative welfare state, and especially programs of social insurance for the elderly.

I, on the other hand, got my political start urging a doubling-down on the economic libertarianism of the Reagan years. On the eve of the last Republican congressional triumph, 1994, I published a book urging ideas very similar to those now being urged by Yuval Levin and Paul Ryan and many others.

I won’t try here to explain why the conservative mainstream has turned so sharply to the right, although I have my theories.

As for my own turn away, that I can explain:

The radical free-market economics I embraced in the late 1970s offered a trade:

Yes, there would be less social provision. In return, Americans would receive an economy that was simultaneously more dynamic and also more stable.

There would be less inflation (because the Federal Reserve would have one job: price stability).

There would be fewer and milder recessions (because the Federal Reserve would no longer have to extinguish the inflation it did not create).

The financial sector could finance faster growth with less risk (because risks would be cushioned by diversification rather than prohibited by regulation).

Economic growth would accelerate (because the reduced tax burden would induce entrepreneurial innovation).

Faster growth would raise incomes for all (because a rising tide lifts all boats).

More opportunity in the private economy would abundantly offset the curbing of welfare benefits (because the best social program is always a job).

More opportunity would end the caste-like isolation of the poorest of the poor by drawing them out of the underclass into paid employment (because all human beings respond more or less rationally to positive incentives).

This was the trade, and it was engineered jointly by Republicans and Democrats: in fact some of the most important elements of the trade were adopted during the Clinton years.

Some of the terms of that trade were honored. From 1983 through 2008, the US enjoyed a quarter-century of economic expansion, punctuated by only two relatively mild recessions. In the late 1980s, the country was hit by the savings & loan crisis, the worst financial crisis to that point since the 1930s – and although the S&L crisis did deliver a blow, the country rapidly recovered and came up smiling. New industries were born, new jobs created on an epic scale, incomes did improve, and the urban poor were drawn into the working economy.

But of course, other terms of the trade were not honored.

Especially after 2000, incomes did not much improve for middle-class Americans. The promise of macroeconomic stability proved a mirage: America and the world were hit in 2008 by the sharpest and widest financial crisis since the 1930s. Conservatives do not like to hear it, but the crisis originated in the malfunctioning of an under-regulated financial sector, not in government overspending or government over-generosity to less affluent homebuyers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors, yes, but they could not have capsized the world economy by themselves. It took Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and — maybe above all — Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to do that.

In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the free-market assumption and expectation that an unemployed person could always find work somewhere has been massively falsified: at the trough of this recession, there were almost 6 jobseekers in the US for every unfilled job. Nothing like such a disparity had been seen since the 1930s. The young faced the worst job odds. But some of the most dismal outcomes were endured by workers in their 50s, laid off from middle-class jobs likely never to see middle-class employment again.

GK Chesterton once wrote that we should never tear down a fence until we knew why it had been built. In the calamity after 2008, we rediscovered why the fences of the old social insurance state had been built.

Speaking only personally, I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans – and not only Americans – were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.

Which does not mean that I have become suddenly indifferent to the growth of government. Not at all. Paul Ryan is absolutely right that the present trend is unsustainable and must be corrected. The free marketeers of the 1980s were right that taxes on enterprise must be restrained to leave room for private-sector-led expansion. Over-generous social insurance has all kinds of negative consequences. Private saving must be encouraged. Work must pay better than idleness. The job of designing the right kind of social insurance state is hugely important and hugely difficult, and the conservative sensibility – with its respect for markets and less sentimental view of human nature – is the right sensibility for that job.

Yet that same conservative sensibility is also properly distrustful of the fantasy that society can be remade according to a preconceived plan. We have to start from where we are, and we have to take people as we find them. Ronald Reagan liked to quote a line of Tom Paine’s, “We have it in our power to make the world new again.” George Will – although a great Reagan admirer – correctly complained at the time, “No, we don’t.”

I strongly suspect that today’s Ayn Rand moment will end in frustration or worse for Republicans. The future beyond the welfare state imagined by Yuval Levin will not arrive. At that point, Republicans will face a choice. (I’d argue we face that choice now, whether we recognize it or not.) We can fulminate against unchangeable realities, alienate ourselves from a country that will not accede to the changes we demand. That way lies bitterness and irrelevance. Or we can go back to work on the core questions facing all center right parties in the advanced economies since World War II: how do we champion entrepreneurship and individualism within the context of a social insurance state?

Those are words I would not have written 15 years ago. I write them now, conscious that I am very far from the first person to write them.  Irving Kristol made the point most memorably at the very onset of the conservative ascendancy:

The idea of a welfare state is 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… they need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it.

Conservatism’s task is to shape that social insurance state, not repeal it.

Yuval Levin knew this truth when I did not. I’ll preserve it here in safe keeping for him and all his friends until they are ready to remember it again.

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