The Cost of Welfare Reform
Nine from Fritz Stern's Memoirs

The Shape of American Conservatism Today

Matthew Yglesias writes:

Matthew Yglesias / proudly eponymous since 2002: Ross Douthat mostly says everything that needs to be said, but let me just state it very clearly--the idea that Ronald Reagan's charisma and sunny disposition won landslide victories for Barry Goldwater's substantive views on the size and scope of government is false. Very false.

Reagan was, famously, the political beneficiary of a backlash against the liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s... against programs that didn't exist during Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign. It was only after Goldwater lost that "welfare as we knew it," Medicare, Medicaid, major federal involvement in education, federal environmental policy, federal consumer safety regulations, affirmative action, etc. came into exist. Reagan's political mobilization was aimed at a subset of this post-Goldwater flowering of big government. He didn't tilt against Medicare, by far the biggest Great Society program. And he certainly didn't campaign for the repeal of the New Deal (indeed, he repeatedly explicitly disavowed any intention of doing so).

The Goldwater-Reagan similarity is that they both led "conservative" factions of the GOP against "accommodationist" factions. But between 1964 and 1976 the country experienced a massive policy revolution that shifted the status quo way, way, way to the left.... Reagan... shift[ed] the conservative movement to the left--to acceptance of a federal responsibility for retirement security and quality education, to acceptance of the Civil Rights Act (opposition to which was, of course, Goldwater's only reliable vote-getter in '64), and to acceptance of popular middle class entitlement programs.

I agree with the substance of what Matt writes--with the proviso that many American conservatives today do not dare campaign on but still do believe in the elimination of the New Deal, believe in Dark Satanic Millian conservatism, that people can be moral only if they are fearful, insecure, and scared. But I disagree with his claim of agreement with Ross Douthat. For Ross Douthat says more, and I believe goes astray.

What Douthat writes is:

The American Scene: Heilbrunn... [writes:] "Tanner evokes a lost conservative golden age that stretched from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan.... Reagan, Tanner suggests, was a paragon of fiscal restraint.... Reagan's successes, though, were quickly frittered away by his pallid successor, George H. W. Bush... "a man of no discernible ideology, who allowed government to begin growing again."... Tanner fingers neoconservatives like Irving Kristol who he thinks have always been dangerously complacent about accepting the existence of the welfare state.... Of course, something else happened after the Irving Kristols of the world joined the conservative movement--namely, conservatives started winning elections. The idea that the Right should talk more about reforming the welfare state than about abolishing it outright will never find favor at the Cato Institute, but it's been the basis for every successful national conservative campaign of the last twenty-five years...."

It wasn't just that the Gipper didn't fight hard to eliminate the welfare state while in office, as Heilbrunn notes; he didn't even really campaign on true-blue Goldwaterite themes, however much he may have believed in them.... [H]e governed as he spoke - as an Irving Kristol conservative, not a Michael Tanner libertarian. The same was true in 1994. Nostalgic small-government purists have convinced themselves that the Contract with America was a document of Goldwater-style libertarianism; in reality, it was a distillation of neoconservative politics, a laundry list of ideas to make government work better.... The Gingrich revolutionaries... were... a pragmatic rather than ideological conservatism, targeted explicitly to voters who wanted to keep the welfare state.... When they turned to a direct assault on the M2E2 cluster (Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment), they were outflanked by Bill Clinton at every turn.

The inconvenient truth, for writers like Tanner, is that anti-welfare state libertarianism remains enormously unpopular with American voters, and so fiscal libertarianism can only have a place at the political table if it weds itself to something like an Irving Kristol-style neoconservatism.... [T]he marriage of libertarianism and neoconservatism... is still the best deal that libertarians are likely to get, so long as they care more about the size and scope of government than they do about lifestyle politics. If they want to leave the GOP coalition and throw in with the party of statism over stem-cell research and gay marriage, fair enough - but they shouldn't tell themselves fairy tales about the political history of the last thirty years along the way...

I disagree with Matt. I don't think Ross Douthat accurately depicts the movement of which he is a part. There are, I think, five factions in it:

  1. Those who fear the foreign enemy--which used to be the Communists, and are now the Muslims.
  2. Those who don't especially fear the foreigners, but think that the drumbeat can be useful for other purposes--to distract attention from rising income inequality or destructive domestic government programs or simply to hold on to power--who found it convenient to play up the fear of the foreigners, and now find it convenient to play up the fear of the Muslims,
  3. Those who fear the domestic enemy--which used to be Jews and Blacks, and is now a bizarre combination of homosexuals, a ghetto-bound underclass, Mexicans living here, Hollywood actors, and George Soros.
  4. Those who want low taxes because they think the government is inherently inefficient and wastes its money.
  5. Those who want low taxes because they are too rich to value anything the government does other than protect their property.

Now you can't satisfy all five of these factions and win elections in America with an honest policy. A mighty war arsenal is expensive, and must be financed either by high taxes (thus losing factions 4 and 5) or by a full-fledged assault on the social insurance programs (thus losing elections). You can stage a phony war--say that the threat from abroad is mighty but that there is no need to spend money defending against that (and to some degree Bush has tried this strategy)--but then you lose faction 1.

The... um... "genius" of the neoconservatives was to wield these factions together with a dishonest policy: tax cuts that are claimed to raise revenue. This allows for a mighty military to defend against the foreign foe of the day without either alienating the fiscal conservatives or having to cut back the great social insurance programs. That the policy was dishonest was said openly and loudly in the public square by Irving Kristol back in 1995: Among the core social scientists around The Public Interest [in the late 1970s] there were no economists.... This explains my own rather cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit and other monetary or fiscal problems. The task, as I saw it, was to create a new majority, which evidently would mean a conservative majority, which came to mean, in turn, a Republican majority - so political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government...

Without this fundamentally dishonest policy move, the whole thing falls apart.

The question is what an honest libertarian, or even an honest human being of any intellectual complexion, is doing in such company.