America’s Limitless Welfare State
By William Voegeli
Encounter, 280 pages
Two years ago, as the most liberal man ever elected president won the office in the midst of a massive economic crisis, the American left had reason to believe that a new progressive era was dawning. The crisis, as Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, famously remarked, offered liberals an enormous opportunity “to do things you could not do before”—most notably, to present a major expansion of the American welfare state as a necessary response to a severe recession and to the flaws that recession revealed in our economic system. Obama, with his cool demeanor and his capacity for articulating complex points, seemed just the man to make the most of that opportunity and move not only public policy but also public opinion sharply leftward.
And he tried. From the moment he took office, Obama worked to expand the size and scope of the government—championing massive stimulus legislation, taking control of several large corporations, creating a new health-care entitlement, and in the process increasing the national debt by almost $3 trillion in two years. Each step was explained as a means of getting the economy out of the hole. Surely the shock of the financial crisis, so identified in the public mind with a Republican administration and with Wall Street greed, had finally made it possible for America to take some giant leaps toward social democracy.
But as it turns out, most Americans actually drew something like the opposite lesson from the economic crisis—that our national spending binge could not go on forever and that it was time for restraint. Public opinion on economic questions today is further to the right than it has been in two decades, and a grassroots populist revolt has arisen, focused on reducing spending and curtailing the national debt.
It appears that the right, not the left, is now confronted with an enormous opportunity. The public is more open to the case for constraining the welfare state than it has been in many years. But that case must still be made persuasively if this moment is to yield anything lasting. And for all their devotion to limiting government, conservatives have never actually been all that good at articulating the case against the welfare state—explaining the problems with our entitlement system and offering practical alternatives.
Thus, William Voegeli’s superb new book, Never Enough, comes at just the right time. Voegeli, a visiting scholar at the Henry Salvatori Center at Claremont McKenna College, has been one of the most astute critics of the left in the age of Obama, most often in short essays in the pages of the Claremont Review of Books. The measured style of those essays—forceful but not angry, philosophically grounded but keenly realistic—is very much the style of Never Enough, and it serves its subject well. But even as it shines a bright light on the irrational vision of the American left, the book’s yearning for a particular kind of “limiting principle” for the welfare state also offers in places an example of a misleading conceptual shortcut too common on the right.
Voegeli opens his book by admitting he had intended to write a different one: “The premise of the book I didn’t write was that all the bitter accusations [on the left] about the insufficiency of our social welfare programs must point to a criterion of sufficiency, defining a completely adequate welfare state.” He therefore went in search of that liberal ideal. But that book, he says, turned out to be impossible, since there is in fact no such criteria of sufficiency—no definition of what would be a big enough welfare state for the left. He therefore decided to write a book about what the lack of such a “limiting principle” means for our politics and how conservatives might establish the limits that liberals won’t.
He begins by describing just how large the American welfare state has become, cleverly employing the arcane budgeting categories of the Office of Management and Budget to provide a remarkably clear and accessible picture of what exactly the welfare state consists of, and just how and why it has grown through the years. Then he works his way through the philosophical underpinnings of our welfare state in the thought of the left, which he finds to be in utter disarray.
Indeed, as Voegeli shows, there has been something of a lively debate on the left through the years about whether there should be principles or a theory behind the American welfare state. Many have argued there should not be, or at least that the vision of social democracy—of a gradual extension of government control of the economy and government benefits to individuals aimed at producing greater equality and unity—should not be the express justification for expanded public benefits. Instead, the growth of the welfare state should be pursued ad hoc, as opportunities present themselves.
Without a clearly articulated purpose, the drive to provide more government benefits to more Americans becomes an end in itself, with every public problem serving as a justification for a new public program. And since problems will always exist, there is always a case for making the welfare state bigger and never any sense of when it might be big enough. “Liberals cannot say how big the welfare state should be, only that it should be bigger than it is at the moment,” he writes.
But with this way of putting things, Voegeli reveals a problem with his conservative case against the welfare state. He considers the lack of a limiting principle—of a sense of how much is enough—the defining fault of the liberal welfare state and an indictment of the political philosophy that underlies it. But the search for limiting principles in our politics is necessarily a search in vain, and that is not the fault of the left alone.
The fact is, ours is a politics in pursuit of happiness but without a clear definition of happiness, and so is always above all in pursuit of more. Thomas Hobbes, among the first self-consciously modern political thinkers, could see it back in 1651. “The felicity of this life,” he wrote in Leviathan,
consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus, utmost aim, nor summum bonum, greatest good, as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers….Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter.
In other words: for us happiness itself means something like “never enough.”
It is so for conservatives just as often as for liberals. “Never enough,” after all, is a terse but apt description of the ethic of the capitalist consumer—if not indeed of the American dream. When President Obama declared in April, “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money,” he was not praised by conservatives for invoking a limiting principle. We are not a people in search of limiting principles, and no effort to constrain the growth of government that proceeds by seeking an ultimate state of perfect bliss at which we might declare victory and cap public spending stands any chance of bearing fruit.
But in taking up the theoretical underpinnings of the welfare state, Voegeli does not consider that the source of its ambitions may reach down to the roots of our political thought. He prefers instead to adopt a version (albeit a particularly thoughtful and sophisticated version) of what has become the conservative telling of American history, in which the progressive era of the turn of the 20th century is the critical linchpin that explains all that ails us. In this telling, the Declaration of Independence laid out the natural-law foundations of the ideal regime, the Constitution established the frame of a perfect republic upon those foundations, Abraham Lincoln completed the edifice, and all was more or less well until a virulent German contagion—carried to these shores between the pages of Herbert Croly’s copy of Hegel’s collected works, and in time spread far and wide by Woodrow Wilson—caused us to abandon our founding principles and pursue instead a postmodern statist dystopia.
This story is not so much false as terribly incomplete. Above all, it overlooks the complexities and contradictions of our own regime, present since the founding, if very ably dealt with by our Constitution. These tensions—between individualism and communitarianism, between nature and history as sources of instruction and principle, between technocratic expert management and republican ideals of self-government—are inherent in modern liberal democracy and have always driven America’s political development, motivating the progressives no less than the Founders or present-day conservatives. To this day such tensions run through both the right and the left, and they have had much to do with the evolution of our welfare state.
The Constitution sought to deal with tensions like these not quite by resolving them but by embodying them in our political institutions—setting up a system always at war with itself, with (essentially unlimited) ambitions counteracting one another. It certainly set limits on the government, but its most important limits, and the ones to which conservatives most often resort, are not definitions of an end point at which our goals will have been reached (and thus limiting principles, to use Voegeli’s parlance) but rather definitions of the purposes and uses of government: the enumerated powers of the Congress.
This suggests that what the welfare state requires is not so much a limiting principle as an organizing principle—that what it lacks is a clear purpose that would help distinguish its proper from its improper uses. Lacking a well-defined purpose, it simply grows from more to more. The last successful conservative reform of a major government program—the welfare reform of 1996—was driven by this insight. Rather than determine how large the welfare system should be, champions of that reform sought to define what that system should do.
For all his focus on limiting principles, Voegeli sees this too, and so his book ultimately suffers very little for its conceptual shortcut. While he argues in theory that what we need is a limiting principle, he argues in practice for an organizing principle, which he articulates clearly and forcefully.
The aim of a welfare system, simply put, should be to help the needy. Our government, Voegeli says, has come to offer public benefits largely to people who do not need much help—older middle-class beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare. It should instead provide help only to the poor, on a means-tested sliding scale. The welfare state should be a safety net, not an all-encompassing web of rules and benefits spun by a vast spiderous bureaucracy.
Conservatives, Voegeli argues, should affirm a simple proposition:
that a decent society is obligated to prevent the small minority of citizens who are chronically unable to fend for themselves, and the larger minority occasionally and transitionally unable to do so, from leading miserable lives. Government programs will be one necessary expression of that concern. Conservatives will work from that premise to limit welfare state programs to poor people through means testing and strengthen, for people who aren’t poor, incentives like Health Savings Accounts and 401(k) plans to keep them out of poverty and, thus, ineligible for means-tested programs.
This, in a few clear sentences, is the organizing principle of the conservative camp in the coming battle to constrain the growth of the welfare state. This principle is not explicitly directed to cost but to purpose; not simply to taking away benefits but to thinking through the reasons for granting them; not just to limiting government but to using government properly and well. It is exactly what conservatives have too often lacked in their opposition to the boundless growth of the liberal welfare state.
Voegeli spends the final chapter of his book articulating this principle, answering its critics, and exploring its implications. He warns against those on the right who will argue that means-testing is an insufficiently pure application of conservative and free-market principles. “Rather than engage in the messy enterprise of being politically consequential,” he writes, “unwavering devotion to clear, simple principles lets these libertarians prove to themselves that they are morally serious. Engaging in politics on these terms culminates in the equation of realism with cynicism, and irrelevance with integrity.” Better to make progress against welfare-state liberalism in the real world, he argues, than to go down fighting for a perfect alternative.
This insightful argument, with its prudent and practical attitude, makes Never Enough essential reading in the age of Obama—an age of excess and peril, to be sure, but one that might also turn out to stir in response a great American revival.