William Voegeli, in the Fall edition of the Claremont Review of Books, argues that Americans ought to think rationally about the American Welfare State.
Voegeli contends that, though conservatives will never succeed in repealing the New Deal, the public is fundamentally unwilling to pay for significantly greater expansions, the problem of persistent poverty really stems from causes federal money cannot effectively address, and meanwhile ideology and illusions prevent sensible allocation of limited resources.
In a society that is remarkably prosperous by global and historical standards, shouldn’t “most vulnerable members” be construed as referring to the most vulnerable 5, 10, or 25% of the populationâ€”not just the abjectly miserable, let us concede, but people confronting serious threats or problems? Yet when it turns out, time and again, that the effective meaning of liberal welfare and social insurance programs is to elicit compassion and government subventions for the most “vulnerable” 75, 80, or 95% of the population, it’s hard not to feel scammed. …
.. Paul Starr of Princeton University and the American Prospect, says the welfare state is about the poor. Its “objective should be, above all, to eliminate poverty and maintain a minimum floor of decency to enable individuals to carry out their own life plans.” But giving benefits to everyone, not just the most vulnerable, serves social and political purposes. Socially, “the long-term tasks of nation-building and of fostering a common culture and a sense of shared citizenship also strongly argue for public and universal schooling, old-age pensions, and other services that serve an integrative as well as egalitarian purpose,” according to Starr. Politically, the imperative to construct democratic majorities that support programs for the poor “will often mean support for programs that provide universal benefits.” We may say that such programs “target” the most vulnerable 100% of the population.
Read the whole thing.