Amid record debt, we need a welfare state we can believe in – and afford
For decades, liberals have promised us more and more government benefits, a trend that is bankrupting America with record debt. To serve the truly needy, conservatives must work to craft a leaner welfare system that we can actually sustain.
'Liberalism has always promised more," but it must now "become less generous and more rigorous," writes William Galston, a senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution. The prospect of annual federal deficits averaging $1 trillion for the next decade requires no less.Skip to next paragraph
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It's doubtful that many other liberals are going to heed Mr. Galston's call. As President Johnson said in 1964, "We're in favor of a lot of things and we're against mighty few." The liberal position has always been that whatever the size of the welfare state, we'd be better off if it were larger.
Liberals certainly won't enlist in the effort to make the welfare state less generous and more rigorous if they doubt the voters will follow. There are ample reasons for such doubts. Promising more has a long, successful history.
It is not by happenstance that federal spending on "human resources," the social insurance and welfare programs at the heart of the liberal enterprise, was 15 times higher in 2007 than in 1940, adjusting for inflation and population growth. This rate of increase was nearly twice the growth rate of the US economy: We view greater prosperity as a development that makes more government spending possible, rather than one making it unnecessary.
There's not much conservatives can do to help or force liberals to be more rigorous. Conservatives cannot plausibly offer themselves as the best custodians of an endeavor that they seek to dismantle.
Ronald Reagan summed up his presidency and entire public career in the farewell address he gave in January 1989: "[M]an is not free unless government is limited. There's a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts." From which it follows that as government contracts, liberty expands, an all-purpose argument that whatever the size of the welfare state, we'd be better off – freer – if it were smaller.
Contradictory messages from voters
The voters, when presented a choice between liberal social programs and conservative tax cuts, have replied with a resounding, "Yes!" Fifty percent of respondents to a recent New York Times survey preferred "a smaller government providing fewer services" to "a bigger government providing more services," which only 37 percent favored. Yet in the same survey, 76 percent agreed that "the benefits from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare [are] worth the costs of those programs." Even 62 percent of those who support the "tea party" movement thought so!
Such contradictions have always been awkward, but were rendered manageable in past decades by the combination of economic growth and the shift of government spending from the military to the welfare state. (In 1958 the federal government spent 10.2 percent of gross domestic product on national defense and 3.7 percent on human resources; by 2007 it spent 4 percent on defense and 12.3 percent on human resources.)