It’s Time to Debate the “Safety Net”

My exchange with James Pethokoukis has stirred up some discussion.

AEI’s Benjamin Zycher challenges my view that the coercive government safety net is actually coercive and inconsistent with individual freedom, suggesting that we ought to think about government and coercion, not by reference to
individual rights, but the “contract” theory of the state.

Meanwhile, over at the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin has an interesting blog post on the divide between conservatives, who she correctly concludes support the welfare state, and libertarian or free-market thinkers, many of whom oppose it.

It is fair to say that the libertarian version of “reform” means eliminating aspects of government, not reforming them. Ryan and other like-minded conservatives have put behind them (like the rest of the country) any fantasy about a pre-New Deal government. Conservatives not only will tolerate many more governmental actions than libertarians, but they see those actions as positive.

Whereas Pethokoukis dismissed my moral critique of the welfare state as a “dorm-room argument,” what I think Zycher’s and Rubin’s posts illustrate is that there is a real debate to be had about the fundamental questions that underlie differing views of the welfare state.

I welcome that debate. As I argue in my recent book, despite its popularity, the welfare state is unnecessary, immoral, and economically destructive — and as Yaron Brook and I argued in our earlier book, the conservative attempt to construct a small, limited welfare state is ultimately hopeless: once you grant the premise that the individual has a duty to serve society, you surrender the moral high ground to the left, which is why the welfare state has expanded continuously since 1935 — even under Reagan.

Whenever I talk to people on Capitol Hill, one of the phrases that comes up again and again is that “politics is a game of inches.” But what determines the goal posts? What determines over the long run what is politically feasible? The answer is: the fundamental ideas that shape people’s political thinking.

What I’m trying to do in my work is to get people to question their fundamental ideas about the role of the state and the requirements of a moral and prosperous society. I’m happy to see that more and more thinkers recognize that these are vital issues to grapple with.