Painting Conservatism Out of the Corner: A Review of William Voegeli’s Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State

Avatar

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at gmail.com.

Related Post Roulette

46 Responses

  1. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    Accordingly, “[t]he government provides Social Security and Medicare to people who don’t need them for the sake of people who do.” Id. at 199.

    I think most liberals would have no problem with means testing.

    As far as the end of you (very interesting) post, are you suggesting that conservatism and liberalism would both benefit from becoming more like one another?Report

    • Avatar RTod in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      “I think most liberals would have no problem with means testing.”

      I would go one step further, and say that people on both sides of the aisle are strongly for this… and neither are willing to seriously pony up specifics, as doing so can cost them elections.Report

      • Avatar rj in reply to RTod says:

        The main liberal argument against means testing is that “programs for poor people become poor programs.” Soon enough, a means-tested Social Security System will be portrayed as a giveaway to ex-convicts and illegal immigrants (truth be damned) and it’ll be vulnerable for further cuts.

        Nothing in the conservative political playbook suggests this won’t be the first order of business as soon as the well-to-do stop getting checks.Report

    • Avatar Tim Kowal in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      “As far as the end of you (very interesting) post, are you suggesting that conservatism and liberalism would both benefit from becoming more like one another?”

      E.C.,

      I think this is basically right. The task is for each to become more like the other in the right ways. Though it’s become a bad word around some parts, slippery slopes are hard to avoid. It’s easy for conservatives, especially to the extent they share ground with libertarians, to take hardline approaches when it comes to economic rights and the limits of the state. It’s very difficult—some would argue impossible—to give ground on such things without giving up all pretense of maintaining a principled approach. Voegeli’s prescription is not a particularly cheerful or easy one for conservatives, but I think he’s basically right.Report

  2. Avatar RTod says:

    Much to chew on in this post, Tim – nice job. A couple of random initial thoughts, though, and I would be happy to hear how you might respond:

    “Voegeli recounts that according to Matt Bai writing in the New York Times, “the average income of an American taxpayer in 1929, using today’s dollars, was about $16,000 a year; the entire middle class, in other words, was poor by modern standards.””

    I can’t speak for the accuracy of this, but assuming that it is somewhat correct… is this not an argument that the New Deal economics and the welfare state have been a smashing success? (In addition to the fact that we make far more than we were making before, our working conditions are much safer and more pleasant by and large.)

    “For us, everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody’s education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody’s blue jeans? No. And so on.” And so on?”

    Why the incredulous tone? To take a method that conservatives love (at least the am radio variety ones do), let’s make an analogy to your own household. Or actually, in fact, mine. My wife and I believe strongly in the philosophy that our teenage kids will become more rounded and better adults if they are allowed to both experience a great number of things, and are allowed to fail and learn from those failures. Does that mean we should allow them to drink and drive? Does it mean that we allow them to go camping without adults this weekend? Do we allow them to play Call of Duty on a school day? And most importantly, why do we have to choose a uniform “Yes” or “No” answer for all such questions – predetermined before we know the specifics of any given situation? Would our either allowing them to drink and drive or refuse to let them go camping based on the Need To Have A Consistent Ideologically Uniform Answer make us better parents, or worse?Report

    • Avatar JS in reply to RTod says:

      It’s the need to have a consistent ideology, to guide society based on doctrine, that bothers me most about modern american conservatism. Why do these “conservatives” cling onto doctrine so tightly? Why can’t they let go? What are they afraid of?Report

    • Avatar Tim Kowal in reply to RTod says:

      RTod,

      I’m not taking a position on whether the New Deal was an economic success. For one thing, I don’t know, and there seem to be strong arguments pro and con. More importantly, it’s not central to my post or Voegeli’s book. The relevant question is whether the New Deal is politically or constitutionally defensible. Because it operated at the nadir of constitutional authority, and because it operated in the absence of any other principle besides, and because it resulted, whether by design or not, in permanently changing the constitutional, political, and economic landscape of the nation, I’d say the ongoing scrutiny of the New Deal legacy justified.

      That said, I’m part way into Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal. Though its a few years old, I’ll probably do a review of that book as well, juxtaposing some of the themes from this post.

      As to your second point, the analogy between the state and the household doesn’t hold up for several reasons. The most important reason is that the relationship between parent and child is too dissimilar from the relationship between government and the governed. The right of the parent to control the child does not depend on the wisdom of the parent’s decisions, and thus does not depend on whether the parent can make a reasoned defense of those decisions. In fact, “because I say so,” while trite, is typically the correct response to a complaining child: a child is not entitled to compel an account of a parent’s decision.

      Government, on the other hand, depends for its legitimacy the consent of the government. That consent typically cannot be expected unless an account is made of the government’s actions. Can an account be made if we operate solely on a case-by-case basis? Technically, no, because it suggests that we are remaking the game with each new case. In reality, even a case-by-case approach does not go this quite this extreme. There are times when some principles seem to rise to the surface. This is what is interesting about FDR’s statement that about certain rights that “must be respected at all hazards.” There is clearly something going on under the surface of liberal thinking by which they conduct their “balancing” between liberty and security. However, because government wields such terrible power over us, it are obliged to give reason for its conclusions, even while we need not give such reasons in every instance in private life.Report

      • Avatar The Fool in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        “Government, on the other hand, depends for its legitimacy the consent of the government.”

        1. That’s a brilliant mistake.
        2. What does legitimacy matter, as a difference between parenthood and government?Report

        • Avatar Tim Kowal in reply to The Fool says:

          My goodness, it certainly is!

          The source of legitimacy is of great importance for it instructs the nature of authority. A parent does not need to give any reasons for his decision since its legitimacy is found in the nature of the relationship. Within his jurisdiction, the act of a parent is law simply because it is an act of the parent. Similarly, a king does not need to give reasons for his decision since its legitimacy derives from God. The king’s authority thus depends on his subjects’ satisfaction that the king acts sufficiently in line with God’s will. Generally speaking, however, an act of the king is law simply because it is an act of the king.

          A constitutional government, in contrast, must demonstrate its decisions comport with a constitution based on natural law. In other words, an act of Congress is not “law” simply because it is an act of Congress. Its legitimacy is not the same foregone conclusion as is a parent’s or a king’s, which do not depend on an appeal to right reason.

          Again, all this is to say that it will not do for modern liberalism to refuse to submit the acts of government against an articulable standard.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to RTod says:

      “My wife and I believe strongly in the philosophy that our teenage kids will become more rounded and better adults if they are allowed to both experience a great number of things, and are allowed to fail and learn from those failures. Does that mean we should allow them to drink and drive? Does it mean that we allow them to go camping without adults this weekend? Do we allow them to play Call of Duty on a school day?”

      “Teenagers should experience a great number of things” is not the same idea as “teenagers should do whatever they want”.Report

  3. This essay — and the book it concerns — doesn’t seem to grapple with liberalism as it actually exists in American politics. But I suppose my response is to be expected since I’m not a conservative and the piece/book is clearly written for the choir.Report

    • Avatar RTod in reply to Elias Isquith says:

      I haven’t read the book, but it’s hard for me to think that a book for conservatives that says you should recognize the welfare state is here to stay is preaching to the choir.

      Still, your point about real life liberalism is a good one.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Elias Isquith says:

      It also suffers from what we were just talking about on another thread: assuming to know what’s in the mind of your ideological opponent. The amorphous, unrpincipled liberal straw men, while liberals are largely to blame for its existence (since “liberals” is a family resemblance concept), is a nice way of avoiding having to actually address what liberals think, while at the same time painting them as irrational sentimentalists.Report

    • Elias and Chris,

      Above, rj wrote this independently, not quoting from my post:

      The main liberal argument against means testing is that “programs for poor people become poor programs.” Soon enough, a means-tested Social Security System will be portrayed as a giveaway to ex-convicts and illegal immigrants (truth be damned) and it’ll be vulnerable for further cuts.

      Nothing in the conservative political playbook suggests this won’t be the first order of business as soon as the well-to-do stop getting checks.

      As it happens, this is precisely one of the points made in the post and in Voegeli’s book toward explaining the “criss-crossing dollars” approach of overcoming the lack of political will in America to sustain the welfare state. Does rj also mischaracterize “liberalism as it actually exists in American politics”? Does he also create a “strawman”?Report

      • Avatar rj in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        I don’t think that what I said explains/demonstrates Voegeli’s “criss-crossing dollars” approach. I believe Voegeli claims that the large number of taxes and programs masks the distributional effect of the budget. To an extent, this is true – but if you do the math, it applies to defense boondoggles and corporate tax loopholes more than it does to any liberal notion of redistribution or creating a minimal standard of living. The notion that complex systems make it hard to figure out everything that is going on is neither new nor particularly insightful.

        But does liberal support for means testing really say anything about underlying ideology? Not really. Speaking as a liberal who is made from flesh and blood, not straw, the anti-means testing argument comes from limp responses to decades of demagoguery from the right.* We are willing to give some of the population checks they don’t need so everyone else who really needs it can’t be tarred as a bunch of lazy crackhead Mexicans, or whomever we’ve decided to hate this year (gay Muslim methheads?).

        I don’t think it’s some sort of snowjob to say that assuming perfect targeting is impossible and a program can be overinclusive or underinclusive, it’s completely rational to choose overinclusion to make people feel more of a connection with it.

        Think of the way retail stores deal with shoplifting: they have measures in place to prevent it, but some amount of loss is figured into the bottom line because the extreme measures required to get to zero would make the whole experience so unpleasant that non-shoplifters wouldn’t patronize the store. Let some undeserving people get SS so that everyone else can too.

        * No, that doesn’t mean that liberals have never engaged in demagoguery. Please don’t put words in my mouth.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        No, Tim, but rj’s characterization is quite different from Voegeli’s, and not only because there actually is a principle behind it (as rj’s subsequent comment shows).Report

  4. Avatar Barry says:

    “…The New Deal legacy, which remade the American founding upon History instead of Nature”

    As opposed the previous continent-spanning industrial power, which was ‘natural’?

    Frankly, when somebody disses the New Deal, that’s it – they’ve lost any right to be taken seriously.Report

  5. Avatar Will says:

    I confess I sometimes find “liberal” pragmatism more attuned to my conservative sensibilities than the idea of immutable natural rights. I think rights arose haltingly, tentatively, as a result of custom, habit, and democratic consensus, rather than some schema that was discovered fully-formed. I also think that is a thoroughly conservative sentiment.Report

    • Avatar RTod in reply to Will says:

      So, you’re going with the evolution model and not the creationist? In 2011 Conservative America, I think that makes you a liberal. Which of course is the point of Sullivan’s piece.Report

  6. “Voegeli reluctantly acknowledges that conservatives are too enamored by the superiority of their principles to bother with a more pragmatic approach—specifically, Voegeli offers, stipulating to the existence of the welfare state while insisting it “actually produce the intended effect and do so at a reasonable cost.” ”

    But isn’t it true that liberals see any effort at reforming the welfare state as an attack on the welfare state itself? The al-or-nothing approach goes both ways.Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      Well, when you get repeatedly hit in the face by the same person, when that same person says he’s just raising his fist to wipe some dirt off your face, you tend not to believe him.Report

      • Jesse – but that distrust goes both ways, doesn’t it? Conservatives believe that liberals can’t help themselves from dumping billions on the poor and also that the money, in a way, buys votes. No one trusts each other and that is the simplest answer.Report

        • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

          Yes, but then that silly thing called reality gets in the way. I can point to numerous examples of Republicans acting like they want to ‘reform’ something when they really want to eliminate it (Paul Ryan, stand up!). On the other hand, what major dumping of money on the poor to buy votes has happened in the last thirty years? The Earned Income Tax Credit? Expanding Medicaid to the federal poverty level?Report

        • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

          But yes, I distrust the Republican Party. They’ve spent the entirety of my lifetime giving me reasons for that distrust.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      “But isn’t it true that liberals see any effort at reforming the welfare state as an attack on the welfare state itself? The al-or-nothing approach goes both ways.”

      I think this often happens in part because many efforts are to chip away at rather than reform many welfare programs. And in many istances where conservatives would claim to be reforming it, i.e. providing the same benefit but by another mechanism, they aren’t necessarily being serious.

      For instance, I can understand the need to cut taxes in various instances, but the idea that we can cut them and not take a hit to revenues is akin to saying that we can get more bang for our buck with medicare simply by putting in less buck.

      I agree though that there are moderate reforms that could be supported with each side reaching out halfway.Report

  7. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Against the shapelessness of liberal thinking that makes it so difficult to refute, Voegeli reluctantly acknowledges that conservatives are too enamored by the superiority of their principles to bother with a more pragmatic approach

    Can’t help yourself, can you?Report

  8. The right complains about what the left does; the left complains about what the right won’t let them do. Evidence in this very combox.

    “Compassionate conservatism” was a big laugh. Per Harry Truman with colors reversed, they’ll vote for the genuine article instead of a fake Democrat everytime. [Clinton, Obama.]

    Voegeli’s right on the question of limits. Ask a lefty what a “fair” limit on taxation is, he won’t answer, because he’s fine with 90%. The lefty sees Robin Hood as a moral hero. Rob the rich until they ain’t rich anymore. As for the poor, nothing is too good or too much for them. There is no limit to the taxation, there is no limit to the redistribution.

    As for the abstractions, FDR blew up the concept of rights as negative liberty [get off my back] with “freedom from want,” which is an invention of a positive liberty that can never be satisfied. Welfare is no longer the charity of one’s fellow citizens, but a “right.”

    http://www.gettingfoodstamps.org/index2.htm

    In the real world, only a libertarian would let his fellow citizen starve. [J/K] But entitlements as rights means somebody else has to pay for them. This is the dynamic that’s hitting the fan not just in the US, but in social democrat Europe.

    It’s fine when there are a lot more Peters than Pauls, but many societies are approaching the 50/50 mark. The welfare state is less than 100 years old, and the acid test of its sustainability is about…what time is it?…………..now.Report

  9. Avatar mac says:

    Nowhere in this argument do you address the problem of inherited wealth. You lament “history” over “nature”, yet in Nature, there is no inheritance beyond the genetic and the inter-personal. Unlimited duration of private property is in this sense, completely “unnatural.”

    So, let’s assume a different model: beyond basic self-sufficiency of your children, you have no rights after death.

    You can pass on your house and a small amount of land. Everything else goes into a pool. Effectively, this allows a tax rate of 0%, with an inheritance tax of 100%. There is no impingement on individual freedom: the perfect libertarian utopia. So why aren’t libertarians arguing for this?Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *