The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Troubleshooting ‘Beyond the Welfare State’

Posted on | March 22, 2011 | 14 Comments

by Smitty (hat tip Monty at AoSHQ)

Yuval Levin’s essay at National Affairs is quite well written, and well conceived. Furthermore, it’s a more reasonable conversation starter than I would produce, because it accepts the historical fact of the welfare state as a given, and proceeds to argue the case from there.

Monty moves in the direction I’d go, emphasis mine:

But one thing has become clear in the western nations since the welfare-state started in earnest after World War II: it spreads like kudzu, it encompasses and infantilizes ever-larger percentages of the population, and it beggars even the richest and most powerful countries. Leave aside questions of morality and efficacy for the moment — it is dreadfully clear that the main problem with the welfare-state is that we can’t afford it. No one can, no matter how rich or powerful.

This is the paradox of the welfare state: it will surely ruin us if left to run unchecked, yet so many people now depend upon it that we can’t stop.

However, I submit that a fuller analysis will be crucial to doing two things:

  1. Coming up with a remedy. You can talk about the flooding all day long, but you aren’t patching much until the leak is isolated.
  2. Obtaining buy-in to implement that remedy. Everybody hates change, especially when it involves pain, even though we all know that our welfare state buzz ends with a mother of a hangover.

On my to-read list is Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic. A brief summary mooched from Volokh:

The book argues that the Madisonian system of separation of powers has eroded beyond recognition and been replaced with a system of executive primacy (which others have called the “imperial presidency”) in which Congress and the courts play only a marginal role. Most scholars who have recognized this development have called for a return to the Madisonian system, but we believe that the rise of the executive has resulted from a recognition among political elites that only a powerful executive can address the economic and security challenges of modern times.

Not a thesis to make anyone happy, on the left or right.

How in the world is this collapse into an Imperial Presidency tied to the welfare state?
My theory is that the 1913 trifecta of:

  • Implementing the income tax (Amendment 16),
  • Turning the Senate into the Big House with every state composed of two ‘districts’, and diminishing the States as such as political entities (Amendment 17),
  • The godforsaken Federal Reserve (Ugliest Legislative Christmas Present Ever)

These three items were the core seeds of DOOM. Later chestnuts like the New Deal, National Security Act of 1947, Great Society, and the War Powers Resolution of 1973 are also bricks in the wall.
Among the problems to be worked in parallel are:

  • A large collection of weaklings who think dependency on the State is a feature, not a bug.
  • A national debt that we should start measuring in Astronomical Units, for all anyone can conceptualize the actual amount of money.
  • The notion that running a peacetime budget deficit is both somehow not a bug, but is in fact a Really Good Feature.
  • A vast standing bureaucracy, that, if Wisconsin is an indication, will cheerfully see the country sink in progressive debt flooding rather than let a shoring team get in there and patch anything.

Back to Levin, he is more interested in broaching discussion than going to the mat with ideas (emphasis mine):

Conservatives should therefore not expect to ever simply win the argument. Our challenge, rather, is to dominate the argument — to offer the vision that implicitly sets the tone for our common life. The key to doing so is the emergence of a policy-oriented conservatism, one able to make gainful compromises not because it is ambivalent about its own aims or tentative in its commitment to them but because it knows exactly what it wants — a thriving free society with a market economy, strong families, a devotion to country, and a commitment to the value of every life — and knows that this can (indeed must) be obtained gradually, by a mix of persuasion and proof. Such an approach must always remain grounded in the principles of American life — the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, of the Western tradition and of classical liberalism. But it must also translate those principles into policy particulars. In our politics, battles over ideas are won in practice, not in theory.

Recent decades have offered some examples of such an approach — from welfare reform to the urban policing revolution — but they have been too few and far between. There are good reasons to hope that just such an approach is now emerging more broadly on the right, and good reasons to encourage and foster its emergence.

Truly, I look to see a revisiting of 1913 with some DC plugs


Damage control plugs are for those who's prefer to stay afloat

and a large sledgehammer. If centralization is deemed the problem, then de-centralizing will be a component of the solution. Give each State its own bank, like North Dakota, and let them manage their own housing. Let them manage the welfare of their own citizens. Let them tax their own citizens. Let the States figure out if they want to appoint or popularly elect Senators. In short, let the Federal government be federal, and quit treating the country like a single state.
I’d say that is the goal, and then be moderate in the implementation. We can’t unwind a century of error overnight, or even within two terms of the Paco Administration.



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