December 08, 2003

Removing the Defenses of the Welfare State I

Michael Barone has an interesting column on George W. Bush's redefinition of conservatism. He forgets that this redefinition already has a label, "compassionate conservatism", but has latched onto something very important. The essence of compassionate conservatism is not some triangulation or verbal fudge that works well in the electoral process (though it does work well at election time). The essence is injecting choice and accountability into each of our individual relationships with various government programs.

What he doesn't cover is the next step. Having multiple choices implies that better solutions have the right to compete and win support and accountability implies that wasteful programs that don't get the job done have to expect to be shut down when there are better solutions available. Over the long haul this is the death of the welfare state.

Conservative ideology is against state solutions not because conservatives are hard hearted but because their compassion includes an expectation that problems actually be solved, not deferred or hidden away. Government solutions are not often the best option to solving problems and so modern american conservatives tend to like their governments to be small, responsive where they're the best solution, and keeping their nose out of areas where they can't constructively contribute to a solution.

The problem has been that an entire class of programs has been constructed in such a way that choice has been identified as an immoral lapse in social solidarity. Accountability has been associated with heartless cruelty. These two measures have made it virtually impossible to reform these programs. Removing these two defenses enables the normal correctives of our free society to start to work. If choice and accountability are truly installed, a temporary tactical setback of larger public expenditures now are well worth the strategic victory of making entitlements be 'normal' programs that are judged by how well they solve problems compared to alternatives and when they fail, can be abolished in favor of better solutions.

The only question really is whether choice and accountability are real changes that are now built into these new systems. For me, the jury's still out on that one.

Posted by TMLutas at December 8, 2003 05:25 PM