Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Question We Must Answer If We Want to Prevent Socialist Stagnation and Tyranny

Jonah Goldberg asks, and proposes the beginning of an answer to, this question in a post entitled: "In a Welfare State, How Much is 'Enough'?" at the National Review Online.
Indeed, the mess we have today is merely the natural result of a century-long battle over the size of government. When it comes to the welfare state, liberals want more, conservatives want less. It seems that nobody ever talks about “enough.”

Except that’s not entirely true. Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) offered an alternative vision of government in his famous “Roadmap.” It was, in the words of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a blueprint for a “conservative welfare state.” The idea was that the truly needy would be taken care of because they are truly needy, but middle-class entitlements would be scaled back for two simple reasons: 1) We cannot afford them, and 2) excessive government meddling in areas such as health care increases costs and wastes money.

Ryan’s blueprint was denounced by liberals as too stingy and largely ignored by much of the Republican leadership, who were happy to just say no to Obama’s plans without offering voters anything serious to say yes to.

William Voegeli, a scholar of impeccable conservative credentials, has joined Ryan’s battle in his book Never Enough, a searing indictment of what he calls the Hundred Years’ War between the party of more and the party of less. Voegeli argues that American voters (including most Republicans) will never fully eradicate the welfare state, because they don’t want to. Therefore, conservatives should make peace with the idea that the federal government should help the truly needy, while rejecting both the sorts of middle- and upper-class entitlements that are bankrupting the country and the kind of government “dole” that breeds bad habits among the poor and able-bodied.

Purist libertarians who see in this argument merely a surrender to liberalism should at least acknowledge that liberals would denounce any suggestion of means testing America’s safety net as cruel cutbacks and a violation of FDR’s “vision,” and that many voters would agree with them. Moreover, the current strategy hasn’t worked. We’ve had a century of nearly uninterrupted growth in the welfare state, even under Ronald Reagan. That alone recommends a new strategy.

Consider Social Security. Liberals are absolutely committed to the idea that everybody should be in the same creaky retirement system. They insist that middle- and upper-class voters must be bribed to support the poor. Warren Buffett gets a Social Security check to ensure everyone does. In fairness, some liberals also claim that a universal entitlement binds us together as a nation. The former claim is cynical, the latter poetic nonsense.

Governments do not generate wealth; they can merely distribute it. The challenge for both liberals and conservatives is simply to define how much distribution is “enough.” What would an acceptable safety net look like? Who should be taken care of by taxpayers and for how long? Paul Ryan offered an answer to that question, and liberals scoffed because they reject the question. There’s no such thing as enough, as far as they’re concerned.
The really important point here is that liberals reject the question "How much is enough?" Now, first of all, real liberals wouldn't reject this question. Actually, this question separates the liberals from the socialists. Only socialists would reject this question and the fact that many who call themselves liberals or who are called liberals by others would reject this question shows that they are not really liberals. They just find the label "socialist" too toxic in the American context and so they avoid it for propaganda reasons. But in terms of the actual content of their political philosophy, the only reason to reject the question "How much is enough?" is because you really are committed to equality of incomes in society as your bottom line priority. And that is socialism.

It is possible to care about the poor and to want to lift them out of poverty without being a socialist. Let us consider two scenarios:

Scenario #1 The income of the poor goes up by 100% over a decade and nobody is now living under the poverty line as defined at the beginning of the decade. The income of the richest 10% of the population has seen its income skyrocket by 1000% during the same period.

Scenario #2 The income of the poor goes up by 20% over a decade and only 50% of those living under the poverty line at the beginning of the decade are still living under the poverty line. The richest 10% of the population has seen its income decline by 50% during the same period.

Only a socialist would say that the second scenario is better than the first one and socialist policies are designed to lead to the scenarios more like the second than the first one. Now ask yourself the question: "If I were a poor person which scenario would I prefer?" Only the first scenario guarantees that you will be above the poverty line at the end of the decade and the first scenario means your income is likely to go up more in absolute terms. Who really thinks that actual, living, breathing poor people would opt for the second scenario?

Those who prefer the second scenario are typically middle and upper-class people in the grip of a romantic, revolutionary, Utopian vision. And this is why socialists need to engage in so much propaganda and manipulation in order to sell their vision to the working class only to see the working class so often drift off to vote conservative (like blue collar workers did for Reagan etc.). This is what causes anguished and tortured bouts of "analysis" and "critique" trying to explain why workers supposedly vote "against their own interests." The simpler explanation (remember Ockham's Razor) is that they recognize that socialism is not in their best interests.

The question Goldberg raises and Congressman Paul Ryan is trying to discuss like an adult is absolutely the right question. How much of a safety net for the truly needy should we have in place and how will it be paid for? Ryan is a voice in the wilderness talking about means tests and targeting benefits to those who actually need them, rather than just assuming that the State can afford endlessly increasing financial support programs for all citizens forever. What is going on in Greece and Europe as a whole today shows that this is a pipe dream.

But this pipe dream of the ever-expanding welfare state where the bills never come due is sold as propaganda by socialist in order to fool people into voting for them. It is essentially a form of temptation. But once the socialists gain power, their true philosophy will become visible and living standards will decline and poverty will increase - even as the goal of equality is attained.

If the European crisis brings about a socialist European super state it will be a humanitarian disaster of world historical significance. If you want to visualize concretely what it will mean, dig out some old newsreel footage of breadlines in Moscow and recall Solzhenitsyn's characterizations of the Soviet empire as a giant slave state. We don't even need to talk about the gulag necessary to enforce compliance with socialist totalitarianism.

Either you are willing to come to grips with the question: "How much is enough?" or you head down a road that leads to food shortages, poverty and the gulag. That is how important this discussion is.

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