Dismantling the Welfare State (2011 May)

by Barry A. Liebling

The American welfare state, the behemoth that is the nemesis of freedom, is in trouble. It has been growing in size and reach — sometimes rapidly and sometimes slowly — for the last century. But only recently have a large number of people come to recognize that a disaster is looming. As things stand there will not be enough money available to keep the welfare state going. The largest programs, Social Security and Medicare, have projected liabilities that far exceed the government’s ability to pay.

Many observers understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with the welfare state. And that is good. But few people fully appreciate that the entire depraved system should be thrown out. Critics of the welfare state typically call for ways of fine-tuning it, repairing it, propping it up, downsizing it, or changing its direction and goals.

To the left the welfare state is, of course, sacred. They ardently yearn for an America where the government has its hand in everything — not necessarily owning all institutions but certainly having at least a supervisory role. When leftists see the welfare state crumbling their solution is to pump more money into it. And they fervently believe that there is plenty of money available to pay for their favorite projects, but it is being hoarded by rich people and corporations. The solution they propose is to confiscate more wealth via taxation from the “greedy.” Leftists do not acknowledge that they will run out of people to take from before they can rescue their dream society.

Conservatives are more complicated and are often conflicted. On the one hand they see the juggernaut welfare state as destructive and antithetical to their values. On the other hand, most conservative critics believe it can be tamed and reformed.

Mainstream conservative intellectuals (see the Yuval Levin essay in National Affairs) recommend what they regard as bold measures to shrinking the welfare state and making it less toxic.


Some of what they call for will have positive effects. For example, lowering overall tax rates, eliminating a host of existing programs, and reducing the size and reach of welfare programs is certainly an improvement. Allowing people to keep more of their own money, trimming back government projects, and loosening the chains on all citizens is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Of special note is Yuval Levin’s recommendation to require means testing for getting welfare benefits. Rather than having entitlements for all, he argues that government help be reserved for those who are truly needy. This is a powerful idea. While his essay does not say it, means testing will turn more people against welfare. It will discourage tax payers from being seduced by the promise of future entitlements. People who are paying for benefits but not getting anything in return might become resentful, question the legitimacy of the welfare state, and ultimately conclude that it should not exist.

But elements of the conservative vision are problematic. Conservatives nearly always fail to strike at the conceptual root of the welfare state. They maintain that government welfare is acceptable or not depending on its goals, results, and cost. Programs designed by social-democratic leftists are unacceptable because they clash with conservative sensibilities, encourage dependence on the government, and are an assault on family, tradition, and religion.

Good welfare programs, by contrast, are animated by conservative values. Government welfare is acceptable, according to this view, if the right people are in charge. Many pundits understand that the welfare state apparatus already in place would be stupendously difficult to remove. Their “pragmatic” solution is to abandon any attempts of doing away with welfare but fight to use the government to further the conservative agenda.

What is the rationale for extinguishing the welfare state?

The crucial flaw of the welfare state is that it is antithetical to individual rights. Welfare programs are funded by money that is forcibly taken from citizens. The fact that these citizens have a natural right to life, liberty, and property is ignored. The recipients of welfare programs, euphemistically referred to as “clients” become the chattel of government bureaucrats, ordered about or “nudged” to comply with the wishes of welfare planners. Note that even if there were enormous amounts of money available it would still be wrong for the government to confiscate private property and to attempt to direct the lives of its citizens.

The correct course of action is to do away with the welfare state entirely. This means that government should be limited to its proper function of protecting the rights of every citizen. Of course, the transition must be done gently so that people who have paid into the system and expect benefits will not be traumatized.

What does this mean if you really believe a particular social program — such as Social Security or Medicare — should exist? There is plenty of room for a host of social programs providing they do not violate anyone’s rights and are not coercive. All programs should be funded privately by voluntary contributions. Everyone needs to appreciate that regardless of a program’s intentions, if it is financed and directed by force it is tainted. The only way to assure that a social welfare project is clean is to put it entirely in private hands and keep the state out.

The crisis facing the American welfare state might turn out fortunate. It has inspired serious conservative critics to devise ways of reducing its harmful footprint. Even better, it may convince thoughtful people that the welfare state should be dismantled.

*** See other entries at AlertMindPublishing.com in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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