Yuval Levin, at National Affairs, argues that we have reached a watershed point in domestic policy, arriving at the moment in which it is vitally essential to begin thinking about what the new social order is going to look like, now the Welfare State has been demonstrated to be unsustainable.
All over the developed world, nations are coming to terms with the fact that the social-democratic welfare state is turning out to be untenable. The reason is partly institutional: The administrative state is dismally inefficient and unresponsive, and therefore ill-suited to our age of endless choice and variety. The reason is also partly cultural and moral: The attempt to rescue the citizen from the burdens of responsibility has undermined the family, self-reliance, and self-government. But, in practice, it is above all fiscal: The welfare state has turned out to be unaffordable, dependent as it is upon dubious economics and the demographic model of a bygone era. Sustaining existing programs of social insurance, let alone continuing to build new ones on the social-democratic model, has become increasingly difficult in recent years, and projections for the coming decades paint an impossibly grim and baleful picture. There is simply no way that Europe, Japan, or America can actually go where the economists’ long-term charts now point â€” to debts that utterly overwhelm their productive capacities, governments that do almost nothing but support the elderly, and economies with no room for dynamism, for growth, or for youth. Some change must come, and so it will.
But fully grasping this reality will not be easy. Our attachment to the social-democratic vision means that we tend to equate its exhaustion with our own exhaustion, and so to fall into a most un-American melancholy. On the left, fear of decline is now answered only with false hope that the dream may yet be saved through clever tinkering at the edges. On the right, the coming collapse of the liberal welfare state brings calls for austerity â€” for less of the same â€” which only highlight the degree to which conservatives, too, are stuck in the social-democratic mindset.
The fact is that we do not face a choice between the liberal welfare state on one hand and austerity on the other. Those are two sides of the same coin: Austerity and decline are what will come if we do not reform the welfare state. The choice we face is between that combination and a different approach to balancing our society’s deepest aspirations. America still has a little time to find such an alternative. Our moment of reckoning is coming, but it is not yet here. We have perhaps a decade in which to avert it and to foster again the preconditions for growth and opportunity without forcing a great disruption in the lives of millions, if we start now.
But we do not yet know quite how. The answer will not come from the left, which is far too committed to the old vision to accept its fate and contemplate alternatives. It must therefore emerge from the right. Conservatives must produce not only arguments against the liberal welfare state but also a different vision, a different answer to the question of how we might balance our aspirations. It must be a vision that emphasizes the pursuit of economic growth, republican virtues, and social mobility over economic security, value-neutral welfare, and material equality; that redefines the safety net as a means of making the poor more independent rather than making the middle class less so; and that translates these ideals into institutional forms that suit our modern, dynamic society.