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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.

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Those paths of least resistance are now closed. The economic future is too daunting for us to grow or borrow our way out of our problems, and the geopolitical one is too daunting to keep shifting resources away from national defense.

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Inescapable reckoning

The long-postponed but now inescapable reckoning will require higher taxes, a less generous welfare state, or some combination of the two. As a conservative, my hope is that the ultimate resolution will rely primarily on spending cuts and as little as possible on tax increases. I doubt, however, that today's conservatives can effect the welfare state reductions that eluded Reagan simply by reiterating, louder and more insistently, his arguments that Big Government jeopardizes liberty.

Instead, they should lay claim to two arguments liberals call their own.

First, liberals frequently invoke the need for a decent society to assist "the most vulnerable among us." Conservatives should see that bet and raise it.

Common sense holds that our "most vulnerable" citizens are the poorest 10 or 20 percent, not the most "vulnerable" 90 or even 100 percent. Means-testing welfare state programs in every way, from reducing wealthier citizens' Social Security and Medicare benefits to zeroing out of state universities' tuition subsidies for kids from upper-income families, would leave us with a smaller, more affordable welfare state, but one well-equipped to help the truly needy.

Second, liberals see themselves as the party of government, champions of bringing government power to bear on America's problems. They have proven to be the party of government in a more dubious sense, however, acquiescing in the growth of a self-serving public sector, even if the most vulnerable among us suffer as a result. Mitch Daniels, the Republican governor of Indiana, says, "I argue to my most liberal friends: 'You ought to be the most offended of anybody if a dollar that could help a poor person is being squandered in some way.' "

Don't squander dollars

One way to squander dollars – lots of them – that could help the poor is through excessive salaries and benefits for government workers. Take California. It pays pensions of more than $100,000 per year to 12,201 retired civil servants and educators.

Liberals are more likely to defend than decry this squandering. An article in Nation magazine recently called conservatives who think government workers are overpaid the moral equivalent of anarchists: It's "a short step from lambasting public workers to rejecting the very idea of public goods and services – and of government itself."

Conservatives who pressed to redirect resources toward the needy and away from both the prosperous and the governmental-industrial complex would strengthen the cause of more freedom through less government. They also would strengthen the position of those liberals who are serious about fashioning a more rigorous welfare state. Most important, they would strengthen the cause of self-government in America by moving us closer to a welfare state that does what we want capably, at a price we can afford.

William Voegeli, the author of "Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State," is a contributing editor to the Claremont Review of Books.