The Attack on Welfare


"LIVE AND LET LIVE" is perhaps the most American of notion. But 50 years after the inauguration of the welfare state, a growing numbers of Americans is saying, in effect. "Live and jet die."

At the Republican National Convention this summer in Dallas, National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) Chairman Terry Dolan announced plans one morning for a fund-raiser to be held at the ranch of multibillionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt. Included in the press packet was a "Statement of Principle," which read in part: "We believe that if one is indeed hungry, there is always honorable work. We believe that aid should be forthcoming to the truly troubled, by a body most likely to know him by name."

Now, NCPAC could easily be dismissed as merely one more selfish, extremist, right-wing group. After all, it is. But last year, this selfish, extremist, right-wing group managed to raise about $15 million from Americans all over the country.

And NCPAC isn't marching alone. A new breed of self-styled "populist" conservatives, many supported by the Moral Majority and its clones, is attacking what has always been politically unattackable since the Great Depression: the welfare state.

Aside from Barry Goldwater's ill-fated 1964 campaign, and President Reagan's occasional Freudian slips over the years, no mainstream politician in the post-World War II era has ever voiced serious opposition to the welfare state. Until now, that is. And unless we start reexamining just why we have a welfare state at all, the Dolans and Kemps and Falwells of this country--all wonderfully at ease with hairspray and television--may very well persuade a majority of our countrymen that the welfare state, like the horse and buggy, is an ides whose timed has passed.

WE'VE HEARD quite a bit this year about the "fairness issue," and that might be part of the problem. In any context, "fair" is an ambiguous term, subject to interoperation and debate. In the political context, though, "far" has become a code word, tossed around by Democrats, reported by journalists, and generally meaning that a tax increase lurks ahead. When Walter Mondale calls Ronald Reagan's policies "unfair," then, he misses the point. Yes, Ronald Reagan's policies are "unfair"--but what about the welfare state? That's what's under attack this year.

Opponents of the welfare state seem to fall into two categories the scrooges and the rationalizers. The scrooges might also be called the Social Darwinists, because they believe that they have no obligation to help the less fortunate--and, in the absence of redistributive taxes, wouldn't feel any need to apologize. Nelson Bunker Hunt is a scrooge.

The rationalizers are more self-conscious (and socially conscious) in their reasoning. They generally argue that, yes, I as an individual may feel an obligation to help those less fortunate than myself, but what right do I have to impose that feeling on others? Robert Nozick is a rationalizer.

The scrooges raise an important question: why do we have an obligation to the less fortunate in our society? One might argue that we should recognize that the endowment of abilities which allows some to compete well, and others not, is arbitrary. Since any one of us could have been "unlucky" enough to be poorly endowed, we should help the "losers." This argument--along with any other--probably won't win over many in the Religious Right (or Rich Right), who apparently still subscribe to the medieval Chain of Being theory; your station in life is God's will, especially if you're poor.

More important though rationalizers (or more specifically, the libertarians) would complain that the rationale does not justify the seeming coercion involved in redistribute taxes. There is a way out, though one might call it the Reasonableness Supposition.

No reasonable man when poor, I argue, would hope that a richer man would not help him. Within each of us in the possibility of poverty, and the hope that poverty would be eased through the kindness of the more fortunate. A rich man who opposes redistribution but knows he would want others to help him if he were poor wants, simply, to have his cake and eat it too.

The role of the state, then, is to require that citizens deal ethically, i.e., in a way that is consistent with their desire to be treated compassionately if they themselves should become poor.

MANY OBJECTIONS to the welfare state are procedural, rather than philosophical. Reagan's anecdote about the "welfare queen" in Cleveland who was receiving 27 Social Security checks (or was it 33?) is an attack on the mismanagement or misdesign of the welfare state--not an attack on the welfare state itself. The present welfare machinery might not be the best, and we should be willing to change it. But the inefficiency of this welfare state should not be misconstrued as an indictment of all welfare states.

"Live and let live" hails from the heart of America, while "live and let die" hails from the head of Hollywood, and even in an America held hostage by Hollywood happiness, there is a difference.