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March 22, 2011

She Walks in DOOM! Like the Night....

This long article by Yuval Levin at National Affairs, entitled Beyond the Welfare State, is a fuller exploration of some of the things I've been ranting about and is well worth your time.

Here's a little taste:

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.


We have all lived for the past several centuries in the Westphalian-state world, and one trend that stands out in the Westphalian model is the rise and growth of the welfare-state. This seems at first blush to be a good thing -- after all, isn't the modern European-descended West the most wealthy and successful culture in the history of the world? Isn't it the moral and ethical thing -- isn't it civilized -- to take care of the poor and helpless and needy?

The main thing holding back the full power of the governmental welfare state prior to the 20th century was simply a lack of technology. The desire was there; the means was not. It wasn't until the infrastructure of the modern world came along that the various western governments could fully bring the welfare state into flower.

In past ages, the desire of kings and emperors to control the lives of their people was no less than it is now, but they simply lacked the means to substantially affect the average serf or peasant's daily life. A tax collector or company of soldiers might come by occasionally, but it was the church and not the state that formed the polestar around which most lives revolved. But beginning in the late 19th century, technology allowed the governments of the industrialized nations to reach down into each city, town, and hamlet, and "adjust" things directly. In totalitarian regimes the impulse was malign, but in western nations the intentions were mainly good: to provide subsistence and aid for those in need of it.

But one thing has become clear in the western nations since the welfare-state started in earnest after World War II: it spreads like kudzu, it encompasses and infantilizes ever-larger percentages of the population, and it beggars even the richest and most powerful countries. Leave aside questions of morality and efficacy for the moment -- it is dreadfully clear that the main problem with the welfare-state is that we can't afford it. No one can, no matter how rich or powerful.

This is the paradox of the welfare state: it will surely ruin us if left to run unchecked, yet so many people now depend upon it that we can't stop.

Levin proposes some ideas to alleviate the problem (benefit reform, means-testing, etc.; nothing we haven't heard before), but his main thesis is that the modern world simply is not well suited to the old industrial-age welfare state model. Our bloated and (inherently!) inefficient governmental approach to social-welfare guarantees that costs will keep spiraling with little hope of ballot-box reform (too many people depend on social welfare in one way or other to vote against their own self-interest to change it).

In the end, Levin is more of an optimist than I am. Many of his solutions are predicated on ballot-box initiatives that have little hope of passing even under a reinvigorated GOP Administration (remember, the welfare state grew just as relentlessly under Reagan and George W. Bush as it did under Carter and Clinton). We have so successfully turned Americans into wards of the state that any significant change will (I fear) have to be imposed by fiat or by circumstance, because I don't think it will ever take place at the political level. There is simply no way to get from here to there without making the kinds of wrenching changes that no democratic/republican form of government is good at. (If you doubt me, look at the protests in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. Even when the writing is on the wall, the population does their best to ignore it.)

[UPDATE]: Lest I get carried away with the doom-n-gloom, remember -- decline is a choice, not a destiny.

[UPDATE 2]: The new Red Menace? The ocean of red ink on our collective ledger-book.

To the serious cat, the failure of the welfare state is serious business.


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posted by Monty at 09:15 AM

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