Commentary

Freedom vs. the Welfare State

This article also appeared in the Washington Times.

The conservative revolution supposedly arrived 16 years ago, with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, but government today is far more expensive and expansive. The arrival of the GOP Congress two years ago sparked renewed talk of a revolution— killing departments, ending programs, cutting regulations and reforming entitlements. Nothing happened, however. Yes, little reductions were made here and there, but the overall course of government continued unchanged: Uncle Sam is more expensive and expansive than ever before.

Bill Clinton’s reelection was the final straw for some limited government activists. The GOP congressional leadership now talks about cooperation and bipartisanship. Think tanks that once promoted dramatic rollbacks are now pushing for tiny snips. Howard Wiarda of the Center for Strategic and International Studies goes even further. Americans like big government, he argues. Thus, the GOP had better not vote to cut entitlements. Instead, he says, the Republicans should “manage streamline, and administer the programs better than the Democrats.”

This has, of course, always been the position of the dying Rockefeller wing of the GOP. Its members reasserted themselves last year by helping the Democratic minority raise the minimum wage, increase regulation of health care insurance, obstruct budget cuts and block environmental regulatory reform. It was hard to distinguish the “moderate” Republicans from Democrats on substance.

But their preference for marginal adjustments to the status quo is to be expected from people who, like most Democrats, believe that more government is the answer to whatever problem comes along. The apparent willingness of some freedom activists to give up is harder to understand. Let’s be blunt: if good management becomes the dominant public policy issue, why bother?

If the welfare state is here to stay —if an amalgam of well-organized interest groups will forever pillage citizens’ incomes and an alphabet soup of bureaucratic agencies will forever circumscribe people’s freedom—then why bother being involved in politics? Unless one likes power or the financial benefits that flow from possessing power, and some supposed supporters of liberty obviously do, why fight over whether the proper rate of growth in spending is 3.5 percent or 4.5 percent a year? If the federal government is going to consume $1.7 trillion, why worry about trying to cut an extra few million dollars in administrative expenses? If government officials will inevitably waste taxpayers’ money on pornographic art, foreign aid that actually hurts, welfare for profitable corporations, and “entitlements” for middle class citizens who believe the world owes them a living, who cares how well the programs are managed?

In short, if the welfare state is fated to continue sucking the marrow out of civil society, then people who believe in freedom should concede the field and concentrate on doing what’s really important. They should raise their children, proselytize their faiths, strengthen their churches, enjoy their hobbies, assist their neighbors and enrich their communities. They should take productive private jobs which yield something of benefit to other people, rather than be parasites to power, legitimizing a system that is fundamentally immoral. Let those who really believe in government devote their lives to deciding who will be commerce secretary and how to best run the department’s trade junkets for big political donors.

The welfare state is falling into disrepute. The Europeans are finding that they can no longer pay for the promises made to every group that sups at the public trough. The same thing is starting to happen here, otherwise there would be no discussion of radical Medicare and Social Security reform. In the end the public may refuse to accept serious change. But people are more receptive today than they were a decade ago. And as the entitlement programs totter towards fiscal collapse, the public is likely to grow even more receptive.

Anyway, those who believe in a free society have no choice but to soldier on, even at the risk of defeat. The problem with the welfare state is not that it is a bit too ungainly and wasteful. The problem with the welfare state is that it is immoral in principle and disastrous in practice. It sets citizen against citizen, and undermines families and communities, discourages self-responsibility and civic action, slows economic growth and locks the most vulnerable into poverty. Thus, the welfare state must remain the target of anyone who believes in limited government.

It’s no surprise that many believers in liberty are discouraged. But they can’t give up the fight. After all, if not us, who? And if not now, when?

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of “The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology.”