Below the fold is an essay that is partly a reaction to reading parts of William Voegeli’s new book, Never Enough, which ruminates on liberalism, conservatism, and the welfare state.In the end, I gather what Voegeli proposes is a hypothetical bargain. If liberals will agree to some finite limit on the welfare state, conservatives should agree to try to make the best of it by making design changes (such as means testing) that maximize the benefits of the welfare state relative to its costs.
The title of the book suggests that liberals have never thought in terms of offering such a bargain. No matter how big the welfare state becomes, they think it ought to be bigger. In what I have read, Voegeli does not explain why liberals think this way. He might have cited Thomas Sowell on “the unconstrained vision.” In any case, I think he is making an unstated assumption that liberals would accept his hypothetical bargain if conservatives would only offer it. Or, alternatively, that the voters would elect large majorities of conservatives based on a platform that includes the hypothetical bargain.
I certainly doubt that liberals would accept such a hypothetical bargain. Consider another hypothetical bargain that is popular with market-oriented types. We’ll let you (the liberals) decide how much to spend per capita on education, if you will let us (the market-oriented) determine how it is spent (i.e., using vouchers). I have never come across a liberal who liked that bargain. They cannot imagine depriving children of government’s expertise in education. Similarly, I doubt that a liberal would accept Voegeli’s bargain, because it makes no sense for anyone, rich or poor, to be deprived of the expert guidance that the state can provide in making choices about saving and health care.
Indeed, I would suggest to Voegeli that the welfare state is not the root of the disagreement between what I call the Established Church of Unlimited Government and the heresy of limited government. The root (or better yet, the soil) includes what Daniel Klein calls “The People’s Romance,” in which the state is infused with mystical qualities. It also includes what I might call “The Progressives’ Romance,” in which technocrats and social scientists are infused with mystical qualities.
Relative to the soil of magical thinking about the state and about technocratic expertise, the welfare state is merely the largest weed. It is a weed that seems particularly vulnerable at the moment, because of the current situation in Greece and the similar situation implicit for the United States in the medium-term projections of the Congressional Budget Office. But I am not convinced that trimming the weed would be a sufficient achievement for libertarians/conservatives, given the soil.
To illustrate, consider another hypothetical bargain. Suppose that liberals offered to keep the combination of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid below 15 percent of GDP and overall Federal spending below 20 percent of GDP indefinitely, in exchange for which they would be given free rein on other policy issues. That is, they could dictate energy and environmental policy, enact unlimited “nudges” to try to change what people eat or how they invest, impose regulations to address what they perceive as inequities in the work place and in access to credit, and so on. Should we accept that bargain? It seems to me that Voegeli offers us no basis for rejecting it, although I myself would be quite opposed.
Over the past decade, I have offered many ideas for trimming the weed. Most of them are based on raising the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare and indexing the age of eligibility to longevity going forward. I will continue to advocate such an approach.
However, I think that the soil is the more important problem. If the nation’s educated elite were to wake up tomorrow with a firm grasp of Hayek’s insight into the knowledge problem, then the Progressives’ Romance would disappear from the soil. And if the average American were to wake up tomorrow with a firm grasp of Tocqueville’s insight into the ability of civil society and voluntary associations to serve as vehicles for solving collective problems in a democracy, then the People’s Romance would disappear as well. In my view, unless these changes in the soil take place, we are destined to be overrun by weeds, one way or the other.