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.

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.)

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.

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.

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