Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Never Enough - Americaʼs Limitless Welfare State

By Tennessee Jed

William Voegeli is a visiting scholar at the Henry Salvatori Center at Claremont McKenna College. His articles have appeared in, among others, The L.A. Times and National Review. In his most recent book, “Never Enough,” the author freely admits it is a different book than the one he intended to write. His original thought was to examine what the ideal welfare state might look like from the liberal point of view.

However, after close examination of liberal writings over the past 75 years since the dawn of the “New Deal,” what Voegeli discovered was that no such description exists. It reminded him of the Texas cattle baron who insisted “he never has intended to buy all the land in Texas, only that adjacent to what he already owned.”

As a result, the book becomes an examination of why liberalism, as Voegeli puts it, “lacks a limiting principle” and just what that means for the long standing 80 year dispute between conservatives and liberals over the size and nature of the American Welfare State.

Voegeli provides a wealth of data illustrating the steady growth of welfare spending, even after adjusting for inflation and population growth. He uses the governmentʼs own data by taking the Human Resources “superfunction” and making a couple of minor adjustments to arrive at an extremely close approximation of what should be defined as welfare spending. The growth is steady, slowed only during the Reagan Administration and Gingrich Congress. The size of the American Welfare state is also compared with other countries. While we see we have yet to catch up with some of our European counterparts, that gap is narrowing.

The author continues by looking at the theory underlying this apparent lack of a limiting principle. Many liberals argue that lacking such a principle is actually a virtue in that each perceived “need” is considered on a case by case basis. Voegeli skillfully shows there apparently has never been a case rejected as unecessary. As he points out, FDR promised to experiment with government programs and quickly cast them aside if they failed. History, however, clearly indicates that has not happened.

Conservatives, of course, would like nothing better than to put clear limits on the size of government, including caps on the amount of taxes and spending. Attacks usually come along three lines; libertarianism (anti-liberty is bad,) supply side economics (lower taxes increase revenue more than higher taxes,) and welfare economics (starve the beast.)

Despite slowing growth of the welfare state during Reagan and Gingrich, conservatives have failed to ever get such caps enacted. As Voegeli explains “liberal victories advance liberalism; conservative ʻvictoriesʼ merely postpone liberalism.” He spends an entire chapter detailing his thinking on why this is so. In doing so, Voegeli determines that Americans want some welfare state, but due to our unique character and experiences, we seem unwilling to accept or pay for as much as some of our European counterparts. With liberals unable to convince Americans to pay for all their wants, and conservatives unable to obtain caps, we are left with our present situation. Voegeli seems to indicate the implications of the lack of limiting principle will require a bargain. Liberals agree to caps, and conservatives admit there will be some sort of welfare state. Perhaps then, we could focus more on obtaining efficiencies in what we do spend. The author does not give us a bucket load of suggestions, although he implies means testing might make sense.

Whether or not you agree with all Voegeli says, I will go so far as to say it should be a must read for Democrats, liberals, Republicans, conservatives and independent alike. I believe he does a fantastic job of laying out the history and theory of our political differences. The charts alone are worth the price of admission. Perhaps one of our bloggers will do a follow up article to either agree or disagree.


AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks for the review! Well done. After reading your review, I actually am very interested in reading this book.

If I understand what he says correct, then I do think he's right that we're stuck because the left and right are offering things the public doesn't want. I think this is in the nature of the left for the reasons he gives -- no limits and no ability to stop adding to the list of things they want to cover. But when it comes to the right, I think this is more a matter of just bad PR. For while many of the talking heads on the right are quick to say that they want to abolish all unemployment assistance, welfare, etc., I don't know very many people on the right who agree with that and actually want it all gone -- I also think there are good reason (economic and moral) to leave some of it in place. And I think that we would be better served disclaiming the idea that we want to wipe it all out, and instead talking about the limits that should be placed on such spending, i.e. who can get it, how long, and under what terms and conditions.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: Great review. The author sounds like he had an epiphany while trying to prove something else entirely. Good for him. Thanks for sharing this with us, and it will spur me into picking up the book.

Pittsburgh Enigma said...

Sounds like an interesting book, Jed! It would seem that this notion of "limitless" where liberals are concerned can be applied to more than just the welfare state. Just look at what they're trying to do with food: banning trans-fats and salt, taking away toys from Happy Meals, etc. But it's never enough. Once the fat and salt are gone, next it will be sugar. If they could have their way, McDonald's would be completely outlawed. It's the limitless pursuit of the perfect utopia. And once it's reached, of course, it's not a world that any sane person would want to live in. Maybe that's the core problem of liberalism--it constantly breeds unintended consequences.

Tennessee Jed said...

good points, Andrew. Voegeli mentions the conservative Straw man of James Fallows, e.g. those who believe government is simply evil, wasteful, oppressive, etc. However, most thoughtful consevatives actually defend government rather than oppose it. It is actually something more than merely a libertarian view of the government which governs least governs best.

The victories of the left have been enduring, those of the right temporary. The hardest thing to undo are the entitlements that have become embedded in our system. I think Voegeli realizes if we define the parameters of the Welfare state, the opposing sides have a better chance to fight their battles in a way that actually might result in more efficient processes. The one example he serves up is means testing for things like social security or other programs.

What I think the author really does well, and why I recommend everybody read the book is it does force us to engage in some really critical thinking.

Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk - thanks for your comments. Whether the author had an epiphany or used it as a device to make a point, I cannot say. However, he does, in my view, lay out the battlefiled in an exceptionally clear manner that non-economists can relate to.

Tennessee Jed said...

Absolutely, Pitts. The point is the power sought by the left is unlimited. Thus far, they haven't been able to accomplish that because they cannot do so and balance the checkbook at the same time. This doen't sit well with the American electorate. Think about it. Have you EVER known a liberal who could define what would constitute enough of a welfare state? We on the right need to avoid that same trap, by defining what level of welfarism we are willing to accept and forcing them to do the same.

My hope is if enough people get interested enough to read this one, I think the folks here could have one hell of an interesting discussion on the topics involved at a later date.

rlaWTX said...

I can justify limited gov't assistance - esp. since we have run the church out of the business.

I think that conservatives are afraid to conceed that too often or loudly though, because of the feeling that the Left would never conceed to the need for caps. Without the arguement that the Founders did not intend forus to be a welfare state, and without Left concessions on the need for caps, there is no stopping the train to madness.

But having a social science approach discover the need for both is rather intriguing.

On Pitsburgh's comment: I watched Demolition Man last night - Stallone's comments and Denis Leary's (sp?) rant about freedom, on top of the sheer idiocy of the stifled society, was great - enve though that world is seeming less bizarre...

(Good job, Jed!)

Tennessee Jed said...

Earlier, my computer was going crazy and I thought I was under some kind of cyber attack. It felt like when the Enterprise was being scanned by a powerful enemy. Seems to have settled down now (whew) so maybe it was just a cyber gliche.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think his point is brilliant that we are losing this debate because we are making the wrong argument. I see that often with conservatives where they unnecessarily adopt an extremist sounding argument, even when they don't actually intend to follow through on that position, and it scares the public.

Thus, when we come along and say, "here are some limits we'd like to see," the public says, "hey, these guys are really after killing the whole thing, so I don't trust them." Because of that lack of trust, the public then tunes us out and refuses to go along with the limits we suggest.

Indeed, if you stake out an extreme position (as people often do on many issues..... like any argument that begins with "change the Constitution to..."), people tend to ignore everything you say after that.

So we would be much better served to disavow the all or nothing strategy, to concede that the public does want things like unemployment insurance (which I actually think is rational and probably good for the economy and society), and then arguing for limits that would let us severely curtail the existing programs to the point that they become useful to protecting society and stop being enablers of lazy-lifestyles.

Tennessee Jed said...

RiaWTX - thanks for your comments. Voegeli refers to the discussion in the Federalist Papers, describing the challenge as a connundrum: "to enable the government to control the governed while obliging it to control itself." Not even considering specific policy per se, Voegeli claims "The American Experiment in self-government is the precarious undertaking conservatives seek to defend."

T_Rav said...

Jed, this article highlights my greatest fear: that the unique American character will be diluted and ultimately destroyed by inuring us all to government surrounding and controlling us. If we ever get mass street protests from unruly teenagers screaming like banshees because their welfare checks got cut, we're done.

This is a perfect explanation of why the welfare state has to be shrunk. Not simply stalled or even frozen, but cut back on major levels.

Tennessee Jed said...

T_Rav - I think that has always been the thing that frightens conservatives most. We have always talked about the famed so-called "tipping point" where more people don't pay taxes than do. In reality though, I think what happens is, as we approach that point, the American electorate sees how a truly anti-entrepreneurial government agenda not only hurts the overall standard of living, but also lessens our freedom.

"Voegeli talks about a conservative grand compromise in terms of a "smaller slice of a bigger pie." We have been slowly losing this war over the past 80 years, however there are built in factors in our unique American experience that seem to keep us from completely losing it. I don't know if I completely agree with his conclusions but am fascinated to think about the topic.

Andrew referred to our bad p.r. as one of the reason we have failed to ever implement permenant caps on the size of the welfare state and there is much truth in that. Still, the reality is that entitlements, once embedded, become pretty darned popular. If the Socialist/Democrat party (as I think of them) had not over reached so badly on healthcare, and produced such a crappy piece of legislation, that one could have been beyond our reach and set us on an irrevocable path towards national bankruptcy.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think you're right that these things become popular and become very hard to undo. That is a serious problem.

To me, the PR problem is not that we're fighting something inherently popular, it's that we're fighting it wrong. If we went at this from the perspective of "we want to protect these benefits by making sure that people who don't deserve them don't get them", then we could probably make serious headway in terms of reducing the size and scope (and eventually the popularity) of these programs.

But instead, the right often goes for the approach: "we need to end all of these programs and cut all these lazy people off!" That alienates everyone who gets the benefits as well as the people who think they might one day need the benefits. Not only do we end up attacking a popular program head-on, but it makes everything we say about rational limits on the program suspect in light of our clearly stated plan to destroy the program.

I would rather see us agree that these things will continue, combined with us talking about rational limits and making the programs more effective -- e.g. cut out people who don't need them or don't deserve them -- like income testing, or cutting out able-bodied serial users, or switching cash grants to direct help like allowing food stamps to be used only for healthy food items or paying rent directly.

Things like that make sense and I think can easily be sold to the American public as good restrictions that will protect these benefits and improve the country. But the public has no reason to trust us when we keep saying, "we want to wipe out all of your benefits."

That's the PR issue I'm talking about.

Janet said...

Thank you for an interesting review. I come at this from a different perspective than you do, but I agree this is a problem. I should point out though that many liberals do actually have strong limits for benefits, though they are not where conservatives place their limits. I can see no reason why limited benefit money should be lavished on the wealthy or on corporations. I also do not think benefit money should be spent on encouraging the middle class to have children. But I do think universal health care and universal college education should be available for the poor, something I suspect conservatives would not accept.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew and Janet - Voegeli admits means testing could be nothing more than the next front in an endless war between conservatives who want to shrink the welfare state and liberals who want to expand it. "As a sports writer once said, in a rematch the smart money would still be on Goliath." "A resonsible debate on means testing might be an excellent opportunity to suggest that when all else fails, Americans should try responsible governance."

Janet, also from this book: Before adding a single new program (e.g. free healthcare and college,) spending on social security, medicare, and medicaide alone will cause the portion of GDP devoted to welfare spending to nearly double by 2030 and more than double by 2050. These three programs alone will be absorbing the same % of GDP as the entire Federal Government did in 2007. Just keeping those three programs functioning will require an increase in taxes equal to 10% of the GDP in the next six years alone.

Adding onto that with other unending new entitlements (will free grad school be next?) is both fiscally and politically impossible, and that doesn't even touch the theory of at what taxation point are capital and jobs driven to more favorable overseas business climates. (btw that last paragraph is just me :D )

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks to all; I appreciate all the comments and discussion. It gives me a greater appreciation of what Andrew and Hawk do to each day. Again, I do highly recommend this book. It is an academic discussion, and while written by a conservative, did not find it to be highly partisan. I purposely attempted to not draw too many conclusions in the review about the merits of his arguments. That is better left to each of you individually if you read the book.

I do think he does a great job of discussing the history of the arguments and philosophies behind them without belittling either side. I don't know if the author did enough for my own taste to flesh out his own conclusions about what needs to be done, but if you do invest the time to read it, I honestly believe it will force you to think about your own assumptions of what needs to be done and will put you in a better position to consider the political debate as it continues to play out.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, You're welcome and thanks for writing the review!

On means testing, I think that's one we would win. The reason is that while I think the public does like they benefits, they are quite willing to buy the argument that some people don't "deserve" the benefits because they don't "need" them. Thus, I think a means testing debate would be a great way to establish our credibility as walking that line perfectly, whereas the left will either need to go along or will expose themselves as liars when they talk about agreeing to limits.

For example, I think the public would accept the idea that no one in the middle class or up should receive welfare. But if the left says "anyone below $100,000 should be eligible, people will freak out." Of course, the danger for us will be the conservatives who say either, "it's unfair to say the rich can get benefits if the poor do" and those who say "welfare should be like prison and it should only go to those who literally can't earn a penny."

But if we picked a reasonable number, one that people agree is too much to justify public assistance, that would be impossible to resist, and could then actually be lowered by not adjusting it for inflation.

DUQ said...

This sounds really interesting. Thanks for the heads-up on it!

Ed said...

TJ, Thanks for an interesting review. This sounds likes a good book. I think there is a lot to what everyone says in the comments and I can tell you that benefits are very popular where I live. Even the conservatives I know know people on welfare and think that's fine. I think we need to make these benefits worth less so people stop seeing them as a way of life and then, eventually, stop caring about them.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - according to the author, one of the best arguments against the increasing welfare state was written by David Stockman in 1975 as an article in "The Public Interest" entitled "The Social Porkbarrel." It embraced welfare economics, the 3rd leg of the traditional conservative attack (along with libertarianism and supply side.) Stockman argues that the welfare state has finite resources that must be directed where they are needed the most. Liberals in particular, but Congress in general have not done a good job of defining where it is needed the most.

The consequence is that inclusion rather than exclusion is the norm and benefits scattered over a much broader spectrum than needed. Voegeli believes if conservatives constructed their "ideal welfare state" it would include nothing but means tested" programs. He goes on to discuss the nature of the opposition in more detail than I can include here.

While I agree, we could just end up arguing tooth and nail over every means definition, like you, I tend to think it could be a potentially easier sell than he lets on. Maybe that is the ultimate point of his "grand bargain." With some limits placed at the margins on both sides, we could end up actually doing more good for the people who really need it and tax and spend less at the same time to boot!

Tennessee Jed said...

DUQ and Ed- thanks for reading. I think if you invest in the money and time to read this book, it will be worth your while--academic but readable and a good reference to boot. I'm currently reading "Return to Prosperity" the sequel to "End of Prosperity" by Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore. Laffer is the creator of the "Laffer Curve" and the guhru of "Supply Side" theory. He admits supply side cannot do it on it's own-- we must get a handle on spending as well. If you look at the welfare economics theory of Stockman, you begin to hone in on a salient political and economic theory as it applies to our current spending situation.

CrispyRice said...

Just what I need, more things for the "to read" list! ;) Thanks!

StanH said...

Good read Jed. I understand the premise and logic Voegeli arrives at, however I disagree with the eternal “social safety net.” By excepting just a little bit of this poison sickens the whole body. My point is by giving up on the budget baseline, we risk the collapse of the entire system. I realize you have to deal with reality, but everything in the budget must be reviewed, means tested, thoroughly vetted, and reduced or there will be no “social safety net.”

Interesting article.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Stan - that would be the true libertarian argument, of course. The fully vetted means tested programs might be a theoretical ideal. But, as you say, we must live in the real world, and it is impractical to think the election of 1932 will be fully undone. I just know we have to find a politically feasible way to stop the unchecked growth or I believe we become a bankrupt failed state.

Vogeli asks the question: "What are progressives trying to progress to, and what are conservatives trying to conserve?" For the latter, the short answer is liberty. As was mentioned previously, stated in the Federalist Papers, it is phrased as a conundrum. He quotes Lincoln who expressed his own self-doubts whether our noble experiment in self-government is doomed by a fatal flaw; {sic} by necessity either too strong for the liberties of it's people or too weak to maintain it's own existence.

Voegeli believes our conservative mission must be to "defend the precarious undertaking that is the American experiment in self government." Will we succeed? I certainly hope so, but as the author also points out, when asked in the 1970's about the success of the French Revolution, the Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai was said to have answered "to soon to tell. " :-)

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