Big Government's Intractabilty

William Voegeli correctly identifies the Right's strategic dilemma: given the welfare state's enduring popularity, should conservatives opt to make their peace with it and seek merely to limit its reach, or should they recommit to a gratifying (if futile) crusade against its legitimacy ("The Trouble with Limited Government," Fall 2007)? Voegeli errs, however, in concluding that "implacable liberals" will simply use any conservative embrace of the New Deal as an occasion to push for an expansion of government. On the contrary, there are plenty of prominent liberals—Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, to name two—who have expressed concern about the future viability of federal entitlement programs.

Voegeli's "Tocquevillian" solution—to means-test entitlements, keeping the welfare state intact only for those who need it—is one that many liberals find attractive. But there are many who do need help and aren't getting it—just ask the 47 million Americans who lack health insurance, or the inner-city children who attend dilapidated schools with no textbooks, or the full-time minimum-wage workers who live below the poverty line. If conservatives were to propose increasing federal assistance to these genuinely needy citizens, they would find many liberals willing—even eager—to curtail entitlement spending for the well-off in exchange.

Unfortunately, that offer was not on the table in the 2005 Social Security debate, which Voegeli cites as his only evidence that liberals will never consent to commonsense entitlement reform. Instead, President Bush asked Democrats to cut Social Security benefits after he had spent four years cutting taxes for the wealthy and stubbornly refusing to help close the gaping holes in the social safety net. In this context, one can hardly blame liberals for refusing to give away one of their few sources of political leverage in exchange for nothing. The welfare state must become both better targeted andmore robust—in a sense, both more Hayekian and more Rawlsian. Only such a compromise will ensure that government performs its rightful function while avoiding what Voegeli terms the "Swedenization of America."

Josh Patashnik
New Republic
Washington, D.C.

* * *

William Voegeli suggests that even though government's share of GDP has barely budged over the decades-long conservative ascendancy, the Right "can't take much solace from fighting Big Government to a draw," given that "the dynamic growth" of America's economy over the same period "offered a great opportunity to reduce the relative size of the public sector." In conservatism's defense, though, it's worth considering what the George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen calls the "libertarian paradox," which holds that as rich countries get richer, the demand for state services—and particularly middle-class entitlements—may naturally rise, rather than fall. "The more wealth we have," Cowen notes, "the more government we can afford." A richer country is a less tax-sensitive country, and its inhabitants are more likely to accept the pinch of taxation that comes with, say, outsourcing to the state the cost of their children's day care or their parents' prescription drugs.

If Cowen is correct, small-government conservatism's achievement—keeping the federal government's share of GDP constant in a time of steady economic growth—is more impressive than Voegeli allows. In addition, Cowen's thesis implies that the optimal moment for government cutting isn't a long period of economic expansion like the one we've just enjoyed, but a period of stagnation or slight decline, in which people are well-off enough to be suspicious of the welfare state, but not so well-off that they're willing to throw their extra tax dollars after government services. This may be one reason why the small-government movement peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and again in the early 1990s: both were eras of belt-tightening and diminished expectations, and the public reacted to them by expecting less out of government itself.

The Cowen hypothesis also offers reason to be a little more optimistic than Voegeli concerning Medicare and Social Security. He calls their projected growth "the Swedenization of America on autopilot," but of course this expansion won't happen on autopilot; it will require enormous tax increases to sustain, which will force voters into hard choices in a way that the long Reagan-to-Clinton boom simply didn't. Voegeli quotes, favorably, Paul Pierson's remark that "if conservatives could design their ideal welfare state, it would consist of nothing but means-tested programs." The crisis of Social Security and Medicare will give conservatives their best chance yet to means-test both programs, by offering the public a choice between means-testing and tax hikes. If voters choose the former (by no means a sure thing, admittedly, given the size and influence of the Baby Boom cohort), the end result will be a welfare state that's more expensive than today's but that's also much closer to the right-wing understanding of what a welfare state should be. And that would be no small victory.

Ross Douthat
Atlantic Monthly
Washington, D.C.

* * *

A conservatism premised in this day and age on the idea that it's possible to roll back the New Deal is a conservatism doomed to box its own shadow. As William Voegeli writes, committed conservatives can "deserve" to win, but they'll be playing a different game from the other 90% of the country—which, in a democracy, is a losing strategy.

Unfortunately, the most promising alternative strategy offered so far, the so-called Ownership Society, has proved a spectacular failure under President Bush. Whether this represents the failure of an idea or an administration is open for debate. My own view is that we cannot rule out the Bush circle's unique incompetence.

The good news is that the New Deal was the product of a passing age, the Industrial Age, and we may have more room than we realize to shape what takes its place in the next century. Because Republicans are likely to hold very few elective offices come January 2009, we'll have plenty of time to hash out just these sorts of strategy questions. Maybe it will be nice to play defense again. In the past, it's been as close as we've come to a good offense.

Ryan Sager
Brooklyn, NY

* * *

Reading William Voegeli's cogent essay is a depressing experience for an advocate of limited government. Government has grown steadily, as he notes, not just in size but in scope. From prescription drugs for the elderly to faith-based social service grants, the federal government now routinely launches programs that even Franklin Roosevelt didn't dream of. And despite all the talk by conservatives and libertarians about "winning the intellectual battle," the fact is that conservatives have not rolled back any significant part of the welfare state. Indeed, a Republican Party in complete control of the national government in 2003 delivered the biggest expansion of entitlements since Lyndon Johnson.

Political movements need a vision. American conservatism at its best does have a vision—a vision of individual freedom and a limited government, especially a limited federal government, a vision rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and in the individualist bones of a people who abandoned statist Europe and forged a libertarian revolution.

Ronald Reagan helped to revive that vision, though as Voegeli notes, he was more effective at rhetoric than at actually rolling back government. Since Reagan, or perhaps since the middle of 1981, Republicans have slid back to acquiescence in the New Deal and the Great Society. Or to something worse: being embarrassed by their own ideas. Lacking a positive vision, they are inarticulate in defending free enterprise and limited government and find themselves conceding the other side's case. Lacking a consistent philosophy, they stumble into intellectually indefensible contradictions: welfare cuts and business subsidies, federalism and a national marriage law. Lacking faith in the American idea of limited government and in their fellow Americans, they try to win elections by declaring their opponents traitors in a permanent war.

The supply-siders promised that tax cuts would save conservatives from the necessity of taking on the difficult subject of excessive spending. And a generation of conservatives forgot how to argue against federal programs on constitutional and economic grounds. I think Voegeli is wrong when he writes, "The experience of a quarter century shows that tax cuts have served important purposes, but the cause of scaling back Big Government is not one of them." Wouldn't the federal government be spending more today if Reagan hadn't slashed tax rates? The "starve the beast" theory hasn't been the panacea some of us would have liked. But government can't spend more than it can raise—even though it has discovered that it can raise more through borrowing than it used to think possible. European governments spend more than the U.S. government partly because of a different political culture and partly because they have a Value-Added Tax. Repeal the VAT over there, repeal withholding here, and you'd see government getting smaller. And the coming tsunami of entitlement spending may yet force a confrontation that anti-taxers can win. But it would be easier if conservative leaders had been pressing the case against the dole for the past generation.

Where there is no vision, the people perish—or at least the party and its principles. The first task for advocates of limited government is to develop and advance that vision. The founders, the abolitionists, the free-traders, the Progressives, and the Reaganites all honed and advocated their ideas long before they saw political victory. And we must translate that vision into policy proposals, organizations, and political movements. As John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, advocates of liberty and limited government must make ready the ideas, the platform, the networks that could serve a political leader who wanted to take on the task of clearing away the late 20th century's accumulated burden of bureaucracy, unfunded liabilities, overextended military commitments, and usurpations of the responsibilities of free citizens.

David Boaz
Executive Vice President
Cato Institute
Washington, D.C.

* * *

William Voegeli invites conservatives "to acknowledge and understand" that their attempt to "scale back the welfare state" has been a "stunning defeat," but although he sometimes seems to glimpse that failure's explanation, he never identifies it.

The advocates of welfare state programs present their coercive measures, whether Social Security or Medicare, as the moral thing to do and conservatives have no counter, because they agree. This is the reason why so many conservatives, as Voegeli notes, accept the welfare state, merely haggling over whether it's being run "efficiently."

The actual choice conservatives (and all of us) face is the choice Ayn Rand presented years ago: egoism and freedom, or altruism and tyranny. America's Founding Fathers broke with political tradition; but their magnificent creation could not endure, because they did not break with moral tradition. The altruism of Christ, Kant, Mill, and Marx is in fact incompatible with individual rights.

Anyone who today wishes to fight for the individual and against the welfare state must demonstrate the Founding Fathers' courage, but this time in the moral realm. We must propound a new morality of rational self-interest.

Yaron Brook, Ph.D.
President and Executive Director
Ayn Rand Institute
Irvine, CA


William Voegeli replies:

I appreciate the careful attention these readers paid to my article—secondarily because it is gratifying to have one's work read thoughtfully, but primarily because the argument over the future of the welfare state deserves our best thinking.

Josh Patashnik, Ross Douthat, and Ryan Sager speak of the possibility of resolving the argument over the welfare state within the confines of public opinion as it now exists and is likely to evolve in the foreseeable future. All three think that Irving Kristol's "conservative welfare state"—or at any rate a welfare state better reflecting conservative concerns—is attainable and desirable. David Boaz and Yaron Brook speak of the impossibility of reaching an acceptable compromise over the welfare state within the confines of existing public opinion, and urge opponents of the welfare state to concentrate on the long-term goal of radically reshaping the public's thinking. Both treat the idea of a conservative welfare state as not only a contradiction in terms, but a Trojan horse: the welfare state is going to change conservatism for the worse, much more than conservatism will ever change the welfare state for the better.

I am not enchanted by the distant shores to which Boaz would have us row, and the even wilder ones beyond them that call out to Dr. Brook. Aristotle taught that man is a political animal because nature intended human beings to be friends. The followers of Ayn Rand, however, scorn the idea that communal life—among fellows who regard one another as more than mere competitors—is essential to happiness and well-being, a sensibility widely shared by primates who aren't objectivists.

As for libertarians, the terms on which they want political entities in general, and the United States in particular, to cohere and endure are unlikely to be up to the job. Most libertarians didn't like the Moral Majority, which is fine, but their indifference to America's need for a moral majority isn't. Among the many things Woodstock Nationwill do badlyis being a nation. Similarly, most libertarians don't wish to belong to the Committee on the Present Danger, which is also fine. Their doctrinal determination to interpret every threat to the nation's security as neither present nor particularly dangerous, however, is not fine.

As the objectivist and libertarian positions pertain to the welfare state, my concerns are less substantive than strategic. Mr. Boaz says rightly that most successful political movements endure long, bitter years in the wilderness before conquering the citadels of power. Not every story is a success story, however. Just because you hear voices doesn't mean you're John the Baptist. Most causes never leave the wilderness; others are banished there, after years of being politically consequential, and never return. The Prohibition Party is still in business, for example. Its 2004 platform calls for "leadership, legislation, and education…[that] will result in a change in societal attitudes toward supporting prohibition of the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverage products."

The libertarians' cause is less quixotic than the prohibitionists', but the dangers are similar. If your goal is a radical change in "societal attitudes" or to "develop and advance" a sweeping vision, it's hard to know when the project of transforming the world must yield to the less romantic business of accommodating it. Worse, it becomes tempting to equate realism with cynicism, and irrelevance with integrity. Power corrupts, but so does powerlessness. Boaz's "vision of individual freedom and a limited government, especially a limited federal government, a vision rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution" is more than congenial to me, though he and I would disagree on some particulars of what America's founders envisioned. But if conservatives bet all their chips on realizing that vision, and disdain every compromise with the welfare state as a betrayal of their highest goal, they run the risk that their only tangible accomplishment will be their own marginalization.

The question is whether any attainable outcome in the fight over the welfare state will be one conservatives can plausibly regard as an improvement, rather than a capitulation. Ross Douthat and Ryan Sager both incline toward a hope similar to my own, which is for a simpler, less baroque welfare state, one that helps the poor while giving everyone else incentives to stay unpoor and, thus, ineligible for government programs. Douthat is a little more optimistic than Sager about achieving such a resolution, but neither makes it sound like a walk in the park.

Mr. Patashnik's letter suggests, inadvertently, why a grand compromise over the welfare state, a "win-win" deal for both liberals and conservatives, will be so elusive. He envisions a welfare state "both better targeted and more robust." The conservatives yield to the more robust part to get the targeting, and vice-versa for the liberals. There will, of course, be lots of devils in lots of details. Patashnik, for example, treats the case of "inner-city children who attend dilapidated schools with no textbooks" as an instance where the welfare state is insufficiently robust. Conservatives, looking at well-funded but failing urban public school systems, will call for better targeting, not to mention curbing teacher's unions and giving parents the right to educate their children outside the public system without forfeiting every dollar of public support.

More generally, Patashnik's insistence that there are lots of liberals concerned about the entitlement programs, and amenable to a grand bargain with conservatives that includes recasting them, is attractive without being persuasive. Bill Clinton did indeed express "concern about the future viability of federal entitlement programs." He spoke in February 1998 of a "looming crisis in Social Security."

It's difficult for conservatives to believe that liberals are ready to negotiate seriously over the issue, however, when a politician as persuasive as Clinton can't even persuade his wife on the question. (Granted, she has her own reasons to be skeptical about his declarations.) When Barack Obama recently took a position like President Clinton's, that Social Security was a serious problem calling for immediate action, Hillary Clinton disputed the need for any measure more drastic than a bipartisan commission, one which will certainly come up with much better solutions than the 78 bipartisan commissions that have studied Social Security in the past two decades.

Senator Clinton is not alone in denying the dire state of Social Security's finances. While President Clinton urged Congress, in his 1998 State of the Union message, to "Save Social Security first," the consensus liberal position going into the 2008 election is, "Mention Social Security last." Patashnik has had no more success persuading his New Republic colleague, Jonathan Chait, to consider entitlement reform than Bill Clinton has had with Hillary. We'll have to "hike up taxes or trim spending a bit" in 2042, Chait says, but in the meanwhile we should ignore the "entitlement hysterics" and treat Social Security's finances as "the perfect example of a problem that will solve itself in time." This is the sort of argument I had in mind when I called liberals "implacable." Patashnik will make it easier for me to reverse that call if he walks down the hall and changes Chait's mind.


Rawls and Islamofascism

While I am most grateful for Bradley Watson's generous remarks about my book Illiberal Justice: John Rawls vs. the American Political Tradition (Behind the Veil of Ignorance, Fall 2007), there is one issue he raises on which some clarification is in order. Watson scolds me for "overreach[ing]" when I argue that Rawls's war on what he regards as the "arbitrariness" of the world was animated by the same sort of fanatical spirit that motivates today's radical Islamists and the partisans of secular totalitarian ideologies. That judgment on my part will appear less unreasonable, I think, in light of two remarks by Rawls that I cite. First, in the last paragraph of his 1996 introduction to the paperback edition of Political Liberalism, he asserts, "if a reasonably just society that subordinates power to its aims is not possible and people are largely amoral, if not incurably cynical and self-centered, one might ask with Kant whether it is worthwhile for human beings to live on the earth." Rawls repeats that suggestion in The Law of Peoples, published two years later, with reference to the actualization of his proposals for a just international order, or "Society of Peoples." In other words, he invited readers to conclude that, unless something like his abstract model of a just society, along with his only slightly less utopian vision of a new world order, was achieved, it would be just as well if human life disappeared.

Unlike Kant, who questioned whether human life was justifiable if justice in its elemental sense, i.e., the protection of the innocent and the infliction of merited punishment on criminals, were abandoned, Rawls espoused a far more stringent (as well as, I argue, incoherent) set of standards for legitimizing our existence. He also excused unjust behavior on the part of individuals living in our present world by reference to what he called "the often squalid behavior of others" as well as "the injustice of [existing] institutions." (Theory of Justice, second edition). Disheartened by America's failure to adopt such policies as universal government-provided health insurance and full public financing of political campaigns, Rawls further judged that the contemporary United States may be no more democratic than "Germany between 1870 and 1945," i.e., including the Nazi period (Justice As Fairness), and described our government as only an "allegedly constitutional democratic regime" (The Law of Peoples, emphasis added).

Given the ungrateful and even misanthropic character of these judgments, as well as the apocalyptic tone of those I quoted first, it is not surprising that Rawls spent his last years, according to some of his disciples, in a state of bitterness at the world. That bitterness and misanthropy, I argue, were the ultimate consequence of his determination to remake the world to conform to his "intuitions," lest it prove unredeemable. I do not think it farfetched to associate with the spirit of Islamofascism Rawls's outlook that calls into question the desirability of the human race's survival unless the very conditions of our existence are radically transformed.

David Lewis Schaefer
Holy Cross College
Worcester, MA


Bradley C.S. Watson replies:

So insightful is David Schaefer, he instructs even as he overreaches. The passages he cites in response to me, while thought-provoking, do not establish that Rawls was animated by the kind of fanatical spirit that motivates radical Islamists. They do reveal Rawls to be an impatient, tendentious progressive. In this, he was in company with the vast number of American intellectuals who, starting in the late 19th century, sought to establish the very sort of administrative despotism that Tocqueville so sagaciously foresaw and warned against. Despite occasional rhetorical flourishes, Rawls was animated overwhelmingly by this vision—a secular, materialist, egalitarian one deeply at odds with Islamists' thumotic religious fervor. But I agree with Schaefer that Rawls's incoherence on ultimate questions opens him to many uses, not all of them as reliably liberal as he might have liked. Schaefer himself recognizes this fact when he wonders in his book "whether Rawls considered the implications of his rhetoric with the seriousness that some readers he influences may do." And I also agree with Schaefer's argument that Rawlsian neutralist liberalism leads to a kind of "unilateral moral disarmament" in the face of the Islamist threat. But these are very different sorts of claims than ones that would condemn, or credit, the late Harvard professor for possessing genuine thumos.


Socratic Irony

I was pleased to see Christopher Nadon's recent review of two translations of Plato's Republic ("Back to the Cave," Fall 2007). His observation on mine that the footnotes occasionally strike a false note is no doubt correct, but the particular note he objects to can hardly be omitted from any properly harmonized assessment of Socrates' irony. In calling it gracious, I was alluding to Aristotle's remarks in the Nicomachean Ethics (1127b 22-31), in which his opinion is clearly that Socrates hits the right note with his irony, and reveals a graciousness of character that is more than a matter of polite appearances. Socrates is proud, but he is also humble, and irony is the mode of speech that captures both. In thePosterior Analytics (97b 14-26) Aristotle distinguishes Socrates' pride from the garden variety that demands honor and is angered by insults; Socrates has a great soul, Aristotle says, because he is above caring about good or bad fortune. It is only in connection with Socrates' conception of philosophy that one can hope to understand his characteristic blend of humility and pride. I address that connection in my introduction to the Republic. The ultimate specimen of Socratic irony is his proclamation that he knows he knows nothing. The hearer or reader who can make sense of that claim has discovered the difference between knowledge and opinion, and is capable of hearing an invitation to philosophy. In the Republic, even Thrasymachus, whose entry into the dialogue (336c-d) is ferociously antagonistic to Socrates and to philosophy, is not immune to such an invitation. When Socrates later says they have become friends (498d), that is not ironic speech to veil hostility under a cloak of polite appearances but an accurate recognition of an ironic fact. Thrasymachus for once forgot his pride and rivalries and got interested in trying to understand something. Socrates is certainly not a proponent of universal enlightenment, but in the dialogues he succeeds in getting a little torchlight into some unlikely places.

Joe Sachs
St. John's College
Annapolis, MD


Christopher Nadon replies:

I regret that I missed Professor Sach's allusions to Aristotle's treatment of Socratic irony. But even in their light a problem remains: pride expressed ironically remains altogether pride, but not so humility. Thus in the passages mentioned, Aristotle calls Socrates "gracious" and "great souled," but not humble. As any serious drinker will tell you, certain virtues, like good scotch, are better left unblended.